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Breaking News: Agent networks can help accelerate digitisation of economies in Africa

Africa has experienced significant digital transformation over the past few years. Since the early 2000s, internet penetration in the region has grown tenfold, compared with a threefold increase in the rest of the world, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  The growth in internet access has seen an increasing number of Africans become tech-savvy.…
Breaking News: Agent networks can help accelerate digitisation of economies in Africa

Africa has experienced significant digital transformation over the past few years. Since the early 2000s, internet penetration in the region has grown tenfold, compared with a threefold increase in the rest of the world, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

The growth in internet access has seen an increasing number of Africans become tech-savvy. From youths learning computer programming languages, drones used to deliver medical supplies, to people increasingly embracing mobile money platforms; it’s hard to miss the impact of digital technology on the continent. 

At national levels, however, there’s a huge disparity in the degree of digitisation across Africa. The majority of countries on the continent have been slow in demonstrating digital progress. This is pronounced in the fact that Kenya has 89.8% internet access while penetration in Burundi remains at a meagre 5.3%. 

Even countries that are known to host “tech startup hubs” and have relatively high internet penetration rates, like Nigeria (at 50%) and South Africa (64%), are struggling to fully digitise their economies, with the majority of services still offered manually.

When it comes to digitising an economy, African countries can take lessons from Rwanda.

The Rwandan government has overseen rapid digital transformation over the past 20 years. Today, almost every service across sectors in the East African nation is accessed electronically, including public services such as visa applications and tax payments.

At the centre of Rwanda’s digitisation success is Irembo Gov, an electronic service portal launched by the government in 2015 to help its people submit applications and make payments for various services. 

In addition to shortening the gap between the citizens and the administration, Irembo Gov’s platform helps to reduce corruption practices in public services departments.

Thousands of Rwandans can also access public services online through Irembo agents across the country. And the 4,000-strong agent network was important in getting people to familiarise themselves with the online public services from the outset, according to Faith Keza, the CEO of Irembo.

“When you think about where Rwanda was back in 2015 when the ambitious project started, internet penetration was really low, about 8% and digital literacy at 9%. So to say we wanted to have all our services online and people access them through that medium was too ambitious,” Keza said during a recent TechCabal Live event on how African countries can fully digitise their economies.

Sharing lessons from Rwanda, the CEO revealed that the first thing that was done in the early years and months of Irembo in the country was to build a nationwide agent network. This comprised people that could help citizens just learn what the platform can offer and then demystify how to use it.

“This network helped us bridge the digital divide. You need the government to be much closer to the people. You need people at the local centres who know how to use this platform and help,” she said.

While cautioning that comparing countries sometimes is like comparing apples to oranges, Keza thinks the agent network system that has been “super effective” in Rwanda is a strategy other African governments can emulate when rolling out digital initiatives.

As of 2017, over 80% of transactions on Irembo went through agents but that number is currently below 50% today, which means more people are accessing the platform and carrying out transactions independently.

“That’s part of re-engineering things so that they’re much easier for the people and they require less attachment or dependence on cybercafes,” Keza said. “So I think this is how governments can go digital, by creating hybrid processes that are 100% digital and an assistance network of people around it.”

According to Oswald Guobadia, the second panelist at the event, giving the citizens digital identities and having the right structures within the civil service and government parastatal is as well crucial to digitising an economy. 

Guobadia is the co-founder, Executive Vice President, and Chief Operating Officer of DBH Solutions, a building infrastructure and top-tier technology solutions provider in West Africa. He is also a business strategy and technology consultant with over 20 years of experience and a non-executive director of Renaissance Capital in Nigeria, a leading emerging and frontier markets investment bank with access to over 50 markets globally.

“The foundation of a digital economy is a digital citizenry. What’s the digital identity of a Nigerian, is it the NIN, BVN? That’s a critical place to start,” said Guobadia. “And for public services, it matters to look at how the civil service is set up, how agencies operate, to be able to make these changes in how the services are provided.”

There also has to be cross-institutional collaboration among government agencies to avoid duplication of efforts. This means institutions have to share data and align their roadmap.

“Hours that we’ve saved citizens is a metric that’s important to us. Beyond just putting the form online and manually getting people to use them, how do we make it so much better than it was while it was manual? How do we truly save the government and citizens’ time?” Keza said. “So we’re not putting out forms and asking them things that we already know or they’ve filled in different forms.” 

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Irembo is a significant example of the substantial public investment in digital infrastructure and service delivery in Rwanda. But beyond creating and rolling out the platform, other factors such as developing an innovation-friendly environment, policies and institutions, and public trust in government have been crucial to its success in helping to digitise the economy. 

“At the foundation, you have a government that has a clear vision of the role of technology in its future. It was very clear to the government 27 years ago and they made early investments that enable companies like Irembo to thrive today,” she said. “Then as far back as 10 or 15 years ago, we had different ICT strategies and national plans aimed at creating an enabling environment, building infrastructure, and then setting up services on top of that infrastructure, which is where Irembo’s contract came from.”

Moreover, getting people to embrace digitisation in Rwanda was not down to policy or policing but public trust in government.

“I think citizens here have a deep trust in the government and that makes a lot of social and digital transformation programmes work. People trust that if the government says something should be done in a certain way, then it’s probably the best way to do it,” Keza said.

“You can see this in the recent organisation around curbing Covid-19 spread. Even the most random person on the street wears a mask and there’s nothing like policing. People do what the government asks them to do generally. Irembo falls under that kind of construct as well and that helps us to move fast.”

Guobadia added that “digitisation is critical because it’s ultimately the future.” According to him, African countries need to sit together on how to solve some of the problems hindering digital progress on a continental level. “There has to be some sort of a shared vision. Without this, the region is going to be left out of the rapid digitisation happening across the world.”

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