Digital technologies like Internet applications and mobile phones are changing the nature of work, business and organisations. Their extensive embeddedness in the economic exchange of goods and services is also creating digital economies – a phenomenon with growing importance. The digital economy is “that part of economic output derived solely or primarily from digital technologies with a business model based on digital goods or services”. For the global South in particular, the digital economy even though usually only accounting for 3 percent to 4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), has a much larger impact when firms use it to spur competition and productivity in traditional sectors, such as retail, banking, and manufacturing. Available statistics suggest that the mobile ecosystem alone contributed US$8.3 billion to the Nigerian economy and 7% of Mali’s GDP consists of its digital industry (da Silva, 2014). Despite these successes, the region is yet to catch up with the bigger benefits the global North enjoys from the digital economy.
Synthesising Available Evidence
To have a deeper understanding of the digital economy in the global South (specifically Africa), available evidence was gathered and synthesised as part of DIODE Network activities. Unfortunately, the synthesis had to rely mostly on practice-based literature due to the scarcity of academic research on the digital economy of Africa. Such a synthesis was also important to uncover areas that need further research. Guided by the narrow definition of the digital economy, the synthesis focused on the activities of enterprises in telecommunications, digital services, software and IT consulting, hardware manufacture, information services, platform economy, gig economy, and sharing economy. Available evidence suggests countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana are quite advanced in the digital economy. Their advancement reflects their level of development and abounding availability of digital enterprise activities. Encouragingly, other countries with some investments from established players in the global North, are also making efforts to catch up.
Areas for New Research
Overall, five main themes emerged as areas that need new research efforts. First, there is need to undertake studies that trace value creation amongst various forms of digital enterprises. Second, there is need to study the career trajectories of people who engage in the various aspects of digital enterprises – especially the gig economy; in order to understand the factors determining their involvement. Third, there is need to undertake periodic and regular research to find out the motivations of the companies that want digital presence and mobile apps developed for them, and the development impact of their decisions on those who work on such requests especially if they are gig workers. Fourth, there is need to undertake country and cross-country case studies of the various platform and digital enterprise issues, to generate lessons and best practices for countries that are now picking up. Fifth, one big question that remains unanswered relates to knowing who exactly is benefiting from the digital economy in Africa, therefore it would be interesting to know the true beneficiaries, and also the coping mechanisms of the losers.
In summary, there is a paucity of academic research on digital enterprises in Africa. In order to end this paucity, more research needs to be conducted around this phenomenon in the global South. Such research could begin with the areas derived and discussed in this synthesis study.
Read More in the Synthesis Study here:
Boateng, R., Budu, J., Mbrokoh, A.S. Ansong, E., Boateng, S.L. & Anderson, A.B. (2017). Digital Enterprises in Africa: A Synthesis of Current Evidence, Paper 2. DIODE Network, University of Manchester.
da Silva, I. S. (2014). Mali Digital Plan 2020 to reorganise economy. Retrieved from http://www.biztechafrica.com/article/mali-digital-plan-2020-reorganise-economy/9327/
Ansip, A. (2017). Heading to Nigeria, EU Commission and Its Priorities, Retrieved 23 November 2017 from https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2014-2019/ansip/blog/heading-nigeria_en