Digitalisation is disrupting African societies at an unprecedented rate. This change has toppled leaders, sped up democratisation and in some cases helped nations to leapfrog development.
At the heart of African digital disruption is the phenomenal rise of cellphones, which are increasingly used for internet browsing and social media. Both data and devices are becoming cheaper, and transmission speeds are increasing.
For most of the post-independence period, African media has consisted of traditional outlets such as broadcasters and print newspapers, which have been tightly controlled by governments.
But the creation of new media technologies has changed the way information is shared, communicated and accessed by ordinary citizens.
This has boosted democracy by giving a voice to ordinary citizens, increasing public participation in politics, and providing a platform for holding governments and leaders accountable.
Armed with cellphones, every African citizen can now be a journalist or a democracy activist.
New media platforms have connected the youth population to the wider world, where they can now see how their peers are thriving in democratic societies elsewhere.
African political regimes have been toppled by popular mobilisation built upon such new media platforms. During the 2011-2012 North African Arab Spring, young people used social media, the internet and blogs to gather and organise protests or support movements to make their voices heard in ways that were not possible before.
In 2011, journalist Fadel Barro and two rappers launched a campaign in Senegal, called the Y’en a marre (I’m fed up) movement, to get the youth to vote and oppose the third term for then-president Abdoulaye Wade.
In November 2014, Burkina Faso civil movements launched the revolution 2.0 campaign against Blaise Compaoré’s attempt to extend his presidency, using the #Lwili hashtag, named after the traditional Burkinabè Lwili Peendé cloth worn by many protesters. Protesters used Twitter and Facebook to mobilise public support, forcing Compaoré to resign.
Similar youth groups, such as Filimbi, successfully mobilised to prevent Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila from standing for a third term in the upcoming elections. Filimbi encourages Congolese youth to perform civic duties, push for democratic reform and oppose human rights abuses and corruption.
Digitalisation has also provided African governments with efficient new ways to deliver services. It also gives citizens new opportunities to participate in government decision-making and new methods of holding governments accountable by allowing them to monitor the delivery of public services and the implementation of policy.
Cape Verde has a portal that amasses information electronically from different departments about public services. Citizens can now apply for birth certificates, start a company and pay for services online.
Some government bodies in Cape Verde, such as the department of health, hold online public consultations with citizens about policy. The department of justice has an online forum in which citizens can respond to draft laws.
Digitalisation has also cut the costs of doing business in both the public and private sectors. Previously, the high cost of doing business was notorious for undermining the continent’s growth.
In Kenya, technology company iCow provides mobile services to small-scale farmers. They can input information about their livestock and receive text and voice messages about different feed types, breeding patterns and market prices for the stock.
In Nigeria, the government has collaborated with the African mobile technology company Cellulant to develop a mobile wallet that connects the ministry of agriculture and rural development with farmers, suppliers, traders and banks. The programme delivers subsidies to farmers with this e-wallet, in the form of electronic vouchers personalised with farmers’ national identity numbers.
South Africa’s health department has launched MomConnect, a free SMS service that provides pregnant mothers with fetal development information during pregnancy. It has also developed an application that reminds patients of their upcoming hospital or clinic visits.
Technology has helped many African countries to combat public sector corruption. When Nigeria introduced e-IDs, the government uncovered more than 20 000 ghost workers in the public service, saving the economy $1-billion annually.
Technology has also made education increasingly accessible to the African population. Previously, access to this has been restricted because of poorly developed infrastructure, overcrowding and poor standards of teaching and curriculum quality. Technology has the potential to transform this by delivering quality teaching and content at a lower cost.
Leaders across the continent must take full advantage of the opportunities technology offers to streamline policy. At the same time, citizens must seize the chance to hold them accountable, using the development of digital media.
William Gumede is executive chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org)