Ten priorities to build a joint digital future
Ensuring that digital technologies and innovations improve the lives of all people is a shared priority for the African Union (AU) and the European Union (EU). In a context where one third of Africa’s 420 million young people are unemployed, the digital transformation offers untapped opportunities for economic growth, innovation, job creation, and access to services. Digital for Development (D4D) has thus become a cornerstone of AU-EU cooperation.
Inclusivity is a condition for joint digital initiatives to be successful, however. Citizens and civil society — including youth — have a crucial role to play in informing policies and programmes aimed at leveraging the opportunities and addressing the challenges created by digitalisation.
In the context of the planned Africa-Europe D4D Hub Multi-Stakeholder Forum, the AU-EU D4D Hub published an open call for statements to gather citizen perspectives on the possibilities for the AU-EU partnership to support an inclusive and sustainable digital transformation. Below are the ten priorities that were identified by over 60 people from Africa and Europe.
1. Closing the digital divides
The benefits of the digital transformation have not been equally distributed. Rural communities, women, and other vulnerable groups often lack access to the technologies and skills needed to seize the opportunities created by the digital economy.
Calling for investments in underserved rural communities, Ntokozo Ncube from Zimbabwe said: “Internet is a luxury for the elite. Service providers concentrate on urban areas where they have a base of paying customers.”
Regarding the gender digital divide, Hager Ashour from Egypt declared: “We need to support women empowerment in tech and create opportunities for them to be part of this progress. We need to establish “real” programmes that support women in tech without heavy coding. Tech is bigger than that.”
2. Building digital skills
“The first step for our partners to support Africa’s digital transformation is to develop its human capital through training and capacity building,” said Joyce Alexander from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This view was widely echoed. “We need new skills for the digital world to support youth’s employability,” said Richard Ndahiro from Uganda. “The top priority for the EU-Africa partnership should be capacity building. In Africa there is a real lack of experienced professionals in new technologies and digital project management,” added Martin Mbaga from Belgium.
3. Creating opportunities for youth
Africa’s youth can become the main actor and beneficiary of the digital transformation if new opportunities are leveraged to create new jobs. Research has shown that finding suitable employment is the top concern for Africa’s young population.
European companies would also benefit from a skilled young workforce that could work remotely, according to the call for statements’ respondents.
“Europe has a shortage of the experienced human resources it needs to keep its position in the global marketplace. In contrast, Africa has a lot of youth who are underemployed or unemployed,” said Nelson T. Ajulo from Nigeria. “It is clear that one side needs the other, but this collaboration must be built on an equal partnership, not one that will lead to brain drain, but one where both sides have equal benefits.”
4. Supporting digital entrepreneurs
Digital entrepreneurship can contribute to growth, job creation, and economic diversification and resilience. However, digital entrepreneurs need a favourable ecosystem to thrive. In this sense, Africa-Europe collaborations can support an enabling environment based on mutually beneficial conditions.
“There are still not enough European private companies and diaspora involved in developing fruitful connections with Africa to support entrepreneurship with a deep knowledge of what is really needed,” said Katja Meyer, from Austria.
5. Investing in connectivity and infrastructure
“The top priority for Europe-Africa digital cooperation should be increasing the availability and access to Internet in Africa,” said Isaac Muvughe from the Democratic Republic of Congo. “But first we must think of energy infrastructure. Without electricity there can be no Internet.” Other citizens also voiced their concern about insufficient investment in connectivity.
“Traditional connectivity business models are unable to provide ubiquitous affordable access due to the costs and the need to maintain the profitability required by their shareholders in these predominantly low-income, sparsely populated areas,” said Carlos Rey Moreno from Spain. He also proposed exploring alternative approaches, such as community networks.
Another issue that was raised was the need to lower the cost of Internet in Africa. “An inclusive digital economy requires addressing the cost of data in Africa,” said Pamela Masilela, from South Africa. “There should be free access to certain basic websites, for example”. Christian Mehl from Germany echoed this view: “How can it be that we have to pay five times more in West Africa for internet access that is five times slower than in Europe?”
6. Prioritising cybersecurity
African governments are facing a growing number of digital threats and malicious cyber activities, including espionage, critical infrastructure sabotage, and organised crime. Attacks often have costly consequences for public institutions, businesses, and citizens.
“We are still a long way from finding practical solutions to effectively manage cybersecurity risks,” said Bendjedid Rachad from Benin. “Actions must be backed by a strong political commitment from governments to make the fight against cybercrime a top priority.”
7. Protecting data and privacy
Many respondents express the urgency of promoting regulatory frameworks to protect data and privacy across Africa. However, they also pointed out the importance of taking local conditions into consideration. In this sense, Tomslin Samme-Nlar from Cameroon declared: “Any such framework or policy must consider the fact that most businesses in Africa are micro and small businesses. They should be provided both encouragement and incentives to comply.”
8. Fostering new partnerships
To build an inclusive and sustainable digital transformation, we must support collaboration between private sector, public sector, and civil society actors, as each of them has a role to play in delivering services, protecting rights, and implementing programmes.
“Partnering with other players (NGOs, telcos, tech companies, fintech, banks/micro-finance, etc.) on different layers allows the digital ecosystem to thrive,” said Ann Fesu from Ghana. “For example, NGOs could partner with other organisations to work in rural areas. People could obtain credit to fund their business through a digital channel with banks. Telcos could provide last-mile coverage, and tech companies could employ people from these areas.”
9. Aligning the green and digital transformations
The green transition is also a top priority for Africa-Europe cooperation. Digital solutions can be instrumental to fighting climate change, and this is an important area of work for actors in both continents.
“We should build digital systems that are green by design,” proposed Sébastien Joannard-Lardant, from France. “Digital pollution will be one of the biggest challenges for the next 30 years. We must then take into consideration the environmental impact in all digital projects.”
10. Ensuring citizen participation
A people-centred approach to digitalisation should ensure that no harm is caused by the policy or investment under discussion, said Kasia Hanula-Bobbitt, from Poland and Belgium. “The context analysis, the identification of negative impacts, and the design, implementation and monitoring of projects should be done in conjunction with local communities. A participatory approach is key to a people-centred approach.”
If the digital transformation is to be truly inclusive, it must serve all citizens, respondents said.