Digitalisation and the realisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) for Africa’s digital transformation

3 Apr 2019 10:00h - 13:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the UNCTAD E-commerce Week]

The first session was moderated by Ms Nnenna Nwakanma (Policy Director, World Wide Web Foundation, Abidjan) who began by asking the panellists to explain how is the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) helping Africa to move forward.

Mr Ajay Kumar Bramdeo (African Union Permanent Representative to the UN and other organisations in Geneva) said that Gambia ratified AfCFTA. There is still a digital divide in infrastructure and industrial development, but that the main objective is to find ways to achieve digital industrialisation in accordance with AfCFTA and Agenda 2063. Bramdeo gave the example of Rwanda and South Africa in implementing tax digitalisation.

Ms Isabelle Durant (Deputy Secretary General, UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)) explained that e-commerce is changing the way people live in many African countries, but that lack of connectivity still presents an obstacle to the digital economy. Durant added that digitalisation is crucial in achieving economic integration and that UNCTAD is ready to help the African governments through digital training and by supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). She added that data is a great tool for e-commerce but it needs to be protected by an effective legal framework. Durant concluded that the regional approach should be realised through e-commerce and that UNCTAD is committed to supporting the African Union (AU) in achieving digital integration in Africa.

Ms Amani Abou-Zeid (AU Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy) noted that the twenty-second notification of Gambia is a great step in achieving AfCFTA’s goals. She said that digitalisation can help Africa’s economic development and added that many African banks provide e-payment. Abou-Zeid also noted that the digitalisation of SMEs is very important for inclusive trade. According to her, we must support digital training of African youth and emphasised the ownership of data as an essential instrument for an integrated AU economy. She concluded by stating that ‘African countries must have digital development strategy in order to take advantages of the fourth industrial revolution’.

Mr Eston Kimani (Lead Founder, Ideas Come To Life) said that entrepreneurship helps ‘problem resolving’ and noted that young people have to co-operate as pan-African businesses. Kimani added that language differences in Africa create challenges for doing business between African countries, and emphasised that it is the responsibility of African public institutions to support digital entrepreneurship.

Mr Wisdom Kwasi Donkor (President and CEO, Africa Open Data and Internet Research Foundation) talked about the need for changes in the way African politicians view digital economy and technology. Donkor stressed that payment platforms for African businesses need to be improved. He concluded by saying that data protection is still a challenge for many operators in various African regions.

Ms Rebecca Enonchong (Founder and Chief Executive Officer of AppsTech) noted that developing countries have to address digital leadership and require African experts on local tech hubs. Enonchong emphasised the importance of a digital trade ecosystem and stressed the importance and benefits of spending money on local businesses She concluded by asking the governments to take on responsibility for improving the digital framework in Africa.

Mr Cedric Atangana (CEO, WeCashUp) talked about e-commerce in Africa and how his company is benefiting from the digital economy. He said that the fragmented African market must become digitally unified. He spoke of how Africa can access the digital market with the help of digital tools. In addition, Atangana noted that practical and regulatory levels need to be considered in order to improve the interoperability between banks and digital entrepreneurs.

Mr Isidore Biyiha (President, African Alliance for E-Commerce) explained how his company is contributing to various e-commerce initiatives in Cameroon and other African countries. He said there needs to be improvement in the regulation of free movement of people in Africa. According to Biyiha, it is important to tackle the problem of data protection in various regions.

Ms Ifeyinwa Nwanneka Ogo (Trade Policy Expert, Regional Integration and Trade Division, UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)) asked what is the role of AU institutions in the digital economy. She added that it is still difficult to practice e-payment and e-services in many countries and noted that half of the African people do not own identity cards. According to her, it is still a challenge to create digital identities.

Mr Kamil El Khatib (ICT Policy Analyst, Industrialization, Trade and Development Department, African Development Bank (AfDB)) explained that to achieve digitalisation in banking operations, operators must be permitted to use digital tools. Digitalisation allows facilitating cross-border trade and there is a need for harmonising the free flow of regional trade. El Khatib also talked about the AfDB’s High 5s: Light up and Power Africa; Feed Africa; Industrialize Africa; Integrate Africa; and Improve the Quality of Life for the People of Africa.

Mr Osama Rais (Director General, Africa City of Technology, Khartoum) said that security is essential in the digital transformation of Africa. He noted that Africa needs to address e-payment issues and focus on cybersecurity. He also explained that the continent has to create an African cloud that would facilitate the digital trade of SMEs and other businesses.

SESSION 2: Multistakeholderism and partnerships in strengthening Africa’s capacity to achieve it digital transformation: Issues and approaches

The second session was moderated by Mr Jean-Bertrand Azapmo (Regional Trade Advisor, African Union Commission) who said that digitalisation is still a challenge for African small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and ordinary traders. In addition, he noted that there must be a strong continental strategy for e-commerce.

Ms Aileen Kwa (Coordinator, Trade Programme, South Centre) said there is a difference between e-commerce and digital economy and posed the question of how is Africa using data in the fourth industrial revolution. She added that the African Union (AU) needs to create a solid digital strategy regarding goods, services, and data, which may include the use of data barriers as temporary measures in order to boost intra-African trade. Kwa said that there are many challenges ahead, such as providing data flows and data protection within the current digital framework. She gave the example of South Korea regarding data protection and helping companies to become more competitive.

Ms Nadira Bayat (Gender and Trade Consultant, African Trade Policy Centre and UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)) said that women need to be more involved in digital trade and noted that government strategies need to be synchronised. Women should take part in creating digital strategies and addressing digital entrepreneurs. A gender balance should be provided by using AfcFTA’s digital tools and Agenda 2063.

Ms Nagwa El-Shenawy (Undersecretary for Information and Decision Support, Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, Arab Republic of Egypt) explained the situation in Egypt through the example of the national e-commerce strategy. In Egypt, a national committee takes on challenges and opportunities regarding e-commerce. The private sector and public institutions work together to improve digital trade regulations and the legal framework. El-Shenawy also mentioned the new Egyptian law on data privacy and emphasised the role of women in implementing e-commerce on both the national and continental level.

Mr Segun Aina (President, African Fintech Network) said that African companies still face many financial and digital challenges. He emphasised the support the African Fintech Network provides in achieving tech trade in Africa. Aina added that Nigeria has an education system that supports the youth in using digital tools. Finally, he said that Africa needs to give attention to e-commerce strategies regarding rural areas.

Mr Cisse Kane, (President, African Civil Society on the Information Society) congratulated the AU for their achievements regarding the AfCFTA. He said that African countries need to improve the legal framework for user protection. Kane stated that the youth should be supported in acquiring digital skills and that their education is crucial for the new digital challenges of international trade. He concluded by mentioning the pan-African strategy for innovation and development and the challenges policies on e-commerce face.

Ms Rebecca Enonchong (Founder and Chief Executive Officer, AppsTech) said that they have created a digital policy framework which helps young entrepreneurs. She stresses the importance of the participation of pan-African institutions in the work regarding entrepreneurship. In addition, she talked about the importance of data regulation and e-commerce in Africa.

Mr Alastair Tempest (CEO, Ecommerce Forum Africa) noted that financial digital skills require trust and encouraged public institutions to take on responsibility for the development of e-commerce.

Mr Teddy Warria (Founder, Africa’s Talking) talked about the importance of teaching digital tools to African youth in a digital economy. He said that young entrepreneurs believe in a digital partnership, and according to him, this digital partnership has to include both ‘giving and receiving’. Moreover, he emphasised the importance of selling high-quality African products globally.

By Gilles D. Bana