Transforming Africa’s Digital Landscape at the Africa Law Tech Festival 2023

Recognising the critical role that law and technology play in shaping Africa’s future, the Africa Law Tech Festival has emerged as an important annual conference on the continent. With over 2 000 delegates from 40+ countries convening each year, the festival serves as a dynamic platform for fostering idea-focused conversations, collaboration, and innovation on technology and the law. 

The festival brings together diverse minds from various sectors. Legal professionals, technology experts, policymakers, academics, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders converge under one roof, representing a myriad of backgrounds and experiences. This diverse assembly of stakeholders fosters an environment where fresh ideas and transformative insights are formed, enriching the discourse on technology and law in Africa.

Digital trade in the spotlight

The heart of the 2023 Africa Law Tech Festival focused on digital trade and its role in expediting the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The festival theme, “Digital trade: Accelerating AfCFTA for a single digital market” underpinned the significance of digital trade in driving the success of the AfCFTA and forging a unified digital market across Africa. This comes with the recognition that digital trade holds the potential to unlock unprecedented opportunities for intra-African commerce and economic integration. The AfCFTA, as the world’s largest free trade area, provides a fertile ground to explore how digital trade could serve as a catalyst for Africa’s economic growth and development.

During the festival, the notion of digital trade as a transformative force was explored in depth. E-commerce emerged as a key pillar of such transformation, transcending geographical boundaries and providing businesses with new avenues for expansion. Participants delved

into strategies for maximising the potential of e-commerce to fuel economic growth and foster cross-border trade.

To explore the multifaceted aspects of digital trade, the festival featured distinct summits on e-commerce, data sovereignty and cross-border data exchanges, digital infrastructure, sustainable trade practices, and artificial intelligence innovation. These summits were facilitated in different ways ranging from panel discussions, masterclasses and workshops, and hackathons.

AfCFTA and a cohesive digital ecosystem

On day one of the festival, Research ICT Africa’s Executive Director, Dr. Alison Gillwald, centred her intervention on the theme of digital trade and its potential to foster a unified pan-African digital market. Alison underscored the centrality  of a cohesive digital ecosystem across Africa if the African Continental Free Trade Area was to work. She underlined that, as the largest free trade area in the world by the number of participating countries and in the coming decades by population – and significantly by youthful population, the AfCFTA holds great promise under the right conditions for redressing some of the historical uneven development within Africa, and between Africa and the world. 

She started by highlighting the need to deal with the foundational deficits across the continent in order to fully realise the AfcFTA. She underlined the need to focus on data governance as a whole, which includes non-personal data as well as personal data, both of which are valuable. Additionally, Alison stressed the importance of increasing public knowledge of data governance and policy frameworks as a means of fostering the trust that is necessary for a single digital market. 

In her conclusion, she emphasised the value of cooperation among African states, stating that while data sovereignty is crucial, different levels of infrastructure and capacity development mean that countries must be aware of their bottlenecks and use cooperation as a tool to protect citizens from the negative effects of the unchecked development of data-driven technologies while encouraging responsible data practices that foster trust and inclusivity.

AfCFTA and digital public infrastructure 

On the second day, Hanani Hlomani, a Research Fellow at RIA, featured in a breakfast workshop co-hosted by Co-Develop,  a global not-for-profit fund to achieve “the catalytic possibilities of digital public infrastructure”. The workshop’s central theme was “AfCFTA and digital public infrastructure”. Hanani delivered an analysis of the challenges underpinning the growth of digital public infrastructure, an important aspect of a single digital market in Africa. He pointed out that a lack of trust in public institutions, and among governments, acted as a significant barrier to progress. 

Building trust and fostering collaboration are essential prerequisites for unlocking the full potential of Africa’s digital economy. Hanani emphasised that the success of digital public infrastructure was dependent on a significant portion of the population being online. He also highlighted the issue of high costs of data and devices, which hinder accessibility for many Africans. To bridge the digital divide, he advocated for the development of integrated public digital infrastructure across the continent, policy harmonisation to ensure interoperability, and to create an enabling environment for a truly inclusive digital single market.

AfCFTA’s potential for sustainable economic growth 

The Africa Law Tech Festival’s focus on digital trade, data protection, and policy harmonisation comes at a crucial time when the uptake and interest in different technologies are rapidly expanding. By promoting a unified pan-African digital market to underpin  the AfCFTA, African nations can leverage their collective strengths and resources to foster sustainable economic growth. The insights gained from the festival will serve as guiding principles in shaping effective digital policies and projects.