Three takeaways from Estonia’s high-level visit to Namibia and Botswana
2.05.2023Interview with Mariin Ratnik, Undersecretary for Economic and Development Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia
From 26 March to 1 April 2023, Mariin Ratnik, Undersecretary for Economic and Development Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Estonia, led a high-level visit to Namibia and Botswana – two of Estonia’s development cooperation priority partners as established in the MFA’s regional strategy for Africa for 2020–2030.
The purpose of the visit was to strengthen Estonia’s cooperation with these two countries, with whom diplomatic relations were established two decades ago.
“A major field of cooperation between Estonia and both Namibia and Botswana is digitalisation,” explained Ms Ratnik. “Estonia has been building a digital society for about 30 years, and nowadays 99 per cent of our public services are offered online. We have learned many lessons from our experience, which we are open to sharing with other countries – such as Namibia and Botswana – wishing to accelerate their digital transformation. They have the opportunity to learn not only from what has worked well in Estonia, but also from our mistakes.”
In line with the AU-EU Digital for Development (D4D) Hub’s goals of fostering multi-stakeholder dialogues and supporting knowledge sharing between African and European actors in the digital field, the project supported this visit by facilitating exchanges between private and public sector representatives from Namibia and Botswana and their Estonian counterparts. Namely, the Estonian ICT Cluster, together with the respective ministries of ICT, organised two workshops aimed at identifying synergies and potential partnership opportunities.
With the participation of over 100 stakeholders, the workshops offered an opportunity to present Estonia’s own digital transformation journey and to listen to Namibia and Botswana’s priorities and experiences.
For Ms Ratnik, the workshops were one of her personal highlights of the visit: “We had very, very strong participation. Many people from different sectors attended, including youth, entrepreneurs, and government officials. There was a huge interest to talk to us, to get involved, to ask questions.”
During an interview with the AU-EU D4D Hub, Ms Ratnik shared her three main takeaways from the visit – her first trip to the region since she took over her position in September 2022.
1. Botswana and Namibia are taking giant steps in digital transformation
Both Botswana and Namibia are among the least densely populated countries in the world, with an average of three to four people per square kilometre. The provision of digital services offers governments the opportunity to reach remote communities and build more inclusive societies, and thus has become a strategic priority for the governments of both countries.
“During our visit, we encountered a general readiness and enthusiasm to embrace the digital transformation. We heard many interesting plans to leverage digital technologies to offer education and public services to citizens in every corner of their territories. There is definitely a strong determination from all actors,” said Ms Ratnik.
Namibia and Botswana have already achieved important milestones in their digital transformation journeys. Namibia, for example, is currently operationalising an interoperability framework that allows different government institutions to securely and effectively share citizens’ data. Botswana, on the other hand, has adopted a fully online tax management and revenue collection system. Both of these processes have been supported by Estonian experts.
“As Namibia and Botswana’s close partners in the digital field, we have witnessed and accompanied the enormous progress that they have made in recent years,” Ms Ratnik declared.
2. Working as “Team Europe” is key to advancing cooperation with African partners
Estonia is a small Member State of the European Union, with a population of about 1,3 million. However, as one of the world’s most advanced digital societies, it is leading the way in digital transformation within the bloc.
Estonia is also one of the European Union’s most active Member States when it comes to digital cooperation with partner countries, Ms Ratnik explained. “Beyond our bilateral cooperation, we are also involved in a number of Team Europe initiatives together with the EU and other Member States. Notably, we were one of the founding members of the Digital for Development Hub.”
In terms of concrete cooperation with African countries, the Estonian implementing partners of the AU-EU D4D Hub project (MFA Estonia, the e-Governance Academy, and the Estonian ICT Cluster) are already contributing to “Team Europe” activities in Uganda, Cabo Verde, Tanzania, and Egypt – just to name a few. Through technical assistance missions, Estonian experts are supporting African government officials to draft digital transformation roadmaps, build new skills, review regulatory frameworks and pilot new solutions.
“Working together as Member States of the European Union and offering our shared expertise to African partners is helping us create more synergies. As a result, we have many initiatives in the pipeline that will advance our cooperation with African countries on diverse topics such as data governance and data economy, digital skills for officials, and the green and digital transition,” Ms Ratnik said.
“For Estonia, working with other EU Member States as Team Europe gives us the opportunity to be involved in digital cooperation projects of a wider scale and in different regions. We can work in areas where, as an individual Member State, we wouldn’t have the capacity to engage,” she added.
3. There are many opportunities for Estonia to increase its digital cooperation with Namibia and Botswana
According to Ms Ratnik, the visit to Namibia and Botswana helped the Estonian delegation to identify many potential win-win opportunities to advance their digital cooperation, including under the AU-EU D4D Hub.
“I think that the objectives of this mission were successfully achieved,” concluded Ms Ratnik. “From the Estonian side, we have learned a lot about our partners’ priorities and expectations, and how we can best add value. As an immediate next step, we will welcome several visitors from Botswana and Namibia, who will travel to Estonia in the coming months.”
Following the high-level visit, Namibia’s Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Emma Theofelus, confirmed that she will travel to Estonia end of May, leading her country’s participation at the e-Governance Conference 2023 (Botswana already sent a delegation in 2022). Ms Theofelus will share Namibia’s experience creating successful partnerships for digital innovation at a session organised by the AU-EU D4D Hub.