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FEATURE STORYApril 4, 2023

A Q&A with Victoria Kwakwa, the World Bank’s Vice President for Eastern and Southern Africa

Victoria Kwaka Vice President Eastern and Southern Africa

Victoria Kwakwa, Regional Vice President for Eastern and Southern Africa for the World Bank Group

A Q&A with Victoria Kwakwa, the World Bank’s Vice President for Eastern and Southern Africa

Victoria Kwakwa, a Ghanaian national, is the Regional Vice President for Eastern and Southern Africa. An economist and development expert with over 30 years of experience, Dr. Kwakwa leads the Bank’s engagement with 26 countries. She oversees an active portfolio of 313 operations totaling $58 billion and an extensive program of cutting-edge analytic work, technical assistance, and policy advice. At the core of Ms. Kwakwa’s vision is a stable, integrated and resilient region with dynamic economies and prosperous societies in which all citizens, notably women, children and youth enjoy equality of opportunity. 

Why is digitalization a priority for development in Eastern and Southern Africa?       

The digital revolution is a historic opportunity for Africa to leapfrog into the $11.5 trillion global digital economy. It provides opportunities for new digital jobs and greater productivity, but also for increased inclusion and poverty reduction, along with better access to services and transparency of government services. We know that increased 3G coverage is linked to a 4-10 percent reduction in extreme poverty. And yet in Eastern and Southern Africa, about two thirds of the continent, 500 million people, are still not connected to the internet.  We also know that increased adoption of internet leads to income growth and labor productivity. And yet again, of those people that are under coverage, 55 percent of them are not yet using it, for reasons of affordability, lack of skills, or availability of relevant services. In Zimbabwe, Madagascar, or Mozambique, for example, basic data plans still cost more than 10 percent of average monthly income, which is far more than people can afford. Looking ahead, it is estimated that 230 million jobs in Sub Saharan Africa will require digital skills. The World Bank is working closely with political leaders, service providers, development partners, and communities across Eastern and Southern Africa to deliver an accelerated pace of digital transformation that is adapted to the specific challenges in the region.

Digital technologies can be a powerful tool for inclusion and to provide people with access to services. How can our clients best take advantage of this opportunity?

Making sure that everyone can access the internet and use digital technologies productivity is a top priority. The World Bank, together with the African Union, supports the objective of reaching universal access to broadband by digitally enabling every individual, business, and government by 2030. African countries need to work on both the supply and demand side to build the foundations for digital development and raise the required investments now, in partnership with the private sector. Strong policies and laws will encourage investment and make internet access and data services cheaper, faster, greener, and more widely available, a conducive enabling environment will help protect information, privacy and data safety, and skills training will support meaningful use.

Another priority is digital public infrastructure (or DPI). DPI is a new paradigm that recognizes foundational platforms for digital identity, digital payments, and data sharing as being just as important for inclusive economic development and resilience today as physical infrastructure like roads and ports have been in prior centuries. Attention towards DPI is increasing dramatically because the countries that had it in place were better able to keep business going and to deliver cash transfers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, research by our G2Px initiative has found that countries that could use elements of DPI linked with their social registries were able to make payments to three times more people than countries that did not have these assets in place. However, this cannot be achieved until everyone has proof of their identity. We estimate 260 million people in Eastern and Southern Africa lack an official ID, 180 million of whom are children who have not had their birth registered. Accelerating digital ID therefore becomes another powerful tool to enable improved and inclusive service delivery.

As Africa’s population grows, creating more and better jobs will be essential to reduce poverty and boost prosperity. What role can digital technologies play when it comes to jobs and skills?

By the end of this century, Africans are expected to make up the largest share of the global workforce. Digital technologies can tap into that potential--we know that access to the internet helps create jobs and reduce poverty. By growing the supply and demand of localized digital content, Africa’s young innovators can build digital economies that will drive growth and innovation. It also needs to be easier for people to build and register businesses, to communicate online with partners and clients, and to produce and share relevant digital content.

The recently published report on Digital Africa: Technological Transformation for Jobs highlights evidence of the direct impact of mobile internet availability on jobs and welfare. In Tanzania, people of working age with internet access saw increases of eight percentage points in labor force participation and four in wage employment after three or more years of exposure. And the proportion of households falling below the national basic need poverty line dropped by seven percentage points. But if the region fails to bridge the digital divide, or to harness innovation opportunities for its youth, its economies risk isolation and stagnation.

At the regional level, the creation of a Single Digital Market could support economic growth and sustainable development goals at scale. How do you see digital development and regional integration evolving in the coming years, and what role will the World Bank play in shaping this future?

Continent-wide, digital transformation requires a commitment to cross-border integration. This is critical and will allow African digital firms to compete regionally and globally. It will also help leaders make a strong case for international and local investment in digital infrastructure like broadband internet, online payment systems and digital data infrastructure.

A Single Digital Market is based on the intersection of connectivity, data, and online services which can be achieved through several means. To start with, by expanding connectivity across borders and to terrestrial landlocked areas and to reach rural, remote, and vulnerable populations, notably in borderlands that are often left behind. In addition, through harmonization of policies, and enhanced cooperation to further cross-border data exchange with investments in data infrastructure, expanding digital trade across countries, for example through looking at cross-border payment mechanisms, allowing the continent to establish a more regionally and digital-enabled integrated connectivity and services market. Accelerating regional digital integration efforts will allow countries to reap the benefits of a larger and enhanced market, diversify economies, and increase resilience against global and regional shocks and crises.

An example of this is a new regional World Bank project in the Horn of Africa (HoA) and its east Africa neighbors. This is a region characterized by on one hand small national markets with, the lowest broadband penetration rates, the highest prices of data, and a wide disparity between the late digital adopters (such as Somalia and South Sudan); and on the other hand large markets such as Ethiopia and regional digital leaders such as Kenya or Rwanda. Investments in cross-border connectivity can allow land-locked countries such as South Sudan and Ethiopia to access surplus connectivity capacity from neighbors at the coast and to serve refugee populations in borderland areas. The late adopters in this region stand to gain from regional integration efforts through increased cross-border data storage and exchange along with harmonized policies that create economies of scale, network effects, and spillovers. More advanced economies can access larger markets for their services through increased integration, boosting digital trade and ultimately growth and job creation in the whole region. We plan to adopt similar approaches in Southern and Central Africa.

How does the World Bank work with clients, other international organizations, the private sector, and civil society to support digital transformation in Africa?

The time for action is now. As we reflect on the strategic importance of digital for the region, we need to come together to make a strong case for international and local investment in improving access to broadband internet, digital data infrastructure and applications and skills. The World Bank can work with countries, the private sector, and other partners to chart the path ahead. Most of the investment for network and data infrastructure will continue to come from the private sector, but of the US$40 billion required to reach universal access to broadband in our region, US$10 billion will still be needed from the public sector to close the viability gap. Additional investments to support policy reforms that can attract private sector as well as skills and content development are crucial. We’re working with our partners to build these foundations for the future.


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