Over time, digital technologies have grown exponentially globally, enabling new economic pathways and disrupting legacy sectors with efficiency and scale. In 2016, the World Bank estimated the global digital economy at USD 11.5 trillion, about 15.5% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with a projected 25% contribution to the world’s GDP by 2025.Although the pace of digital transformation varies, its growth is widespread across all geographical delineation and development classifications.
In Africa, the digital economy is growing exponentially as mobile penetration and broadband connectivity skyrockets. “Africa’s digital transformation is jump-started by the mobile revolution as the continent leapfrogged the world from a few landlines to massive mobile phone use in just a decade,” writes Eric Osiakwan, an African tech entrepreneur and angel investor, in a research paper entitled The Kings of Africa’s Digital Economy.
The ongoing mobile revolution in Africa provides massive opportunities for entrepreneurs and businesses to deploy digital platforms, contents and services while helping define user adoption and experiences. Increasing adoption of smartphones opens up further opportunities for both simple and more sophisticated digital products and services. GSMA estimates that the number of smartphone connections in Africa reached 302 million in 2018 at a 39% adoption rate and is expected to rise to 66%, nearly 700 million connections by 2025.
Think of it this way: “Africa is a mobile-first region”. For the majority of users on the continent, mobile connectivity is the first and only gateway to internet and digital services. Mobile has become the primary platform for creating, distributing and consuming digital content and services across the continent. Mobile platform services ranging from feature USSD, SMS and API applications to advanced web and OS-based applications on Android, IOS, Blackberry, Windows and Symbian have proliferated across the continent for digital offerings with localized user experiences and interfaces for both illiterate and more educated users.
Some experts credit the start of the digital bubble in Africa to around 2012 when broadband internet became widely available in metropolitan areas, heralding a new wave of technology entrepreneurs and ecosystems to emerge with verticals focusing on e-commerce, logistics, real estate, education, health, gaming, entertainment and media. While the wave has since expanded to the majority of the countries in Africa at varying degrees, UNCTAD estimates that 60% of the continent’s digital economy is concentrated in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. Other emerging clusters include Ethiopia, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal, Morocco, Rwanda, Tunisia and Uganda.
However, it is difficult to place valuations on the size and impact of digital transformations at national and regional levels due to not only the dearth of recent data but also as a result of the blurry lines between what elements that constitutes the digital economy in contrast with the traditional economies. Traditional sectors are rapidly converging and getting digitalized. In 2013, during the nascent era of Africa’s digital emergence, McKinsey projected that Africa’s digital economy will be worth USD 300 billion by 2025, a tiny fraction of the global projections.
Even though most sources vary about the size and forecast of Africa’s digital economy, all available data show rapid year-on-year growth with no signs of slowing down as connectivity improves on the continent. UNCTAD says that exports of digitally deliverable services from Africa was valued at USD 10.9 billion in 2005 and has more than doubled in 2018 at USD 26.8 billion at a 7% Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR). An analysis undertaken by international law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in 2014, revealed that investment in the telecom, media and technology sector – hotbeds of the digital economy – in Africa over the last decade made 19% annualized gains, above more modest returns of 11% across the MSCI Emerging Frontier Markets Africa Index and higher than 6% across the oil and gas sector.
Even more important than the numbers is the depth and nuances of the digital innovation in Africa which are shaped by conditions and experiences peculiar to users on the continent. Digital entrepreneurs and innovators in Africa are enabling more rapid change across a wider range of sectors, including layering technology on legacy sectors and building products and services in the core ICT sector. This includes building solutions for financial inclusion, enabling healthcare systems, facilitating efficiency in governance, scaling productivity and manufacturing, driving access to international markets, platformization of social engagements, logistics and transportation, education and a lot more others.
Much of the continent’s digital platform landscape, as common in emerging regions in Asia and Latin America, is dominated by transaction platforms such as marketplaces, e-commerce, payment, remittances, ride-hailing, streaming services and e-learning platforms. Cutting edge innovations such as AI-powered technologies, IoT networks, 3D printing, self-driving tech and virtual reality are still very nascent on the continent. The spread of mobile payments and the proliferation of fintech platforms with their wealth creation effect is often regarded as a testimony of Africa’s innovation in driving financial inclusion.
According to GMSA, there were 395.7 million registered mobile money accounts in Africa by the end of 2018, about half of the total global mobile money accounts. The region is now served by more than 130 live mobile money services, many of them led by mobile operators, and a network of more than 1.4 million active agents. Partech’s 2019 Africa Tech Capital Annual Report revealed that 234 African tech start-ups raised over USD 2 billion in 250 equity funding deals in 2019, a 74% YoY growth. Driven by Fintech, financial inclusion remains the foremost investment sector on the continent, attracting 54.5% of total investment at US$ 1.1 Billion, up from 50% in 2018, across 92 transactions.
Although Sub-Saharan Africa has emerged as one of the fastest-growing fintech regions in the world, digital payments is still relatively low with the majority of the population financially excluded. For instance, in Nigeria, only about 39.7% of adults had a bank account in 2018, compared to 38.3% in 2016. About 15.5% reported making at least one digital payment in the past 2018, says a World Bank report citing data from EFInA, a financial sector development organization based in Nigeria. Another challenge in Africa’s Fintech space, which is also seen as an opportunity, is that transactions and userbases are largely fragmented. Payments solutions are tightly regulated by national governments with inadequate interoperability measures adopted to scale solutions at the regional levels. Some solutions such as the mobile money wave in East Africa and fintech service providers are acquiring multiple licenses to scale to other African countries, mostly at sub-regional levels through the Regional Economic Commission (RECs) frameworks. However, an integrated continent-wide framework has not been fully explored. Africa’s e-commerce adoption is also rapidly growing.
GSMA estimates that e-commerce sales in Sub-Saharan Africa reached USD 16.5 billion in 2017 and are projected to reach USD 29 billion by 2022; driven by lifestyle trends among the expanding middle class, rising internet and smartphone adoption, and the growth of digital payments solutions. There are further growth trends in other typical ICT core segments such as software services, cyber security and media, as well as rising trends in disrupting processes and products in traditional sectors by the application of digital solutions. For instance, Nigeria-based Kobo360 is disrupting the country’s logistics sector by enabling an integrated system that aggregates end-to-end haulage operations to help cargo owners, truck owners, drivers, and cargo recipients seamless deliver goods.
It is interesting to note that many startups are capturing opportunities and delivering value to customers in niche markets that may seem obscure to big corporations and global competitions but large enough for startups to thrive and possibly scale at the regional level.
Joseph U Ibeh is a Senior Analyst at Space in Africa
Courtesy: China Investment Magazine