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Three Paths to Accelerating Digital Access in West and Central Africa

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Just before the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck, just over half of the world’s population approximately (51%) had access to the internet compared with just 30% in Western and Central Africa. With the strict lockdown implemented during the pandemic, many services were only available to people across the region through the internet. 

Ever since, the need for universal, affordable, and safe high-speed connectivity has increased exponentially. West African countries will not be left behind and will need to deepen reforms and attract the necessary investments for increased digitalization of services, an essential condition for strong, resilient, green economic growth and quality job creation. 

The stakes are therefore high and the region is showing tremendous potential and opportunities. Although the challenges are not to be underestimated, this potential allows us to hope that West and Central Africa will accelerate the digitalization of its economy. What will it take? Three important steps: 

Four Challenges 

First, we must tackle the digital divide to provide access, usage, and affordability of the internet. Many West and central African countries have been facing four main challenges: low network coverage and quality, high operating costs, barriers to market entry, lack of competition, and high operating and investment risks. 

Providing financial services via mobile phones can be difficult when only 40% of West Africans own a cell phone. This underlines the existing disparity between “the haves” and the “have-nots” when it comes to access and affordability of devices, the internet, and digital tools. This disparity also disproportionately affects rural populations, women, and vulnerable groups in the region. And there are significant differences across Africa. 

While people in the Central African Republic pay more than 20% of their average earnings for 1GB of mobile broadband data, Egyptians only pay 0.5%.

In Senegal, only 26% of small firms use smartphones, compared with 65% in Brazil. During a pandemic, access to a smartphone not only connects people via messaging, but it can be a useful tool for businesses and economies. 

Government Regulation

According to a World Bank/UN Broadband Commission report, it is estimated that the cost of closing this digital divide by 2030 in Africa alone will be US $100 billion. 

This is why we must increase investments and attract the needed operators and strategic partners by mobilizing private capital, addressing capital risks, and building strategic alliances between governments and private operators. 

We must also support the design and implementation of policies and regulations that de-risk and promote private investment in digital infrastructure. These two levers will help address the issues of affordability and make connectivity productive. 

As digital infrastructure improves, there is a need for both the public and private sectors to promote and incentivize internet uptake by developing systems and applications that allow people to do meaningful transactions online, such as applying for government services, opening bank accounts, and applying for credit.

Unlocking New Opportunities with Digitalization 

Second, we must build ‘digital stacks’. Our research estimates that half a billion people in Africa lack an official ID, making it difficult for them to access key services and thus being denied the opportunities being created by digitalization. 

Identification systems in some countries in West Africa are not yet inclusive and trusted. Current manual, paper-based approaches for identifying their population makes it hard for governments and the private sector to improve how their services are delivered and to reduce fraud and waste.

Digital IDs aligned with the ten Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development offer a solution to this, providing the opportunity to expand and transform delivery of healthcare, education, financial, and other key services, especially for rural populations, women, and the most vulnerable groups.

The good news is that many African countries are well on their way to developing these processes, and many are doing so with technical and financial support from the World Bank and our Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative.

Reliable Data

Digital IDs are one of three components of “digital stacks,” along with digital payments and trusted data platforms. A digital stack allows people and businesses to prove and verify their identity securely, make and receive payments fast and easily, and share and verify personal data, such as credit histories and academic qualifications. 

Together, these functions unlock significant social and economic benefits and accelerate the transition to digital economies, societies and governments.

To succeed in the digital transformation agenda, we must work together to empower Africans with greater agency over their personal data and help governments ensure that cash transfers programs and services reach the right beneficiaries, reduce fraud and fiscal leakages. 

This needs “whole-of-country” strategies, with strong leadership and coordination at the policy-level. It also needs the definition and implementation of common standards to ensure interoperability at the technical level, a strong data protection, and cybersecurity frameworks.

Finally, we must think boldly with regional and continental approaches. While continuing to drive digitalization efforts at the national level, West African countries must look beyond their own borders. I believe that success in the digital economy requires economies of scale and network effects far beyond what any individual country can muster on its own. 

Time for a Single Digital Market in Africa. 

Our research in East Africa shows that a more deeply integrated and competitive digital market among the six East African Community (EAC) countries alone would generate up to a US$2.6 billion boost in GDP and 4.5 million new jobs in the subregion.  The potential of an integrated digital market in West Africa and at the continental scale is even greater. 

To make this vision a reality, we need to support countries in modernizing and harmonizing telecoms and data policies and regulations to promote regional scale investments in broadband and cloud infrastructure and widespread access to relevant digital content and services – including in lagging areas. It will also require streamlining and harmonizing business registration and digital taxation policies, and enabling fast, low-cost, and reliable cross border digital to unlock digital trade and e-Commerce.

But none of this can happen overnight. A digital transformation in Africa will require greater leadership and collaboration from Governments, the Private Sector and Civil Society. We are working closely with sub-regional, continental and international partners, such as the African Union Commission (AUC), the Regional Economic Communities, and Smart Africa. 

The COVID-19 pandemic shows a unique opportunity to reverse inequality and promote strong economic growth.  Accelerating Africa’s digital transformation can be a part of this reality. It will require closing the digital divide, building digital stacks, and achieving a Single Digital Market. We need to act now.    

World Bank

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Africa

Money seized from Equatorial Guinea VP Goes into Vaccine

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As a classic precedence, the Justice Department of the United States has decided that $26.6m (£20m) seized from Equatorial Guinea’s Vice-President Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue be used on purchasing COVID-19 vaccines and other essential medical programmes in Equitorial Guinea, located on the west coast of central Africa.

“Wherever possible, kleptocrats will not be allowed to retain the benefits of corruption,” an official said in a statement, and reported by British Broadcasting Corporation.

Obiang was forced to sell a mansion in Malibu, California, a Ferrari and various Michael Jackson memorabilia as part of a settlement he reached with the US authorities in 2014 after being accused of corruption and money-laundering. He denied the charges.

The agreement stated that $10.3m of the money from the sale would be forfeited to the US and the rest would be distributed to a charity or other organisation for the benefit of the people of Equatorial Guinea, the Justice Department said.

The UN is to receive $19.25m to purchase and administer COVID-19 vaccines to at least 600,000 people in Equatorial Guinea, while a US-based charity is to get $6.35m for other medical programmes in Equatorial Guinea.

Teodorin Nguema has been working in position as Vice-President since 2012, before that he held numerous government positions, including Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. Known for his unquestionable lavish lifestyle, he has been the subject of a number of international criminal charges and sanctions for alleged embezzlement and corruption. He has a fleet of branded cars and a number of houses, and two houses alone in South Africa,

Teodorin Nguema has often drawn criticisms in the international media for lavish spending, while majority of the estimated 1.5 million population wallows in abject poverty. Subsistence farming predominates, with shabby infrastructure in the country. Equatorial Guinea consists of two parts, an insular and a mainland region. Equatorial Guinea is the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa.

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African Union’s Inaction on Ethiopia Deplorable – Open Letter

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The crisis in northern Ethiopia has resulted in millions of people in need of emergency assistance and protection. © UNICEF/Christine Nesbitt

A group of African intellectuals says in an open letter that it is appalled and dismayed by the steadily deteriorating situation in Ethiopia. The letter, signed by 58 people, says the African Union’s lack of effective engagement in the crisis is deplorable. The letter calls on regional bloc IGAD and the AU to “proactively take up their mandates with respect to providing mediation for the protagonists to this conflict”.

The letter also asks for “all possible political support” for the AU’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Olusegun Obasanjo, whose appointment was announced on August 26, 2021. A United Nations Security Council meeting on the same day welcomed the former Nigerian president’s appointment.

Earlier in August 2021, UN  chief Antonio Guterres appealed for a ceasefire, unrestricted aid access and an Ethiopian-led political dialogue. He told the council these steps were essential to preserve Ethiopia’s unity and the stability of the region and to ease the humanitarian crisis. He said that he had been in close contact with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and had received a letter from the leader of the Tigray region in response to his appeal. “The UN is ready to work together with the African Union and other key partners to support such a dialogue,” he said.

August 26, 2021 was only the second time during the conflict that the council held a public meeting to discuss the situation. Britain, Estonia, France, Ireland, Norway and the United States requested the session.

Fighting between the national government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front broke out in November 2020, leaving millions facing emergency or crisis levels of food insecurity, according to the United Nations. Both sides have been accused of atrocities.

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More African Countries Register Russia’s Sputnik Vaccine

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Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) is a specialized technical institution of the African Union (AU) that strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions as well as partnerships to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

During the outbreak of the coronavirus, the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), was established by African Union, as a component in support of the Africa Vaccine Strategy and was endorsed by the AU Bureau of Heads of State and Government on 20th of August 2020.

Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), has emphasized: “Africa has to team up with development partners to achieve its 60% continent-wide vaccination in the next two years. I think that is why we should as a collective of the continent, and of course, in partnership with the developed world make sure that Africa has a timely access to vaccines to meet our vaccination targets.”

An official media release in February 2021, the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team from the African Union (AU) informed that Russia would supply and deliver 300 million Sputnik V vaccines to Africa. That step was intended to support African countries to attain their targeted immunization of 60% of the population by the year-end. That vaccine story disappeared, but instead what become so common is the speedy registration of Sputnik V on bilateral basis in various African countries.

According to the latest, Nigeria has become the 68th country in the world to approve the Russian vaccine. The use of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine has been approved in Nigeria, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) said in an official statement.

“The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund) announces the approval of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against coronavirus by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control of Nigeria (NAFDAC). Nigeria has become the 68th country in the world to approve the Russian vaccine. Total population of all countries, where Sputnik V is approved for use, now exceeds 3.7 billion people, which is nearly half of the global population,” the statement said.

“Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, and the approval of Sputnik V will provide for using one of the safest and most effective vaccines in the world. Sputnik V is based on a proven human adenoviral vectors platform and is successfully used in over 50 countries. Approval in Nigeria will make an important contribution to the country’s fight against the pandemic,” CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) Kirill Dmitriev said.

Besides Nigeria, other African countries have registered Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. Reportedly, the vaccine has been registered in Algeria, Angola, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Tunisia, the Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe.

Russia’s drive to share Sputnik V vaccine, of course, offers a chance to raise its image and strengthen alliances in Africa. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation has made efforts promoting the vaccine using all its channels. But supply and delivery have largely lagged behind, the pledges have simply not been fulfilled. Russian authorities have oftentimes said that they would step up efforts for fruitful cooperation in combating coronavirus in Africa.

Promising more than can be delivered appears to be a universal problem with coronavirus vaccines, and it is a real risk for Russia as well, said Theresa Fallon, Director of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies. “They have won the gold medal for creating this very effective vaccine,” she said. “But the problem is how are they going to implement production and delivery?”

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), with profit motivation, has attempted supplying the Russian vaccines through, Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum, from the Monarch family and a third party in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to a number of African countries. For instance, the Republic of Ghana reportedly signed US$64.6 million contract for Sputnik V vaccine from Russia through Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum. It was double the price from the producer as reported in the media.

On the other hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has noted, in a speech early September, that advanced countries that produce vaccines against the coronavirus do little to protect humanity from the pandemic.

“The benefits of vaccination are enjoyed mostly by advanced economies. The bulk of the vaccines is made there, and it is used to protect their own population. But very little is being done to protect humanity in the broad sense,” Putin said at the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, the Far East of Russia. “This is very bad for the producers, because all this boomerangs around the globe. For instance, in Africa the level of protection with vaccines is minimal, but contacts with the African countries continue. There is no getting away from this. This infection will return again and again.”

According to an official release obtained late February, the Sputnik V vaccine the following advantages:

• Efficacy of Sputnik V is 91.6% as confirmed by the data published in the Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most respected medical journals; It is one of only three vaccines in the world with efficacy of over 90%; Sputnik V provides full protection against severe cases of COVID-19. 

• The Sputnik V vaccine is based on a proven and well-studied platform of human adenoviral vectors, which cause the common cold and have been around for thousands of years. 

• Sputnik V uses two different vectors for the two shots in a course of vaccination, providing immunity with a longer duration than vaccines using the same delivery mechanism for both shots. 

• The safety, efficacy and lack of negative long-term effects of adenoviral vaccines have been proven by more than 250 clinical studies over two decades. 

• The developers of the Sputnik V vaccine are working collaboratively with AstraZeneca on a joint clinical trial to improve the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccine. 

• There are no strong allergies caused by Sputnik V. 

• The price of Sputnik V is less than $10 per shot, making it affordable around the world. 

In February, peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet published an analysis from Phase III clinical trial of the Russian vaccine, showing its 91.6-percent efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19. The Sputnik V vaccine was developed by the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology.

Sputnik V was registered in Russia on August 11, 2020 as the world’s first officially registered coronavirus vaccine. Russian vaccines have advantages as no deaths have been reported after vaccination with the Sputnik V, Alexander Gintsburg, Director of the Gamaleya Center, the vaccine developer, said and was reported by TASS News Agency. “As of today, no deaths after vaccination with Sputnik V have been registered,” he said.

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is Russia’s sovereign wealth fund established in 2011 to make equity co-investments, primarily in Russia, alongside reputable international financial and strategic investors. RDIF acts as a catalyst for direct investment in the Russian economy. RDIF’s management is based in Moscow.

In Africa, during first of September, the coronavirus-related death toll has topped 196,190, while more than 6.9 million recoveries have been reported. South Africa accounts for a majority of coronavirus cases and deaths across Africa – 2,777,659 and 82,261 respectively. The death toll in Tunisia climbed to 23,451, and 664,034 cases have been confirmed. Egypt recorded 16,736 deaths and 288,441 coronavirus cases.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia is ranked second to South Africa (308,134 cases and 4,675 deaths) and is followed by Kenya (235,863 cases and 4,726 deaths) and Nigeria (191,805 and 2,455). The total number of COVID-19 cases has reached almost 8 million in Africa, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Regional Office for Africa.

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