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Africa’s solarized digitalization agenda

The seventh session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development convened on the theme of “Building forward better towards a resilient and green Africa to achieve the 2030 & 2063 Agenda” and promote the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

Ms. Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations said developing a just economic model that embraced renewable energy, green and resilient infrastructure, and digitalization, while protecting natural resources by broadening partnerships for science, technology, and innovation could unleash the region’s green potential and fuel economic transformation.

UNECA’s digital agenda

According to a paper titled “Harnessing Emerging Technologies: the cases of Artificial Intelligence and Nanotechnology,” provided by Victor Konde, Scientific Affairs Officer at the United Nations:

  • The global pandemic caused by the coronavirus has highlighted the importance of technology and innovation;
  • Digital technologies have transformed how people work, interact and access services;
  • There is significant interest in the role of emerging technologies in driving Africa’s transformation and in meeting the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and
  • The digital economy is unpinned by several key technologies, some of which include artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality, and augmented reality.

However, as UNCTAD noted, China and the United States currently own 75% of patents on blockchain, account for half of global spending on IoT and their firms account for three quarters of the global market of commercial cloud computing. As a result, China and the United States account for 90% of the 70 largest digital platforms, while Africa and Latin America account for a combined share of about 1%.

“During the past years, UNECA has undertaken rigorous policy research and has provided policy advice to member States on several emerging technologies, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology… With US Internet giants Google and Facebook spending billions trying to get more people online in Africa against a backlash from governments trying to shut down access,” wrote Konde.

“Africa could expand its economy by a staggering $1.5 trillion dollars, by capturing just 10% of the speedily growing artificial intelligence (AI) market, set to reach $15.7 trillion by 2030,” said Vera Songwe, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) during the Forum.

Digital currencies in Africa

Africa is the second largest continent in the world in terms of both territory and population (1.3 billion). Cryptocurrency there is in big demand because:

During 2020, monthly cryptocurrency transfers that are traded person-to-person on 747 million mobile phones to and from Africa under $10,000 (€8,500) shot up by 55%, reaching a peak of $316 million in June. They traded with a large margin that reached up to 70% due to the small number of virtual currency retailers. Individuals and small businesses in Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya accounted for most of this trading activity, according to Chainalysis.

China is the largest trading partner of many African countries. It has been investing ($46 billion in 2018, according to the UNCTAD) since the mid-2000’s into Africa’s technology, communications, and finance infrastructure, as well as blockchain technology education.

About 70% of the mobile network layers and more than 50% of the mobile handsets in Africa are made by Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. Already, Egypt, Kenya, Rwanda, and Eswatini are researching whether to adapt to Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC); South Africa, as part of Russia’s multinational digital currency initiative is also piloting CBDC on China’s mobile digital currency electronic payment (DCEP) system supported by China’s Blockchain Service Network.

Solar energy potential of Africa

Africa has a very high deficit in access to modern energy which is needed for digitalization, even though it has abundant energy resources, including solar energy, as it receives more hours of bright sunshine during the course of the year than any other continent on Earth.

The continent is determined to power its digital future with green energies, because it is one of the most vulnerable places to the impacts of global warming, even though it contributes minimally to CO2 emissions. Apart from Angola, Eritrea, Libya, and South Sudan, African countries have ratified the Paris Agreement with ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC).

According to forecasts by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), with the right policies, regulation, governance, and access to financial markets, sub-Saharan Africa could meet up to 67% of its energy needs from renewables by 2030 and provide access to energy to over 70% of Africans (590 million) who are without access currently pointed out Vera Songwe.

Egypt is leading regional efforts to transition to green/solar energy, with the continent experiencing a growth of over 1.8W of new solar installations, mainly driven by nine countries. In a first of its kind project, Egypt recently entered into joint venture with a Chinese company to locally manufacture sand-to-cell solar PV panels. And China has ramped up its overseas green investment to 57% under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) according to research from the International Institute of Green Finance.

Recently, UAE renewable energy company Masdar announced plans to develop solar power in East Africa, while the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund (EAIF) revealed $100 million investment in hydro and solar power in West Africa.

Conclusion

A sustainable green recovery plan from the pandemic necessitates understanding the links between climate change, health, and inequality; and implementing ambitious climate change policies, which align with the Paris agreement.

These goals provide a critical framework for a recovery from Covid-19, which imposed national lockdowns and international travel bans that accelerated the solarized digitization efforts across African markets. Like digitization, keeping Covid-19 vaccines refrigerated is a challenge where electricity is only available to 70% of the population.

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