- As summarized by Rachel Sibande in her opening remarks, the Google Digital Sprinters program has its foundation in the notion that, through digital transformation, emerging economies have the potential to sprint ahead in achieving sustainable economic gains.
- As outlined in the opening presentation by Dr. Guy Ben-Ishai, Google has put forward ‘Digital Sprinters’ as a framework for leveraging digital transformation to produce sustainable and inclusive growth. Acknowledging the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy, Dr. Ben-Ishai remarked that post-pandemic recovery efforts in Africa must prioritize economic stability in informal sectors, confront surging unemployment, and ensure workforce development for a 21st century economy.
- Citing advancements in technology, Dr. Ben-Ishai explained that over the past two decades, over a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, all while internet access has expanded to 2.3 billion individuals within just one decade. Not unlike how past historical crises have launched bold, positive economic reforms, Dr Ben-Ishai argued that today’s crisis can be an opportunity to accelerate digital transformation towards long-term growth.
“It was only a few years ago that emerging markets accounted for roughly a third of the digital population, whereas today 72% of internet users live in developing countries. That means that there are more online users in emerging countries than there are in developed countries,” Guy Ben-Ishai
- Google’s findings hold that ‘digital sprinters’ have the ability to catch up with established markets within a decade, through maximizing pre-existing resources, collaboration, and effective management. Dr. Ben-Ishai stressed the importance of collaboration between digital platforms that collect data and government agencies that scale, aggregate, and deploy the data across different sectors. Similarly, digital skilling efforts are essential to building inclusive labor markets. Overall, there is no one formula for which market segment each country should focus on, but the common thread in the ‘Digital Sprinters’ white paper is that channeling digital transformation carries tremendous potential.
- Charles Murito noted that the cost of data, devices, and digital infrastructure remains prohibitive in much of Africa, especially along gender lines. Meanwhile, digital education still needs improvement at the ecosystem and creator levels in order to fully realize the economic potential of the internet. On both fronts, Google is working with partners to make tangible progress. Google has launched a low-cost smartphone worth $30 for use in West African countries in partnership with Orange, and in Kenya, Google has partnered with Safaricom to provide low-cost smartphones that can be paid for over a nine-month period. Over the last three years, Google has also trained over 100,000 developers in digital skills, with the current developers on the continent numbering over 700,000, a promising figure.
“Even though technology has really started penetrating the continent and countries are becoming more digitally ready, unfortunately GDP and labor productivity has still not caught up,” Charles Murito
- As noted by Bright Simons, one barrier African countries face in harnessing the opportunities of digital transformation is the notion of “categoried disconnects”. For instance, while Africa has a large number of developers, very few of them are programming at an industrial level. Most African developers are developing consumer apps. Instead, African policymakers need to think about leveraging digital to strengthen the value addition chain, whether building solutions for power generation or agribusiness. Simons also noted that African application programming interfaces (APIs) are not as integrated into global systems, making them less valuable. For example, Stripe’s recent acquisition of PayStack came largely because PayStack was already connected to the Stripe API system. Simons’ made the case that Africa’s disconnect from the global economic system is noticeable even in the realm of digitalization, signalling the need to place digital transformation within a broader agenda for economic integration and industrialization.
- Landry Signé added that quality and effectiveness of digital technology are equally as important as digital access. Building on Simons’ remarks, Signé asserted that while Africa has embraced the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it has not fully leveraged digital transformation for broadscale industrial development in the way it needs to. Signé also commented on the regulatory environment in Africa. Because the pace of digital innovation exceeds the pace at which governments can effectively adjust regulations, Signé called for an “agile” form of governance and regulation that factors in multi-stakeholder partnerships or “regulatory sandboxes” with the private sector and civil society. Moreover, policymakers and companies alike should work to assess digital skills gaps in relation to economic competitiveness, export performance, and employment creation. According to Signé, they should deploy evidence-based policies to adopt the technologies that have the quickest path to promoting inclusive growth and job creation, while mitigating any accompanying technological risks.
“There are only one million developers across Europe, so Africa is performing relatively well when it comes to digital skills, and we can start seeing the returns in productivity growth both from a GDP perspective and a labor returns perspective,” Charles Murito
- In response to Signé’s emphasis on “regulatory sandboxes,” Murito highlighted a success story of how Google has taken this very approach in the past. An internal project Google launched to explore the potential for shared infrastructure to ensure better digital access and last mile connectivity later spun off into a new company called CSquared. The company now operates a program in which internet service providers and telecommunications companies utilize shared fiber infrastructure to provide digital access at lower costs to consumers. Murito emphasized that the public sector needs to treat digital connectivity as critical national infrastructure and that systems for financial inclusion need to be interoperable.
- There was consensus amongst the speakers that regulation in Africa needs to ultimately foster, rather than stifle, digital innovation, albeit prescriptions somewhat varied. While Signé framed the proper role of regulation as enabling the private sector and civil society to partner on limited reforms to support innovation, Simons highlighted the importance of transmediation across sectors. Drawing on his own experience as an entrepreneur, Simons noted that systems need to incentivize people not just to go out and create new technology, but to also work closely with regulators to put the right policies into place. Nonetheless, each speaker stressed the need for public-private partnerships to realize the potential of digital transformation in Africa, whether related to inclusion, quality, or scale.