Op-Ed: Supporting the ICT sector in Africa as a cure for the economic crisis

Given the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, Africa could be facing an economic crisis of unprecedented magnitude. Although the peak of the epidemic has not yet hit the continent, all economic indicators are currently flashing red as a result of preventive measures such as lockdowns and national border closures across most of the continent.

Why should we be so concerned with what is happening across the Mediterranean? Because if the growth dynamic recorded in Africa over the past several decades stalls, it is Europe that will suffer the consequences in a later stage. Everything that has been undertaken with the help of development aid and the setting up of structuring partnerships at the economic level as well as at the health and education levels is at risk of being reduced to nothing. For example, more than 8 million children have been enrolled in primary and more than 160,000 in secondary education in Africa as a result of EU-funded interventions in 2013-2014. This ambitious partnership needs to continue on an ever-stronger footing. Needless to also say that a new wave of migration would also have an impact on our societies: the looming economic crisis would be coupled with a real political crisis that would undoubtedly give populist parties the upper hand in the next elections.

As European politicians, Africa is one of our priorities. Sceptics need only remember the first trip made by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen; her first official trip, just a week after taking office, was to Addis Ababa, to the African Union’s headquarters. Two months later she went back, along with 20 of the 27 European Commissioners, a sign that Africa and the EU have a real “common destiny” and an ambitious partnership to rebuild.

We need to think, and fast, about how we can help our African partner in the race against time as it faces the predicted economic disaster in the wake of the global covid-19 pandemic. Let’s ask ourselves the right questions: what works in Africa, what are the factors for development and growth? One is undoubtedly Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), since Africa had more than 400 million Internet users in 2018 – that’s 20% more than in 2017. Mobile phones are the preferred means of accessing the Internet (used three times more than computers) and the United Nations estimates that mobile phone operators are major job creators today. Before the crisis, it was predicted that the mobile phone industry would generate 7.9% of GDP and create 3.45 million jobs in sub-Saharan Africa by 2022.

As Co-Chair and Vice-Chair of the soon to be established RUMRA & Smart Villages Intergroup in the European Parliament, we know how important access to a good Internet connection is as a factor for growth. The intergroup aims to “promote the integrated development of European territories in all their diversity”. And what is true for Europe is all the more true for Africa! ICTs facilitate access to education, they contribute to increasing business productivity, and they represent real added value in the agricultural sector, for example by giving family farmers access to targeted information on techniques to improve their yields.

In light of these facts, there is an urgent need to support the companies operating in the ICT sector that are working on providing Internet access and deploying fibre optics on the African continent, such as Vodafone, Orange, or Huawei Northern Africa. Huawei for instance provides 200,000 kilometers of optical fibre network coverage on the African continent, and owns 50% of the 3G and 4G networks. Orange invests 1 billion euros every year in network development in Africa and Vodafone now has more than 170 million mobile customers across eight African countries, with 4G networks launched in many African markets. These groups are engines of growth and potential solutions to the impending crisis. In this process we need to make sure not to single out any of these companies for geo-strategic considerations that should have no place in our economic considerations. As free marketeers our decisions need to be based solely on merit and the ability of any given company to provide the ICT solutions needed. 

Without complicity, without naivety, we have to think about what will impact us positively in the short, medium and long term. Our fear is that our reluctance to move towards greater connectivity will impact our economies, and those of our neighbors, and Africa first and foremost. So let’s be responsible, let’s be political, and let’s take responsibility for our choices. ICTs are one of the ways out of the crisis caused by Covid-19, so let’s not deprive anyone, and especially not Africa!

Franc Bogovic, Member of the European Parliament from Slovenia in the centre right group of the European People’s Party &

Engin Eroglu, Member of the European Parliament from Germany in the liberal Renew Europe Group

For more coverage on COVID-19 visit: https://www.cnbcafrica.com/covid-19/

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