London — Over the last year, three Francophone countries have made a bid to raise their digital profile. Below follows an interview with Ms Kamissa Camara, Mali's Minister of Digital Economy and Foresight on the changes she's planning.
In its second year in 2019, Kinshasa Digital Week was attended by DRC's Health Minister and had a session entitled Bringing citizens closer to public services (with the digital adviser to the Ministry of Health in attendance.) Senegal has passed legislation that offers start-ups tax breaks and other incentives. Mali has a new Ministry (the subject of the interview below) called Digital Economy and Foresight.
Many African Government Ministers are elderly, backward looking and seem only to want to milk the economy and preserve the status quo. The word foresight is not something you would associate with their activities.
Traditionally Anglophone countries have generated more innovative start-ups and investment in them. In their different ways, these three Francophone countries are bidding to be noticed and to change things. Speeches are the "mood music" of Government that give some idea of potential aspiration. Legislation is a very direct way of making change but does not always make things work.
But the real test will be how well these Governments can harness the energy of young people and give them a real role in the emerging digital economy? Africa's ruling elites - with their friends in power - often run a closed shop. Will digital open up the economy to others? Providing digital services promises more effective Government delivery but will current civil servants allow a more radical pace of change?
Mali wants to further boost its digital ecosystem and digitalize its Government processes. At the end of the 1st edition of the Bamako Digital Days forum in February, Ms Kamissa Camara, Minister of Digital Economy and Firesight explained, (in an interview with CIO Mag's Mahamadou Diallo), the kind of digital transformation she's seeking and how she plans to energize the start-ups ecosystem.
Camara was formerly a diplomatic adviser to the current President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Born and raised in France by Malian parents, she studied in France, before going on to pursue an international politics career in the United States. She was also the founder of the Sahel Strategy Forum (SSF), a platform that aimed to enlighten public opinion on the complexities of governance in the Sahel region, making various voices heard from the ground in the United States.
Q: You are from the Ministry of Digital Economy and Foresight. What relationship between digital and foresight?
A: The fact of linking foresight to digital is a message from the President of the Republic who wants to signify to national and international opinion that Mali is now ready to tackle the digital transformation. It is at the heart of the country's development and its projections for the next 10, 20 and 30 years. At the Ministry of Digital Economy and Foresight, our mission is to develop and energize the digital ecosystem, to work with young Malians in the context of start-ups, to offer them a regulatory and legal framework which allows them to develop, but also to manage all the key infrastructures of the digital sector.
Q: When it comes to the digitization of the Malian administration, where are things today?
A: Over the past two years, we have attempted to introduce (digital) administrative reforms. There have been some advances. But much progress remains to be made to promote a digital culture in our administration. We are a very young ministry. We are going to make this youthfulness an asset to encourage and promote the use of digital technology in the administration. For example by re-introducing the software that AGETIC (Agence des Technologies de l'Information et de la Communication, a Government agency under the Ministry) has developed and which will allow the papers and proceedings of the Council of Ministers to be completely digitalized.
Q: The challenges of digitizing Government are enormous. Do you have the means and support at the highest level to succeed in this mission?
A: We have several organizations which are attached to the ministry to assist in the accomplishment of these missions. These include real structures operating on budgets and human and specific resources. We have the Universal Access Fund Management Agency (AGEFAU) whose main mission is to promote universal access to telecommunications and the Internet in Mali. But also the Malian Transmission and Broadcasting Corporation (SMTD) which will work mainly on the data center component and the deployment of fiber optic networks across the country. Finally, there is AGETIC, a public scientific and technological establishment, whose main mission is to promote things that will modernize the Malian Government. We rely on the complementarity of these structures to energize the digital ecosystem, but also to digitalize government work and administrative procedures which are very important projects.
Q: In Mali, each ministry has its digital project, but a conductor is needed to harmonize all of this. Are you empowered to be able to do this?
A: It's a work in progress! It is important for the Ministry of the Digital Economy to work with each of the colleagues to make them understand that within our Ministry, they can find all the resources they are looking for.
It very often happens, during the Councils of Ministers. For example, when there is a
a problem of transparency in the payment of tolls I can say: "we have start-ups which have already developed these solutions and they must be linked. Little by little, this role of conductor will naturally be handed over to the Ministry of the digital economy, but I am not forcing anything. It will come over time.
Q: Promoting the dynamism of private digital entrepreneurship is one of the missions reserved for the Ministry of the digital economy. Are there funds or support programs to allow these start-ups to develop?
A: In addition to the Ministry of Digital Economy and Foresight, we have a Ministry of Investment Promotion and Small and Medium Enterprises which works with foreign partners as part of the promotion and financing of entrepreneurship .
At the Ministry of Digital Economy, we are fortunate to have specialized agencies and very generous mobile operators. So we are looking to self-finance the sector, although I know that the funding that we are currently getting is not enough. We will gradually move towards greater funding. And even at government level, we have major communication efforts to make it so that the digital sector becomes essential.
Q: In terms of incubation, we need structures to support young project leaders. Are you part of this process?
A: Absolutely! We have a number of incubators. I had the opportunity to visit them the day after I took office. There are enough in Bamako and in the regions. We organize a selection of small businesses every last Friday of the month. It's a competition for selecting start-ups. Once selected, these startups are incubated. When selected for an award, they are required to work with these incubators for at least one year. This is yet another way to energize the digital ecosystem.
CM: According to your vision, what are the areas in which Malian start-ups excel?
KC: I think in the field of transport and logistics. Because in the vast majority, the solutions provided by Malian start-ups affect the transport sector. The reason is simply related to the fact that these solutions meet daily needs and the geographic specificity of our country. The fact that the country covers a wide area and is landlocked have contributed to these developments. The solutions that are being presented are very original. In the area of transport and logistics, if we put our time and effort into it, we could potentially offer solutions to neighboring countries. And position ourselves to grow future unicorns in this area.