Trends 2021

Africa 2021: Improved infrastructure needed for post-pandemic recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot in the world. The forecast of the future cannot be left untainted by it.

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Trends 2021

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The year 2020 can be underlined as the year of the pandemic. An interruption of the usual way of life caused by the serious effects of lockdowns and cessation of movement bore a new speed in technology adoption. Africa was not left behind. The increase in use of technology has not only affected the private sector but also the public sector.

If anything, the pandemic has given various technology solutions the prime time they needed to grow even further. From e-learning, e-business and to e-payments, no very facet of the economy has been left untouched.

It is then fair to say that the pandemic has reshaped how people will interact with technology. Here are some of African technology predictions for the next year.

Acceleration of formal eLearning platforms

The closure of schools during the pandemic affected learners in Africa as anywhere else in the world. Developed economies that had put in place digital learning tools had an easier time switching from in-person learning to virtual classrooms. African learners in rural areas and underprivileged backgrounds suffered the most.

This disparity has reignited the discussion on how digital tools can improve education in Africa and extend it universally. A survey led by eLearning Africa and EdTech Hub found out that educators across Africa are optimistic that digital education through e-learning platforms, fuelled by the COVID-19 pandemic, is the future for Africa. However, inequalities need to be addressed.

The survey also pointed, however, to "considerable nervousness about the development of a digital divide and a rise in inequalities among learners because of uneven access to technology. Respondents felt that learners in rural communities were most likely to be disadvantaged as a result of a lack of access to technology. They also felt that connectivity was the biggest obstacle preventing the development of more technology-assisted learning - specifically, a lack of available and affordable connectivity," it stated.

The recent acquisition of Kenyan education platform, eLimu is already pointing the way for the African education system. The company was acquired by Co-creation Hub (CcHUB) and will see its reach stretch across Africa.

Formal learning institutions will lead in the adoption of e-learning platform, moving into the mainstream education sector other than being an auxiliary service.

Digital payments to grow

One of 2020's biggest news stories out of the tech community in Africa was the acquisition of Nigeria's Paystack by global payment company Stripe for an approximate amount of US$200 million. According to Stripe, this acquisition will help the company expand its payment services in Africa.

It is not a coincidence that the buyout happened in the middle of a pandemic as digital payments became preferred. Most countries, urged by the World Health Organization, have dropped the use of hard cash and embraced digital payments.

According to a report by the World Economic Forum, most companies have waived their transaction fees to attract more use of mobile money in various African countries. The report has stated that the pandemic could see mass adoption of cashless payments across the continent going forward.

Another report Monetary and Capital Markets by International Monetary Fund (IMF) demonstrated the growth of mobile money during the COVID-19 pandemic: "The IMF's Financial Access Survey (FAS), which receives data on financial access and use from 189 jurisdictions, shows that the use of mobile money has grown significantly in many low- and middle-income economies. In some cases, it has even surpassed traditional banking services, particularly in low- and middle-income economies where banking penetration is limited."

Digital payments have also buoyed the e-commerce sector as social distancing rules discouraged physical shopping. This new trend towards e-commerce could linger on past the pandemic according to McKinsey & Company.

"It is likely, for example, that the increase in online shopping will persist after the crisis, especially for retailers that make significant investments to retool their business model, and if banks and payment operators continue to build omnichannel payment solutions while building infrastructure and ecosystems to operate actively in the new paradigm," its report, How the COVID19 crisis may affect electronic payments in Africa, said.

Need for broadband

The underlying supporting infrastructure for business and people to survive during a pandemic is the internet. The growth in demand for the internet has skyrocketed in the pandemic months and this is no different in Africa.

In Kenya, two telecom companies, Safaricom and Telkom Kenya reported having seen a surge in internet use as the lockdowns in Kenya began. The opportune launch of Google's Loon project in Kenya underlined the importance of connectivity during this time where people were forced to embraced digital means of doing business.

The World Bank earlier on warned countries with low connectivity rates that they could be hard hit as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on.

"Countries that do not have the infrastructure for widespread broadband are bracing for the worst. Think about Sub-Saharan Africa, where 60 per cent of the population remains out of reach of 4G networks, or countries like Indonesia, where 2G is still the norm.  As the crisis wears on, and pandemics of this kind become more common, some countries will be left behind," it said in a statement.

The growth of broadband, mobile and fixed, will be a continuing trend for all regions in Africa as its importance has been underlined in ensuring business continuity and education relays to students.

Flexi work boosted by Digital Tools

Technology tools that enable businesses to continue operating during the pandemic will be a coveted prize after COVID-19 has long gone. This is because business leaders have witnessed the devastation of enterprises that were not digitally ready.

Conferencing tools such as Zoom and messaging apps such as Slack will underline the importance of embracing digital tools even as the workforce of the future will be more flexible than before the pandemic.

According to William Sykes the co-founder of Kofisi Africa, a flexible office provider, even though the working traditions might embrace work from home concept, it might not work in Africa due to the lack of workspaces in most homes. Kofisi provides flexible offices for corporates and individuals in Nigeria and Kenya.

"Businesses will also seek to cut their rent costs by embracing flexible work offices or co-working space," he said. The company is already eyeing to take up space in multiple African countries and be ready for the new normal.

Sykes said that flexible offices such as his can provide strong broadband that would support most of the digital tools and other amenities like boardrooms that people working from home might not get.

The world will be different once the COVID-19 pandemic is arrested. The change can already be witnessed in many sectors across the globe. Even as businesses have been shattered and economies dented, the silver lining in the current pandemic is that new-age technology is up to the task of lifting some of the burdens and ensuring the smooth running of businesses and even economies.

It is a wake-up call for developing regions to take up the roll-out of digital infrastructure with a clear zest.