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The World Bank Aims at Reducing the Digital Divide

According to a recent World Bank report, in 2019 over half of the world’s population (51% – it is 52% in SA.) had to access to the internet, but this dropped to just 30% in Western and Central Africa. With the lockdown implemented during the pandemic, many services (including basic education) have only been available to people across the continent through the internet. This disparity also disproportionately affects rural populations, women, and vulnerable groups in the region, and there are significant differences across Africa. The need for universal, affordable, and safe high-speed connectivity has therefore increased exponentially. The report supports our SAIIA Paper’s findings (see above), and identifies some important steps:  

First, the digital divide must be bridged to provide access, usage, and affordability of the internet. This means tackling low network coverage and quality, high operating costs, barriers to market entry, lack of competition, and high operating and investment risks. According to the World Bank/UN Broadband Commission report, it is estimated that the cost of closing this digital divide by 2030 in Africa will be US $100 billion, but a Google/IFC report last year pointed out that every 10% increase in mobile phone coverage would generate at least 2% in national GDP. This is why we must increase investments and attract the operators and strategic partners that are needed by mobilizing private capital, addressing capital risks, and building strategic alliances between governments and private operators.

Second, the report recommends the building of ‘digital stacks’. A digital stack allows people and businesses to prove and verify their identity securely, make and receive payments fast and easily, and share and verify personal data, such as credit histories and academic qualifications. Digital IDs (e-IDs), digital payments, and trusted data platforms are the 3 components of “digital stacks”. It is estimated that almost 45% of people in Africa lack an official ID making it difficult for them to access key services and thus being denied the opportunities being created by digitalization. The World Bank is investing in “e-IDs” for Africa. Smart Africa has an ongoing project and BankServ in SA is working on a solution for South Africa.

Research in East Africa shows that a more deeply integrated and competitive digital market among the 6 East African Community (EAC) countries will generate up to a US$2.6 billion boost in GDP and 4.5 million new jobs in that REC.  The potential of an integrated digital market in West Africa and at the continental scale is even greater. Countries need support to modernize and harmonize telecoms, data policies, and regulations to promote regional scale investments in broadband and cloud infrastructure and widespread access to relevant digital content and services – including low-cost, and reliable cross-border digital flows – to unlock digital trade and ecommerce.

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