Across Africa, e-commerce platforms flanked by payments, logistics, tourism and big data partners, are beginning to lift local economies, says e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Business School and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad), which co-hosted the Netrepreneurs: The Rise of Africa’s Digital Lions conference, in Johannesburg, on Wednesday.
“Entrepreneurs are at an inflection point. With Internet penetration, smartphone ownership and e-commerce skyrocketing, entire industries will be completely remade as new ventures emerge and compete with foreign firms and conventional businesses,” said Alibaba Group VP Brian Wong.
Entrepreneurs can be the catalysts for change and enablers for inclusive economic growth. With e-commerce, for example, global access to products is possible, inclusive financial services can be offered, and farmers can sell their own produce, he added.
If African entrepreneurial talent and energy can be channeled by a conducive environment created by policymakers, educators and investors, new businesses will offer goods and services that solve problems, create value and provide an opportunity for people across the African continent, said Alibaba.
“These actors can choose to pursue traditional development, or they can leverage emerging technology and skills to leapfrog interstitial industrial modes to create something productive, efficient and unique to Africa,” it added.
However, it is necessary for policymakers to create an environment where digital technologies are promoted.
Botswana Investment, Trade and Industry Minister Bogolo Kenewendo said that physical, as well as legislative, infrastructure are required to enable the transition to a digital economy.
Most African countries do not have e-commerce or digital trading policies, while having a lack of proper cybersecurity measures; therefore, a lot needs to be done before e-commerce will kick off on a large scale in Africa, she noted, adding that technology should not be used to rush to catch up to global trends, but rather to solve local problems.
Kenewendo further suggested that governments promote education and skills development suited to a digital economy. She put forward that it is of no use to have the physical infrastructure, while operators and users do not have the capability to make use of it or derive value.
During a panel discussion at the event, Mara Corporation founder Ashish Thakkar noted that, with the African continent being host to six of the ten fastest-growing economies, and with 85% of the African population being under the age of 35, now is a ripe time to invest in African digital economies.
Out of the 1.3-billion people in Africa, there are 453-million Internet users (35% Internet penetration). There are 28 countries with less than 10% Internet penetration, including Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania.
“The need for collaboration between policymakers, investors and educators has never been higher. Strategic thinking and a focus on long-term outcomes for Africans is vital to fully harness the power of the Internet, which will launch new industries, solve problems and increase quality of life,” said Alibaba.
The company added that small decisions now can shape decades of economic realities, and the more all parties can communicate, the more these outcomes may be optimised.