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FEATURE STORYOctober 5, 2022

Accelerating Digital Transformation in Western and Central Africa

Ousmane Diagana New

Ousmane Diagana, Regional Vice President for Western and Central Africa for the World Bank Group

A Q&A with Ousmane Diagana, Regional Vice President for Western and Central Africa for the World Bank Group

Ousmane Diagana, a Mauritanian national, is the Regional Vice President for Western and Central Africa where he heads relations with 22 countries in Africa and oversees a broad portfolio of projects, technical assistance operations, and financial resources worth more than US$40 billion. Previously, Mr. Diagana was the Vice President of the World Bank Group Human Resources and Vice President for Ethics and Business Conduct (EBC) and Chief Ethics Officer of the World Bank Group. He has extensive country experience, previously serving as World Bank Country Director for Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea, and Togo, and prior to that he held the position of Country Director for Mali, Niger, Chad, and Guinea. Between 2006 and 2009, Mr. Diagana was Country Manager in Niger and from 2004 to 2006, he was Program Leader in Morocco. In addition to English, he speaks Arabic, French, and Wolof.

Why is digitalization a priority for development in Western and Central Africa?

Digitalization is one of the most transformational opportunities of our times. It is reshaping the global economy, driving financial inclusion, closing information gaps, and changing the way we work, live, and learn. As such, digitalization will be key for poverty alleviation and boosting shared prosperity in West and Central Africa.

A recent report by IFC and Google estimates that Africa's internet economy could add up to nearly $180 billion to its economy, accounting for 5.2% of the continent's gross domestic product by 2025. Using data from Nigeria, the largest mobile market on the continent, a 2020 World Bank and GSMA study demonstrated that extreme poverty declined by about 4% after one year of mobile broadband coverage, and about 7% after two or more years of coverage. With an estimated 230 million jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa requiring digital skills by 2030, increasing digital literacy will be essential to help citizens seize the jobs of the future.

Despite the challenges to access and affordability, digitalization in West and Central Africa is a huge opportunity and the region is showing tremendous potential. For example, in Guinea-Bissau – where we recently completed a Digital Economy Country Assessment – digitalization holds opportunity to help the country address fragility, boost financial inclusion, and develop job opportunities beyond the cashew nut trade. In Cameroon, public services are going online, entrepreneurs are building startups, and development partners and the private sector are increasingly financing the digitalization of services.

During the World Bank’s 2022 Spring Meetings, we heard from African leaders that there is a shared sense of urgency around this agenda. We will need to help countries deepen reforms and attract the necessary investments for increased digitalization of services, which will be an essential condition for creating good jobs and fostering strong, green, and resilient growth.

As Western and Central African countries work to recover from the pandemic, what are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities they’re facing in digitizing?

While the COVID-19 pandemic caused untold hardship, it did one important thing: it proved that digital solutions are an opportunity to radically change the way development services are delivered. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, countries that could leverage digital assets – broadband connectivity and digital public infrastructure – were able to reach more beneficiaries and deliver social assistance in a faster, more targeted, and more transparent manner.

There is now a unique momentum and urgency to accelerate digitalization, narrow the digital divide, and develop the digital public infrastructure that can support emergency response. Countries without this digital infrastructure are now keen on developing them to be better prepared and able to respond more quickly to provide social protection, food security, and economic stimulus when disaster strikes.

However, many countries in the region face challenges of low network coverage and quality, high operating costs, barriers to market entry, lack of competition, and high operating and investment risks. Deep divides in digital connectivity, internet use, and access remain. Sub-Saharan Africa 3G and 4G mobile broadband coverage stands at 86% and 57% of the population, respectively. In Western and Central Africa, only 36% of the population has access to broadband connectivity. The gap between access and use is growing, with 56% of people in Western and Central Africa living within range of broadband but not using it. And of course, there’s the issue of equity with connectivity gaps disproportionately impacting communities in rural and fragile settings, women, and other marginalized groups.

As I wrote in an op-ed last year, COVID-19 presented a unique opportunity to reverse inequality and promote strong economic growth. Accelerating Africa’s digital transformation can be a part of this reality. This will require greater leadership and collaboration from Governments, the Private Sector, and Civil Society to accelerate the digital transformation of Africa, and the World Bank stands ready to help.

What are some next steps in building digitization both in Western and Central Africa and on the whole continent? 

We are supporting countries on a number of fronts from providing technical advice to supporting investments in digital infrastructure, skills, platforms, and regulations to increase the share of the population with broadband connectivity to 43% by 2024.

Through our DE4A initiative, the World Bank is committed to supporting sub-Saharan Africa double its 3G broadband penetration from 12% in 2016 to 24% in 2022, and we are excited that the region has moved past this target to effectively reach 34%. In the past two years, we have prepared 21 projects in direct support to digitalization with a total amount of $2.47 billion in 16 Western and Central African countries.

We are working to mainstream digital across all our efforts. With technology as cross cutting theme in our most recent IDA20 replenishment, we have a unique opportunity to put digitalization at the core of everything we do. In July, heads of states of 24 African countries released the Dakar Call to Action which reaffirmed the need to intensify efforts to accelerate the development of the digital economy and aim for universal access to broadband by 2030.

In that call to action, leaders firmly committed to using IDA20 resources to achieve these goals. Under IDA20, we have identified three key areas of work to accelerate digitalization:  

  1. Closing the digital connectivity gap. Affordable mobile broadband (3G/4G) is particularly important to drive connectivity forward, though fiber optic connections are growing rapidly in main economic centers. Extending broadband to areas with no coverage presents a substantial economic challenge.
  2. Investing in safe and open digital public infrastructure. Digital public infrastructure (DPI) comprise platforms hosted in data centers and clouds for digital identification, payments, data sharing, representing key elements for digital transactions including authentication of individuals and payments, and the flow of money and data. Only when such platforms are able to integrate and work together seamlessly and safely, can more sophisticated products and services be unlocked.
  3. Helping countries access and use digital services. Investments to improve connectivity and internet access along with DPIs offers leapfrogging opportunities to increase productivity and promises new solutions to long-standing problems.

There is much work to be done. Together with governments and the private sector we can leverage resources, harmonize policies, and help countries scale up inclusive digital transformation in the region. The good news is that many African countries are well on their way to building a vibrant, safe, and inclusive digital economy. Going forward, regional economic commissions can play a key role in accelerating digitalization and groups in Africa are stepping up efforts to promote digital markets that encourage regional cooperation across member states.  The potential of an integrated digital market in West Africa and at the continental scale is even greater.

We hope to continue this discussion in the weeks and months ahead. To draw attention to this topic, at the 2022 Annual Meetings, together with the Digital Development team, we will be hosting a high-level seminar with policymakers and practitioners, “Accelerating digital transformation: Realizing the Dakar Call to Action in Western and Central Africa.” With that event, we hope to identify solutions and concrete actions countries can take now to truly catalyze Africa’s digital development. This will be a key opportunity to rally around this cause, and I hope you’ll join us for this discussion.


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