A few African countries recently saw the emergence of a vibrant digital economy driven by a new generation of entrepreneurs: Tech hubs are spreading in places like Lagos, Nairobi or Addis Ababa. International institutions, consultancies and tech firms agree: a digital transformation is on its way along with a unique opportunity for the continent to leapfrog arduous steps on the ladder to prosperity. While there is little doubt that digital technology will accelerate development, it alone will fail to provide the very basics for inclusive economic growth across Africa: formal and productive jobs for a working age population that is growing by 20 million a year to over 600 million in 2030.
Let‘s look at Mangos from Mali instead: by focusing on its comparative advantage – the labour intensive agricultural sector –, the land- locked country multiplied its exports of the tropical fruit to the European Union by 600 percent within a decade, allowing millions of farmers to increase their incomes. Or at Ethiopia that targets the light industry sectors – particularly leather, textile and agriculture – that require a large workforce with low qualification and are generating hundreds of thousands of jobs.
While oldfashioned structural reforms do not seem as attractive as leapfrogging, history proves their success – in China or Indonesia for instance. Investing in digital technologies will be crucial for African countries to stay on track and will help leapfrogging in some sectors. For longterm sustainable economic development fundamental reforms towards building a solid industry will have to go along with it.