For Africa to embark on a higher growth and development trajectory, it must find ways of encouraging foreign investment in information and communication technology while developing its own ICT skills and infrastructure, says President Kgalema Motlanthe.
Motlanthe was addressing the inaugural ICT Indaba at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Tuesday.
The three-day event, organised by the Department of Communications and endorsed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which aims to formulate an African agenda to promote ICT as a catalyst for socio-economic development on the continent.
ICT 'key to higher growth, development'
Motlanthe told the high-profile gathering that, while primary or traditional industries remained important, "the biggest commodity in the world today is knowledge, and the ability to generate, access, and distribute knowledge have become key determinants for a higher developmental trajectory for any nation".
Moving towards a knowledge-based economy would "allow us to adapt to changing conditions and design solutions that will enhance the competitiveness of our emerging nations".
Africa's low rankings on the most reputable global measures of ICT penetration should therefore be of concern to the delegates at the Indaba, Motlanthe said.
He cited the ITU's ICT Development Index, on which no African country is in the top 50, and the World Bank's Knowledge Economy Index, whose top 100 features no African country.
"In 2011, only 5.7 percent of the population of Africa had access to the internet," he added. "In global comparison, while Africa accounts for 14 percent of the world population, only 3.6 percent of internet subscribers are Africans."
Creating an investment-friendly environment
To overcome this, African countries had to find ways to improve both the reliability of their policy environment and their ability to foster foreign investor confidence, on the one hand, and the ability of their regulatory frameworks to lower costs and ensure secure networks.
At the same time, Motlanthe said, it was crucial for Africa to grow its skills base in order to "acquire the critical mass of human capital to drive a robust knowledge-based economy", and to ensure universal access to broadband and ICT services.
Improving Africa's information communication technologies was a precondition for improving its productive industrial capacity, and increasing broadband penetration was the first priority, Motlanthe said.
He cited World Bank studies indicating that, for developing countries, a 10% increase in broadband penetration generated a 1.4% increase in GDP growth.
African innovations for Africa
In addition, he said, strategic investment in the ICT sector would allow Africa to play an increasingly important role in the development of new applications and innovations that were relevant to the needs of the continent, which in turn would have a multiplier effect on economic growth.
"African countries can provide the innovators for future technological development in ICT that can in turn continue to drive economic and social development on the continent, through developing innovations and applications relevant to the needs of our peoples."
Africans had to consider policy models and interventions that had helped other developing countries to re-position their economic development through their ICT sectors.
"Similarly, we need a closer policy discussion of infrastructure development initiatives in Africa, while reviewing the alternatives to leapfrog to a higher development level by leveraging on smart technologies and policy.
"We must also not forget that 55% of Africans live in rural areas," Motlanthe said. "It is our responsibility to ensure that they are integrated into the knowledge-based society.
"As such, we are encouraged and inspired by the example of 28-year-old Saheed Adepoju of Nigeria, who has, despite challenges in funding and entrepreneurial support, designed and manufactured the first African tablet PC - the Afritab.
"Heeding this example, I hope that the deliberations at this conference will conclude with a comprehensive analysis of the lessons learned and will develop these into SMART - Strategic, Measurable, Attainable, Result-orientated - and time-bound initiatives and programmes between this and the next ICT Indaba."