/ 20 October 2023

Digital pervasiveness and divisiveness: The role of African governments in enabling healthy digital futures

We need a future-ready curriculum that speaks to the increasingly technology-driven economy and learners require proficiency in science, technology, engineering, maths (Stem) and digital literacy. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)
Oupa Nkosi/M&G

A vision for a digital African future

In 2021, the African Digital Futures Project, an initiative and practice arm of the School of International Futures (SOIF), brought together a group of 22 next-generation change-makers and African futurists to explore digital governance in Africa.

The idea was simple. Use a series of stories or visions to spark conversations about the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and digital technology being developed and used by African communities with a focus on digital privacy, identity, inclusion, security and artificial intelligence.

In their working paper, Digital pervasiveness and divisiveness: The role of African governments in enabling healthy digital futures Iman Bashir and Fisayo Oyewale extract the most salient issues that came from this creative research process.

What is 4IR?

4IR as described by Senior Fellow – Global Economy and Development at the Africa Growth Initiative, Landry Signe, is the “fusion of the digital, biological, and physical worlds, as well as the growing utilisation of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and advanced wireless technologies, among others.”

These new areas of production continuously disrupt existing systems and norms and force us to reconsider and reimagine how we produce, deliver and consume goods and services. The question is, can Africa take its place in this digital future?

A vision for a digital Africa by Africans

According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Africa has a significantly low rate of internet usage compared to other regions. There is also a noticeable gender gap in mobile phone ownership, as well as the lowest rates of internet and mobile broadband penetration when compared to other continents. These rates stand at approximately 28% and 34% respectively. As a result, many foreign developed digital innovations proliferate but fail to meet African needs. This disparity brings into sharp focus the need for homegrown digital innovations.

In 2020 Landry Signe and Njuguna Ndung’u suggested in their paper, The Fourth Industrial Revolution and digitization will transform Africa into a global powerhouse, that homegrown innovations become necessary to unlock the potential for transformation through digitalisation in Africa.

This is only possible, however, if there is a clear vision of a digital future in Africa. Which brings us back to the African Digital Futures project and the stories written by the 22 African futurists to envision Africa’s digital future in the year 2050.

The group was divided into three teams representing Kenya, Nigeria, and Pan-Africa who then produced 11 visions and stories. They attempted to describe what healthy digital societies would look like across various spheres to help different stakeholders like governments, technologists, legislators and individuals plan for a digital Africa.

The visions and stories

Our future world by Brian Wamukota and Roselyne Wanjiru

In a world where oneness and inclusivity are desired, data is the key to enlightening, connecting, and empowering people to realize their potential.

All animals are equal by Saraphina Ambale and Shem Omasire

Good Data Governance not only ensures accountability, transparency and efficiency, but it helps to build inclusion and bridge the divide in our world.

Tree of humanity awarded to African game changers once again by Jesse Forrester and Marizanne Knoesen

A celebration of Afro centric and human centred innovations by and for Africans.

Tribes of future past by Mutsa Samuel

A journey of self. It takes you to the future of African innovations and discoveries. It is a call to self-consciousness to build the Africa of our dreams.

Futurica by Rahma Ben Lazreg

A futuristic insight of what Africa can become if we take control of our digital space and good data governance becomes the centre of innovation.

Unplug Africa by Nancy Muigei and Oluwasen David

When we take a pause, unplug ourselves for a bit, rethink our choices, we may take control of our digital destinies.

Feminist future: What a wonderful world by Gideon Olanrewaju and Zainab Yunusa

This is a world where people’s competence and ability to deliver matters more than anything else. The single identity is humanity.

Journey to 2050 by Chiagozie Udeh and Fisayo Oyewale

When systems are people centric, everyone’s voice will matter in governance and policy implementation.

The Green Party of Kenya manifesto 2030 by Frank Ogolla and Iman Bashir

With the right information, citizens would nurture a sustainable environment responsibly, and bring a sense of community in other aspects of politics.

Toward vision 2050 by Fasoranti Damilola and Memunat Ibrahim

We can achieve more when we work united towards shared goals, irrespective of our identities. Unity in diversity is power.

Vision: the future of AI and tech by Charles Umeh and Stephanie Itimi

Only good data governance can ensure that our culture and norms are not eroded in the face of rapid advancement in artificial intelligence and robotics.

What the stories revealed

A summary of the insights from the project revealed a singular desire for African cohesion in a digital world. Although, each cohort prioritised different concerns within that overarching theme.

The Kenyans looked at technology and climate change, the Nigerians were concerned about technology in direct democracy while the Pan-African contingent were occupied by the role of technology in emotional and social experience. Collectively however, six areas of priority emerged:

  1. Data is a collective resource for the public good.
  2. Data should facilitate government accountability, transparency and direct democracy.
  3. Technology should add to rather than extract from nature and the environment.
  4. Technological progress should not oppose African languages, practices, cultures and traditions.
  5. African innovation should bridge the digital divide and pave the way for data diversity and inclusion in Africa.
  6. African voices need to shape the global digital conversation.

What does this mean for digital transformation in Africa?

Bashir and Oyewale, along with other members of the African Futures team were able to distil the insights into a few key areas that governments, technologists and legislators need to focus on.

Data needs to be governed

Data is collected and abused by governments and private players with impunity. Without proper regulation citizens’ have no way to own and protect their data.

Technology without education impedes progress

Citizens mistrust and resist progress when governments adopt new technologies without educating them on the opportunities, benefits and risks.

Legislators need to know more

Policy formulation is weak in Africa. Local governments rely heavily on global north templates and are often adopted without thought due to a lack of technical knowledge within governments.

Elevate the conversation

Part of securing a healthy digital future is the need to sensitise both the public and governments to the issues that affect them at a national level. The idea of data as a public good must be promoted at multiple levels.

You can’t stop progress

To the extent that global tech companies and political leaders diverge from African societal aspirations, digital dissidents will innovate to disrupt them. Governments need to engage or face losing their power.

The African digital journey

Bashir and Oyewale’s paper on the Africa Futures Project demonstrates that the journey has already begun towards a healthy digital future. However, there is still a way to go before any of the visions produced by the 22 futurists can be realised.

Iman Bashir is a researcher and facilitator at the School of International Futures (SOIF). With her interdisciplinary background in law and environmental science, she brings a unique perspective to her work, underlining the interconnectedness of social, economic, and environmental factors in envisioning the future.

Fisayo Oyewale is a 2022 SOIF alumna, an NGFP Fellow, and a contributor to the African Digital Futures project. She also serves on the advisory board for the Most Significant Futures Work Award given by the Association of Professional Futurists. Fisayo is a foresight researcher at the School of International Future on Artificial Intelligence for Development in Africa