eGovernment in Africa
September 19, 2018
Africa as the Next Frontier for eGovernment
When considering the world’s leading countries for eGovernment affluent nations usually come to mind, and as a case in point, the United Nation’s recent Electronic Government Development Index 2018 of 193 countries ranked the top ten nations in the world as of today are Denmark, Australia, South Korea, the UK, Sweden, Finland, Singapore, New Zealand, France and Japan. African countries did not rank particularly highly, as the relatively affluent island nation of Mauritius was the leading African nation coming in at sixty-six, and 14 of the 16 lowest ranking countries came from Africa. The city of Cape Town, South Africa did however rank highly as it ranked as the number two city globally for eGovernment services behind Moscow.
Despite these low rankings, Africa is in a prime position to utilize eGovernment services. The world’s biggest success story when it comes to eGovernment is undoubtedly Estonia. Estonia only gained independence in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the young nation found itself severely lacking in terms of infrastructure and public services when it became independent. As the country’s infrastructure was so weak, the country started to launch many government services from inception to on the Internet, leapfrogging many hardware-based IT systems that would become obsolete. Combined with high mobile usage, the market was ripe for eGovernment services, and saw very fast uptake. Currently Estonia offers 99% of all government services online, has 30% of its citizens voting online and claims it saves 800 years of working time per year as a result of this digital transformation.
Many African countries are in a similar position today compared to where Estonia was when it became independent. While the digital divide remains strong in many countries, Internet, smartphone, social media and even e-payment technologies are being quickly adopted which could create a smooth transition to eGovernment service introduction. And in fact, there are several African countries that have already made significant progress with respect to eGovernment service introduction which are discussed below:
eGovernment Platform Innovation in Rwanda
The East African country of Rwanda has seen one of the most remarkable national transformations in recent times, as it emerged from a country devastated by a civil war ending in 1994 but is now considered one of the beacons of digital innovation in Africa. Much of this transformation is due to its adoption of eGovernment services which has redefined the nature in which the government, citizens and businesses interact. Central to this transformation was the introduction of the Irembo Digital Platform for government services.
The Irembo Digital Platform is a web portal which offers government services to Rwandan citizens via the Internet. The platform was launched in 2015 and allows Rwandans to access 85 government services online such as applying for a birth certificate, registering for a driver’s license and land title transfers. The service has been so successful that the government plans to add 100 more eGovernment services over the next three years. So far the platform has processed over 2.7 million transactions from 2.4 million unique users, which is a relatively high number given the country’s population of 11 million people.
The introduction of the Irembo platform has had many benefits to the local economy. Immediate benefits have manifested in the form of less paperwork in government offices and less travel expenses and waiting times for Rwandan citizens. More markedly, however, is that Rwanda has seen a significant reduction in corruption. Rwanda is now the third least-corrupt country in Africa according to Transparency International, and local sources have cited activities like using the Irembo platform to document and process traffic violations as being a significant factor in this improvement. Finally having a strong eGovernment platform has lead to a large boom in startup activity in the country, and Rwanda is now emerging as a major startup hub in Africa. Many new companies have emerged which are using the platform in areas such as e-payments, remittances, e-learning and e-tourism that are creating widespread benefits across the entire economy. As such, neighboring countries have a strong incentive to duplicate Rwanda’s eGovernment strategy.
Leveraging Biometrics for Citizen Services in South Africa
Biometrics services will play a large role in the implementation of eGovernment services in Africa. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund as of 2017 only 43% of child births for children under five years of age are registered in Sub-Saharan Africa, which makes proving the identity of citizens very difficult. Some African countries are already using biometrics to tackle this issue, with South Africa being a market leader. The South African Department of Home Affairs worked with NEC to implement its Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) in order to quickly and accurately be able to identify its citizens for immigration control, passport registration, election registration, pension payment verification and other services. As a result there has been significantly less paperwork involved in these processes and less chance for error.
What Does the Future Hold for eGovernment in Africa?
Africa is in a unique position in terms of implementing eGovernment services as there is a large chance to leapfrog existing technologies and start digital services from the beginning. And indeed some countries like Rwanda and South Africa are already showing that this is possible. IT platforms will be a key technology going forward, as governments strive to put almost all government services into the cloud, and capabilities such as e-payments will become more important, but at the same time will require robust cybersecurity and cloud computing capabilities. Countries like Estonia have shown that this is a very achievable goal even for a country with relatively little infrastructure, and have also shown that implementing eGovernment services can save money, reduce corruption and lead to an increase in startup activity in the country. Given that most Africans are accessing the Internet via mobile broadband, eGovernment services in Africa must also be increasingly accessible via smartphones. Biometrics will also likely play a larger role in eGovernment in Africa as technologies such as facial, iris and palm recognition will prove a cost-effective and accurate method of citizen identification.