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In 2017, the UNCTAD Programme on eTrade Readiness Assessment (eT Ready) was created to assess the progress of e-commerce in least developing countries. The programme provides an overview of the opportunities and barriers, and makes supportive recommendations on policy measures. Since 2017, UNCTAD has assessed the development of e-commerce in eight Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) including Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo. The eT Ready reports aim to help governments and the private sector to understand the legal, infrastructure, and economic barriers that prevent the development of e-commerce in the region. The reports provide a solid basis for political action and infrastructure improvements.
The participants presented the assessments carried out in Benin, Mali, Benin, and the critical findings of the eight countries.
The most important barrier to the development of e-commerce in the ECOWAS region is related to the lack of infrastructure. There are large areas with no Internet connection, no roads, and no electricity. Without public investments in these areas, e-commerce will not thrive, according to Ms Cécile Barayre (Economist, UNCTAD).
There is also an absence of a clear strategy on e-commerce. Often, at the institutional and ministry level, there is confusion between strategies related to the digital economy and e-commerce. Mr Christopher Grigoriou (Consultant, UNCTAD) highlighted that strategies related to education and health initiatives are frequently prioritised over e-commerce.
There is also an incomplete understating of the statics related to the sector. National institutions do not have the complete picture of their national e-commerce development. The numbers are not clear or reliable, but are crucial for the implementation of e-commerce policies. Also, e-commerce remains largely informal. Most of the transactions occur on WhatsApp and Facebook, and the payments are made in cash upon delivery of the products/services.
Moreover, e-commerce depends on certain contextual conditions that are barely met. In terms of infrastructure, only 44% of the population has access to electricity. This number is reduced to 9% in rural areas. Only 20% of the population has access to the Internet with speeds above the 2G bandwidth. Moreover, the legal framework to protect consumers is not fully adequate. Additionally, 18% of the population has a bank account.
Another problem is the delivery of the products. The roads and postal systems do not meet the requirements for an efficient delivery system.
UNCTAD concluded that priority should be given to improving the logistics and the electric and road infrastructure, in order to develop e-commerce in the ECOWAS region. Investments in these areas will attract the private sector. In addition, new legislation protecting consumers and transactions online shall be enacted. Ultimately, a supranational observatory of e-commerce should be implemented to provide support to national institutions in the development of their legal and judicial capacities.
Ms Shadiya Alimatou Assouman (Minister of Industry and Trade, Benin) confirmed that the government is currently undertaking structural and institutional reforms to include the country in the digital market. It has created six different agencies focused on e-commerce; has passed a new e-commerce act to facilitate transactions online; and is working to improve online payments. The development of electronic commerce is a priority for the government. In the short term, authorities pointed to the necessity to find financial and technical partners. E-commerce is an imperative force for the social development in Benin.
Mali still faces numerous obstacles to the implementation of e-commerce, including the lack of Internet access and electricity. The legal system is not equipped to guarantee the protection of consumers in the digital market. Mr Boucadary Doumbia (General-Director of Trade, Consumption and Competition, Mali) confirmed that the government plans to develop a national strategy regarding the full progress of electronic commerce based on the report prepared by UNCTAD.
In Nigeria, there is an enormous digital gap between rural and urban areas. In the cities, citizens have better access to the Internet. Also, in general, there is a lack of human resources in the country to face the challenges related to their inclusion in the e-commerce market. Among the recommendations, the government is working to extend access to electricity in remote areas, to provide Internet connections at bus stations, and to create electronic financial services, according to Mr Saudou Seydou (Minister of Trade and Promotion of the Private Sector, Nigeria).
Mr Alessandro Vitale (Managing Director, UNCTAD) and Ms Isabelle Durant (Assistant Secretary-General UNCTAD) pointed that legal and economic coordination between the countries are necessary for a successful implementation of e-commerce in the ECOWAS region.
By Ana Maria Correa