Africa’s digitalization and the ecological dilemma

Cédric Leterme 28/07/2020

Almost everyone is convinced that Africa’s economic and social development is dependent upon its “digital transformation”. Yet the continent is already paying a heavy social, economic and maybe above all environmental price for the development of these technologies. Under these conditions, can we imagine a digital development that is both equitable and sustainable for Africa, but also on a global scale?

“Digital Economy for Africa Initiative” (DE4A, World Bank), “Africa E-commerce Agenda” (WEF/ITC), “Nairobi Manifesto on the Digital Economy and Inclusive Development in Africa” (UNCTAD)… », there are countless international initiatives aimed at helping Africa seize the opportunities offered by the “digital revolution”. They echo the multiplication of similar initiatives by African States themselves, both at the national level (e.g. “Digital Senegal 2025”, “Smart Rwanda Master Plan”, “Kenya Digital Economy Blueprint”, etc.) and at the regional level (e.g. the African Union’s “Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa”).

These initiatives are all aimed at addressing the fact that Africa is consistently arriving last (on average) in the different rankings that try to measure digital development [1]. This situation is all the more problematic as digital development is seen as a prerequisite for economic and social development in general, not to mention the promises it is supposed to hold for the “inclusion” of the most marginalized population groups, such as youth and women, for example.

There would therefore be a need for a “digital catch-up” for Africa, as urgent as necessary. The consensus is so broad on this issue, that the only thing that still seems to be debated is the conditions under which the continent would be best able to benefit from digital technologies and the digital economy. A good example of this is the ongoing WTO negotiations on “e-commerce” [2]. The majority of African countries – and many actors of international civil society – consider that the envisaged rules could harm the interests of the countries of the Global South in general, and of African countries in particular. Nevertheless, the question of whether digital technology itself is not as problematic is rarely, if ever, raised. “The digital economy is here, whether we like it or not, the question is how to make the most of it,” this is more or less what one hears from most people interested or involved in Africa’s digital development, including from a progressive perspective [3].

Yet, as with “development” [4] in general, it seems clear that it is neither desirable nor even possible for Africa to follow the same digital trajectory as the most “advanced” countries in this area, particularly for environmental reasons. Indeed, digital activities are very far from the immateriality that is generally attributed to them [5]. On the contrary, it is becoming one of the main sources of environmental degradation, and Africa is likely to pay the heaviest price.

Environmentally destructive technologies

This is the case, first of all, because many of the raw materials needed for the production and operation of the various digital devices come from Africa. The production of smartphones, for example, requires the use of metals (more than 40), some of which are found in very limited quantities and whose extraction has a particularly high environmental cost: deforestation, water pollution, mining waste, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. One of the best known cases is that of cobalt, a key metal for the manufacture of lithium batteries, which are found in particular in laptops and smartphones. Currently, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alone provides 60% of the world’s supply, with terrifying environmental and health consequences, not to mention human rights abuses and the geopolitical destabilization that accompanies them [6]. While this may be seen as an extreme case, it masks a more general reality: the digital economy is based on an “extractivism” that is at least as destructive and unsustainable for Africa as “traditional” industries.

The second problem is that the ever more massive and intensive use of digital technologies is also causing a colossal increase in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In a study relayed by The Guardian, Swedish researcher Ander Andrae was alarmed by a trend that is only increasing: “We have a tsunami of data approaching. Everything which can be is being digitalized. It is a perfect storm. 5G [the fifth generation of mobile technology] is coming, IP [internet protocol] traffic is much higher than estimated, and all cars and machines, robots and artificial intelligence are being digitalized, producing huge amounts of data which is stored in data centers.” [7] As a result, digital technology alone is expected to consume 20% of the world’s electricity by 2025 and to account for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, thus contributing to global warming, the consequences of which are already disproportionately felt in Africa.

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