Lacina Koné, director general of the Smart Africa secretariat, is working to develop the continent's digital infrastructure.
CNN Business  — 

The pandemic has boosted the digital economy across the world, and Africa is no exception.

However, limited internet access remains a major stumbling block in Africa’s digital transformation, as do inconsistent policies across the continent in areas such as payment systems and data roaming.

Looking to remedy that is Smart Africa, a partnership between 32 African countries, and groups including the World Bank and the African Union. Tasked with developing the continent’s digital infrastructure, the organization recently signed an agreement with Intel (INTC) to develop its member states’ digital skills and understanding of emerging technologies, such as cloud computing.

Eleni Giokos spoke with Lacina Koné, director general of the Smart Africa secretariat, about the continent’s digital future. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I want to talk about Smart Africa’s ambition to create a digitally connected Africa by 2030. How are you planning to achieve this goal?

Koné: We can achieve this by organizing ourselves. Every country who joins has a flagship project — Rwanda’s is a smart city, South Africa’s is artificial intelligence and blockchain, Burkina Faso’s is capacity building, Côte d’Ivoire is cybersecurity. We assist them, take it from a concept to a blueprint for pilot, then scale it up. When we get to the scaling-up stage, we share the best practice with the rest of the members. We’re learning from each other and growing together. And the central role that Smart Africa is playing is really coordination and our organization of laws, because what is very important is building a regulatory environment in Africa for emerging technology for investors to back.

Read: Now for the hard part, says Secretary General of African Continental Free Trade Area

We’ve seen incredible movements in the financial technology space — Africa dominates the use of mobile money transfers — but have we seen anything new that’s disruptive, that’s transforming lives dramatically?

Koné: We have seen it, but probably not big enough. Today, Africa has about seven tech unicorns [privately owned startups valued at over $1 billion]. When we talk about leapfrogging, this is about innovation-based entrepreneurship. We need a digital economy that is sustainable and that requires an adaptive regulatory environment. I keep on saying infrastructure is a regulatory environment. Digital governance is a regulatory matter.

I want to talk about some of the most amazing tech startups that have been bought out by Silicon Valley, like Stripe’s takeover of Nigeria’s Paystack for over $200 million. Do we want that to happen? Or do we want to keep them purely African?

Koné: Even if those companies are bought by Silicon Valley companies, they still remain African companies doing great in the US and wider world. I think this is actually a very good way of looking at things. Imagine our young generation, the young programmers and coders, seeing their friends developing companies being bought for a billion dollars. It actually encourages them and one way the government is helping them to actually organize themselves is through what we call Startup Acts: supportive legislation designed to stimulate entrepreneurship. That’s an opportunity for them to set up a company and sell it.

Fast cheap internet is still not a reality for many people. How do we bridge the gap?

Koné: True — today the connectivity is at 39.8%. Mobile network operators are there, but people are not using it because of affordability, cybersecurity, access to devices and content. So once we’re able to work on those, I think from now to 2025 we can see this jumping from 39% to 51%. So we are very optimistic. I believe we are doing really great at our own pace.

So let’s say you’ve achieved your goal of creating a single continent-wide digital market — describe what that would look like.

Koné: To think about where we are right now, just think about Dubai 20 years ago. That’s what Africa can be by 2030. That’s only nine years from now. It means you can do literally everything from your couch, not even moving, paying everything by mobile money for public or private services. The infrastructure will be abundant, so it’s quite possible.

I think I can say it is the digital “Wakanda” [a fictional African country that’s home to Marvel superhero Black Panther] — actually better. And of course close to 60% of Africa’s population is living in rural areas. This is something also being taken into consideration. That’s why Smart Africa has a broadband strategy 2025 to connect those rural areas.