Dr. Joseph Atick, executive chairman of ID4Africa, speaks with the champions leading Africa’s digital transformation: Nigeria’s Hadiza Ali-Dagabana, Ivory Coast’s Diakalidia Konaté, Lesotho’s Tumelo Raboletsi, and Namibia’s Tulimeke Munyika.
When the pandemic shuttered schools, businesses, and social life around the world, forcing everyone and everything online, I recalled Winston Churchill’s maxim: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Digital transformation is my organization’s raison d’être. My colleagues and I at ID4Africa have been working to support Africa’s digital revolution for the past seven years.
We work alongside dozens of African nations on their journeys to develop robust and responsible digital identity ecosystems to support development and humanitarian action. We see the digital transformation of Africa as a critical game changer that will help governments operate more efficiently and effectively and remove significant barriers to inclusive economic growth across the continent.
So when COVID-19 spread around the world and forced all economic and social activity to retreat to online platforms, it would have seemed that our moment had arrived.
Instead, the pandemic presented us with an existential crisis.
Ironically, the digital movement for Africa has been a face-to-face affair.
Previously, our in-person Annual General Meeting was the key networking and organizing event for our continent-wide movement. More than 1,500 government officials, business leaders, and digital transformation evangelists from 49 African countries (and just as many countries outside Africa) gathered each year to network and share their growing experience and expertise regarding best practices, business models, and solutions for the development of national biometric digital identity systems.
This approach reflected realities on the ground; face-to-face contact has traditionally been a prerequisite for trust on the continent, and few of Africa’s digital champions (despite the focus of their work) are digital natives. Online knowledge exchange is rarely a first reflex in geographies that still struggle with connectivity issues and a steady supply of electricity.
But the pandemic left us with few options. With our physical meetings put on hold, we shifted to a new online format with the hopes that our community and infrastructure were ready. We produced long format, highly interactive, community-based webinars, which proved to be more accessible and timely, and remarkably effective at encouraging inclusive and intense dialogue. After 18 LiveCasts, each of which was two-and-a-half-hours long and many of which have been viewed more than 1,000 times, we realized that we had built a powerful digital community. COVID-19 pushed us. And we thrived.
The lesson here isn’t that Africa’s leaders managed connectivity issues and embraced our Zoom platform or watched our YouTube channel. Rather, the lesson is that development isn’t an incremental process. It is the result of disruptions.
The biggest disruption in our lifetimes, COVID-19, caught the African continent in the midst of a digital revolution. The African countries that have already established digital identification systems for their citizens have been able to respond to the pandemic more nimbly. Those slower to start their journey toward digital transformation saw, in real time, the value of digital identity systems demonstrated by their neighbors, and committed to expediting their work.
I asked four champions of Africa’s digital transformation to share the impact from their work on financial inclusion, the delivery of government services, and anti-corruption efforts.