Africa faces significant challenges in bridging the digital divide, with the region being home to the second-most expensive data prices globally. In relative terms, Africa stands out as the most expensive region, with only 12 countries offering affordable data, defined as being less than 2 percent of gross national income (GNI) per capita.
The high costs, low penetration rates, and limited economies of scale according to the 2023 Commonwealth report, underscore the lack of information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure, particularly data centers necessary for the provision of affordable mobile and cloud computing services.
The report themed, “Energizing Africa’s Digital Economy: Cross-Border Data Flows and the African Continental FTA”, Africa lags behind in terms of ICT infrastructure, with only 28 servers per million people, the lowest globally and less than half that of Latin America and Southeast Asia. These digital capacity constraints hinder the flourishing of the African digital economy.
Addressing this issue requires increased investment in and construction of ICT infrastructure, along with enabling demand- and supply-side economies of scale for data service providers.
While digitalization holds immense promise for African development, realizing its benefits hinges on overcoming the persistent digital divide both within Africa and between the continent and the rest of the world. Despite notable increases in mobile internet penetration and device usage, only 32.8 percent of the African population consistently uses the internet, marking the lowest proportion of internet users among all continents.
This digital divide is also apparent within African countries, particularly in least developed countries (LDCs) and rural areas, where internet access and usage are even lower. Furthermore, the seemingly high penetration of mobile internet coverage is deceptive, as outdated infrastructure restricts bandwidth capacity.
As a result, 59 percent of internet-enabled devices in Africa rely on 2G networks, while only 49.2 percent of the population has access to long-term evolution (LTE)-enabled mobile networks. Despite over 80 percent of African mobile users being able to access the internet, their limited bandwidth capacity hampers full participation in the digital economy.
Addressing these challenges requires concerted efforts to enhance ICT infrastructure, improve connectivity in underserved areas, and increase bandwidth capacity. Closing the digital divide within Africa and between the continent and the rest of the world is essential for unleashing the true potential of the African digital economy.