Accelerating the SDGs: Building an inclusive future through Digital Public Infrastructure

Eliud Owalo, Groth Sebastian

From left:  Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Kenya Sebastian Groth,  Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Digital Economy Eliud Owalo and Anthony Ngororano- the Resident Representative, UNDP Kenya.

Photo credit: Pool I Nation Media Group

Africa is on the cusp of a digital revolution that is poised to transform its economies, empower communities, and bridge the glaring digital divide.

With the projected worth of the digital economy in Africa estimated at an impressive $712 billion by 2050, the significance of the continent’s Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) cannot be overstated.

The transformative potential of Africa’s DPI is real. Kenya is a prime example. Success is of course predicated on transparent, accountable, and participatory governance.

Pooled investments in foundational capabilities for coherent and strong local digital ecosystems are also necessary, to fully unlock the potential.

Kenya is a frontrunner in digital transformation in Africa. Its digital economy contributes a remarkable 7.7percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), surpassing other nations such as Morocco and South Africa.

Accenture’s Africa GDP Forecast predicts that by 2025, the digital sector in Kenya will add Sh1.4 trillion or 9.24 percent to the country’s GDP.  

Kenya is also a part of the ambitious African Union’s ‘One African Market’ which aims to lift 30 million people out of poverty. This vision requires open, interoperable, and secure digital public infrastructure, to facilitate cross-border trade among countries.

However, despite these strides, Kenya, like many African nations, faces the challenge of an expanding digital divide, due to fragmented digital systems and financing.

Africa’s digital public infrastructure can play a pivotal role in bridging the divide, not only in Kenya but across the entire continent.

Investments in digital public infrastructure have the power to catalyse Africa’s economic growth. With a GDP of $3.1 trillion and digital contributions of approximately $200 billion, Africa can become the heart of the global digital economy.

The digital economy has the potential to diversify African economies and create exponential societal outcomes within and across various sectors, to accelerate sustainable development.

Furthermore, Africa’s digital public infrastructure can be a catalyst for social empowerment. As the highways and roads to people, DPI can power multi-modal access, including in limited connectivity, or mobile phone ownership.

It can also catalyse innovation at scale, to solve the challenges of diverse populations that speak multiple languages and have varying levels of digital literacy - thus reducing the impact of an aspect of the digital divide.

Digital transformation

From left: Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Kenya Sebastian Groth, Ambassador of the European Union to Kenya Henriette Geiger, Ministry of Information, Communication and the Digital Economy CS Eliud Owalo, Department for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid Kairi Saar-Isop, Principal Secretary State Department for Information Communications Technology John Tanui launch the Kenya Team Europe Initiative Digital Transformation Centre at Villa Rosa Kempinski, Nairobi on May 19, 2023. 

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

For example, when identity verification becomes a legal requirement in sectors such as education for small businesses, DPI can eliminate the need to build identity systems from scratch by leveraging this digital public rail. 

DPI can also empower civil society organisations to amplify their impact, advocate for social change, and cohere local digital ecosystems to collaborate and make services more inclusive, integrated, and easy to navigate for people to address pressing challenges in areas such as healthcare, education, and environmental sustainability.

However, to fully harness the potential of the digital public infrastructure and accelerate inclusive digital transformation, we must address such challenges as limited digital and data skills in the public and private sectors, lower efficiency of public services, and limited utilization of data to tackle development challenges.

Kenya, with its National Digital Masterplan 2022-2032, which entails robust connectivity, successful mobile money service, affordable digital devices, and an enabling legal and regulatory environment, as well as a wide range of electronic services to the public, has taken significant strides towards an inclusive digital transformation.

Nevertheless, the implementation of the Masterplan faces significant challenges, as highlighted by Kenya’s Digital Readiness Study.

An integrated strategic approach to inclusive digital transformation, with a focus on Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI), can provide the solution.

In this regard, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has been collaborating with the Government of Kenya, the Federal Republic of Germany, and other development partners to scale up interventions in digital skilling, as well as data governance.

As the UN reviews progress on the SDGs with member states this week, UNDP’s report highlights the potential impact of DPI on access to justice, finance, and climate change.  

To fully unlock the potential of Africa’s digital public infrastructure, collaboration among various stakeholders is paramount.

Governments, development partners,  private sector entities, and civil society organizations must work together to create an enabling environment that promotes investment, supports research and development, and nurtures local talent.

Collaboration at regional and continental levels can further enhance knowledge sharing, resource pooling, and the development of scalable solutions to address common challenges.

Lastly, Africa’s global leadership is critical to shaping the trajectory of global digital cooperation on digital public infrastructure. 

Africa’s digital public infrastructure holds the key to a brighter future for the continent. The implementation of DPI requires the right capabilities, robust governance frameworks, and cross-sector collaboration.

It necessitates establishing a whole-of-government approach and developing technical and governance capabilities for the right technology architecture.

By prioritising these factors, African nations can unleash the full potential of their digital public infrastructure and pave the way for a prosperous and inclusive future. The time to act is now.