Africa needs sustainable digitalisation: The link between tech, inequality and the environment

We live in a digital age where many social, economic, institutional and political activities are dependent on information and communication technologies (ICTs). Meanwhile, accelerated digitalisation is often heralded as a panacea for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Africa’s Agenda 2063, but the process is not automatic. Too often the opportunities of digitalisation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Africa are inflated, while the current and impending risks are undermined. This techno-deterministic optimism, based on generating knowledge-driven economic growth, productive efficiency and (often privately funded) social overhead capital (SOC), fails to fully capture the ‘dark side’ of the digital economy.

Some of these adverse features include the digital inequality paradox, rising environmental threats, the inherent global “winner takes all” nature of the digital economy and the emergence of data-driven value creation, to name a few. The last two characteristics both highlight the borderless global nature of the digital economy, currently shaped by an uneven international ICT landscape that threatens to perpetuate power and prosperity imbalances between hyper-digitalised and under-connected regions — driven by ownership of ICT infrastructure, global supply chains, new technological innovations, and data.

A recent report by a group of chief economists in the United Nations Economist Network (UNEN), Shaping the Trends of Our Time, identifies five challenges as man-made ‘megatrends’ that will dominate this century and counteract global efforts to achieve the SDGs. It’s worth noting that technological innovation and digitalisation tops the list of challenges. This is followed by climate change and nature degradation; multiple inequalities; urbanisation; and rapid population change (ageing populations), in that respective order.

For Africa, four of the five megatrends, arguably, highlight fragilities that already plague the continent and will no doubt be worsened if countries continue to design and implement approaches to digitalisation and datafication (which have cross-cutting policy implications) with incoherent siloed approaches. As the continent with the majority of late technology adopters, many countries lack the critical mass required to reap productivity gains from digitalisation. This is compounded by unstable electricity supply, poor physical ICT infrastructure and weak foundational digital systems. While technological innovation and digitalisation has the potential to boost the SDGs on the continent, concerted efforts are needed to design policies and regulation that are dynamic, sustainable, equitable and contextually relevant to different groups of people in order to leverage the digital economy for the common good.

By 2050, Africa is projected to have the fastest urban growth. From a policy perspective, rapid urbanisation and population growth compound the challenges of multifaceted inequality, unemployment, poverty, and environmental degradation that confront the region. Current digitalisation trajectories in Africa tend to perpetuate existing inequalities. They are neither sustainable nor equitable and exacerbate the complex, social, political, institutional, economic and developmental factors already at play on the continent. For example, digital solutions have been proposed as ways to support socio-economic development and improve urban service delivery in highly populated African cities. This is frequently presented as grandiose new landmark metropolises in the form of urban utopias from Vision City in Rwanda, King City in Ghana, Eko Atlantic in Nigeria, Kenya’s Konza, Cairo Vision 2050 in Egypt to South Africa’s new proposed development in Lanseria.

But while smart cities are an attractive concept in Africa, in their current form, these projects are ill-suited to meet the realities of Africa’s complex spatial urban landscape. As evidenced in a recent Research ICT Africa policy brief, smart cities create new forms of exclusion and worsen multiple inequalities based on their digital-by-default orientation, directed by a few influential decisionmakers. In the current model, output translates into tech-enabled service infrastructure, elite residential areas, and commercial business-led urban developments in the absence of explicit planning for the urban poor, low-income residents, marginalised neighbourhoods and rural and remote areas.

Another example of retrogressive digital policy interventions in some African countries are unilateral taxes on digital platforms and mobile money that negatively impact Internet use and access, ultimately widening the digital divide.

Lastly, while Africa produces the least global e-waste, rising digitalisation, hyper-urbanisation, and the lack of infrastructure and regulation to manage e-waste, compound the complexities of addressing cross-cutting digitalisation policy challenges in African countries. For instance, increased digitalisation can also create negative externalities that contribute to climate change, environmental degradation, and human rights violations. These include unethical mining labour practices, threats of rising e-waste, increased electricity consumption and energy demands, environmental impacts of e-commerce, and little to no mineral beneficiation from increased demand for rare earth minerals that are used in the global technology sector, amongst others.

What the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted in Africa is that addressing digital inequality isn’t a technology problem. It’s a classic development challenge. It’s become abundantly clear that offline education, gender, income, public service delivery and spatial inequalities are simply mirrored online. Meanwhile, structural economic deficiencies are arguably amplified, as the economic and social value of being digitally networked increases exponentially.

Overall, without well planned multidimensional interventions in Africa, accelerated digitalisation will not only exacerbate socio-economic inequalities, but also worsen environmental degradation.

To address these challenges, the UNEN megatrends report calls for a commitment to an experimental, comprehensive approach to policy design through forward-looking policies that are fit for purpose, contextually relevant, and facilitate greater cooperation across seemingly unrelated policy areas such as reducing inequality and promoting environmental sustainability. Sadly, these mutually reinforcing policy areas are often addressed through siloed policy interventions. The report further argues that in addition to regional and global coordinated action, interlinkages between the megatrends need to be carefully considered in policy design, not only within one megatrend, but across all of them. This is highlighted as important to secure wealth creation, poverty reduction, fair prosperity distribution and environmental protection—all necessary elements required to attain all-inclusive human prosperity needed to achieve the SDGs.

The SDGs are intended to tackle the most important challenges of our times through transversal policy solutions. The SDGs also recognise that economic growth alone is not sufficient to reduce poverty and encourage shared prosperity, if it is neither inclusive nor based on the three dimensions of sustainable development, which are environmental stewardship, inclusive social enhancement and equitable economic progress. Based on the SDG framework, African countries should adopt a ‘Sustainable Digitalisation’ approach, in addition to a new digital deal for Africa, which calls for digital policy interventions to create a new social compact to reduce poverty and hunger, reduce inequality, promote human rights and justice. This raises considerations and elevates the discourse on the socio-ecological impacts of digitalisation in Africa.

To ensure digitalisation does not worsen vulnerabilities within and among nations, Africa needs progressive, holistic approaches for shaping the digital economy. An overhaul of political, economic, institutional and social systems is required to capture the global, regional, and local dynamics of the digital economy in a way that ensures technological advances build future resilience and benefit everyone on the continent—including the environment.