African governments must digitise to be innovative

Thursday, May 13th, 2021 00:00 | By
Covid vaccine.

Ryno Rijnsburger 

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating – Covid-19 pandemic offers Africa the chance to leapfrog development through digitisation, and potentially position itself as a global digital powerhouse.

And while the private sector has an important role to play in this development, governments across Africa have a critical role to play in enabling digitisation, through infrastructure development, but also in digitising their own systems and processes and by creating an enabling environment using regulatory and legal tools.

Developments such as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) reinforce the urgent need for governments to digitise to enable not just trade, but positive economic growth across the continent.

Governments have already moved decisively and speedily to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, putting aside ‘red tape’ to break down siloes across agencies and encourage data sharing to coordinate a central response to the pandemic, and this model could feature more prominently in the public sector going forward.  

To unlock digital transformation, the public sector must be brought into the digital age, accelerating the rollout of digital IDs, signatures and registries, as well as implementing digital-friendly policies.

Private-public partnerships could play a significant role in helping to develop the necessary platforms to enable citizens to access digital IDs and services offered by government.

In Morocco, our partnership with Algo Consulting has developed Wraqi, an online administration solution using machine learning, IoT and blockchain to improve citizen-government relations.

Powered by the Microsoft cloud, Wraqi allows users to create an account with a signature repository, which government entities can use to identify, authenticate and authorise citizens. 

Any government service that used to require the physical presence of a citizen can now be carried out remotely using electronic signatures and multi-factor authentication, which is likely to accelerate, but also facilitate, access to services.

Developments like this help to improve access for citizens and could also be an important step in enabling SMEs to take advantage of the potential benefits of AfCFTA, as digital identification can unlock access to financial services, among others. 

In South Africa Microsoft 4Afrika is working with the Gauteng Provincial Government to establish a Gauteng Centre of Excellence to drive digital innovation and accelerate skills development and capacity building, both for provincial government employees, and also to train more than 3,000 township-based software developers, enabling citizens with digital skills that will boost their ability to contribute to the economy and become tax-paying citizens. 

The project aims to provide Gauteng government employees with modern technology tools that result in higher engagement and productivity, and also aims to ensure significant participation and meaningful inclusion of residents from traditionally underserved areas into the mainstream economy, by creating a platform for digital enablement for communities throughout the province.

The goal is to enhance and accelerate the digital transformation of the Gauteng Provincial Government by enabling digital transformation and creating vibrant ecosystem.

Digital technologies are essential to addressing socioeconomic challenges, and digitisation needs to be scaled up by policymakers to unlock structural transformation that will help mitigate some of the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Government is the strategic enabler in all African countries, and Microsoft’s vision is to enable remote access, enable cross-agency collaboration and deliver trusted and secure services, driving sustainability and transformation.

A report by McKinsey estimated Africa’s public services could achieve annual technology-related productivity gains of between $10 billion and $25 billion per year by 2025 through measures such as digitising the management of public records and using enterprise resource planning.

The end-to-end digitisation of revenue collection would strengthen Africa’s revenue collection substantially.

Although these predictions have indisputably been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the potential to strengthen revenue collection remains. 

There are challenges ahead, as this is a daunting task by any measure. Cristina Duarte, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General, makes an astute observation when she comments in an article published by the IMF that, “the massive adoption of digital technologies also means that policymakers must be aware of and address the complex legal and ethical impact of technology in society, including privacy, data, and tax evasion.”

However, if African governments can embrace digitisation with agility and speed, the benefits could prove to be a game changer for the continent and its citizens, promoting sustainable and inclusive economic development.     — The writer is chief technology officer, Microsoft 4Afrika

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