A partnership on digital policy with the European Union would offer Africa “a tremendous amount” but would also benefit Brussels, said Thulaganyo Segokgo, Botswana’s transport and communications minister, who wants to turn the country into “a knowledge-based economy”.
Segokgo’s government is committed to a national broadband strategy to increase connectivity speed and lowering the cost. That means establishing an online infrastructure involving data centres in the country’s cloud infrastructure to achieve data sovereignty, and AI.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has focused minds on the need to digitise a host of government services,” the minister told EURACTIV.
The offer of a ‘partnership for digital transformation’ is one of the core policy areas identified by the European Commission in its document on a ‘strategic partnership’ with Africa published back in March.
For its part, encouraging digitalisation in Africa and seeking innovative development solutions is at the heart of the African Union’s Digital Transformation Strategy approved earlier this year.
“The post-COVID-19 era offers Africa an important opportunity to revitalise our economies under a green and smart framework that supports health and prosperity embracing new technologies,” African Union Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy Dr Amani Abou-Zeid has said.
The negotiations on partnership between the two continents may have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the potential benefits are clear.
“The emphasis for us is on the technical co-operation and skills transfer,” Segokgo told EURACTIV. This could form the basis of a bilateral agreement with the EU, he said.
The African Union has called for the EU’s support as it works towards the achievement of the African Digital Single Market, and for the bloc to support the harmonisation of regulatory frameworks at the regional level and build cross-border infrastructure.
The need to digitise a range of government services is part of the Botswanan government’s national vision for2036. But it has been accelerated by the pandemic, with particularly transport and education.
“As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re very keen that we are able to deliver substantial amounts of our teaching curriculum on online platforms. Clearly, Europe is in a much better position and this is one area where we might benefit from the EU’s technical experience in setting up their platforms,” said Segokgo.
In his State of the Nation speech on 8 November, President Mokgweetsi Masisi told domestic lawmakers that the government would accelerate its digital transformation,.
A national e-commerce strategy is to be completed by March 2021, and a 2020-2024 e-health strategy, launched in March this year, to improve public access to health care and doctors’ access to health information.
“We want to move as quickly as possible to a cashless society. E-services are a key component of this,” said the minister.
“We have recognised that a lot is going to have to change in terms of the way we live,” Segokgo added.
That means speeding up plans for a contactless transport system in and around the capital city, Gabarone, where payment will be made by mobile phone or chip and pin.
“What is clear now is that the exchange of documents is just another medium of transmission. Quite clearly, we need to put in place the infrastructure that mitigates against the risks of this disease. COVID-19 has just given us substantial added impetus to what we need to do,” the minister added.
“We realise that it is paramount that a substantial amount of the curriculum needs to be delivered by technology”.
All of this is going to require new investment but the government in Gabarone is not focusing on new EU funding streams and investment programmes to stump up the cash.
President Masisi’s government has increased government borrowing ceilings by around $3 billion and plans to use local borrowing and bonds to finance its recovery from the pandemic, including its digitisation agenda.
“We believe that there are unique opportunities in Botswana,” the minister said, adding that a pact with the EU would also benefit Brussels.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]