Africa faces many challenges on its path to becoming a global economic competitor. The impact of COVID-19 on development can either be a massive barrier to advancement or the spark that lights up innovation and investment across the continent.

There’s no denying that for most of the world, the pandemic has pushed digital adoption forward in vast leaps in a short time. What the pandemic has also made apparent is the disparities of infrastructure across Africa, as well as gaps in adoption and policy.

It’s now a necessity, rather than a luxury to fast-track adoption of technology. By increasing productivity and facilitating innovation, technology is a key sector for the economic development of any country, and those who have embarked on their digital transformation journeys are better equipped to handle the obstacles that arise.

As COVID-19 has introduced social distancing and lockdown orders across the continent, the need for digital connectivity is more essential than ever. And as the pandemic spreads beyond major cities into peri-urban and rural areas, unconnected or under-connected populations risk becoming more vulnerable and isolated as they lack digital means to access essential services.

Wi-Fi hotspots can provide connectivity to COVID-19 testing stations and field hospitals and can support remote working and learning. Microsoft has been championing use of TV White Spaces (TVWS), which uses unused portions of spectrum for tv broadcasting, to bring broadband and internet-connected solutions.

In Kenya, Project Mawingu connects schools, the Laikipia County Government Office, Laikipia Public Library, Red Cross and the Burguret Dispensary Healthcare Clinic. Through this and other partnerships, we’ve demonstrated how new technologies, business models and regulatory approaches expand internet access and support public policy goals around education, healthcare, e-government and other priorities.

This, in turn, motivates governments to adopt more regulations opening up access to TVWS frequencies. As much as we talk about the need for intensive ICT investment in infrastructure and technology that will support Africa’s engagement in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), this will not happen without human infrastructure to support it.

For Africa to fully realise opportunities brought about by digital transformation and 4IR, it is vital we have strong ICT skills. We refer to this as having ‘tech intensity’ – the ability to not just adopt emerging technology but develop capabilities to effectively use it. Skills development has a crucial role to play, both in skilling new resources – our youth – and in upskilling our current workforce to play their part in supporting ICT infrastructure development.

There is an abundance of talent and ingenuity in start-ups and entrepreneurs across the continent. Investing in them is as important as any other ICT investment. Beyond future workforce, digital talent will also support more local innovation, as developers and entrepreneurs are empowered to create locally relevant solutions that best address challenges and needs in various sectors.

African governments have important roles to play in developing sound digital policies and stable harmonised regulatory environments that enable people and businesses to participate fully in the global digital economy.

Now more than ever, we need to pay close attention to how organisations transform digitally, what changes they face in acquiring new technologies and broadband, and daily challenges they may be facing in the area of digital skills development.

If African governments, together with private partners and organisations, can invest in these areas through supporting start-up innovation, through contributing to skills development and in many other verticals, this will drive meaningful gains towards unlocking Africa’s vibrant potential.

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