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[Interview] Digital Public Infrastructure and its potential for Africa


Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) might be a new term in Africa, but the workaround its foundational elements—such as digital identity, payment systems, and data exchange—has been ongoing for some time.

According to Sabine Mensah, Deputy CEO at AfricaNenda, in an interview with TechTrends Media, What has made DPI so prominent and relevant now is the recognition of the exponential gains countries can achieve by investing in and leveraging these foundational pillars.

‘’Africa has embarked on this journey as well’’ she says. Read our full interview with Sabine below. 

Kindly introduce yourself and your role at AfricaNenda.

I am Sabine Mensah, Deputy CEO at AfricaNenda, responsible for partnership and capacity building. At AfricaNenda, we believe that instant and inclusive payment systems can play a pivotal role in providing universal access to financial services for over 400 million financially excluded adults in Africa. My role focuses on enhancing the capacity of African institutions, payment experts, and other key stakeholders to support the development and growth of these systems.

We achieve this by strengthening market capacity through the deployment of technical experts and providing ad hoc technical assistance to pan-African institutions. We offer evidence-based tools on instant and inclusive payment systems and leverage our convening power to bring together stakeholders across the African payments ecosystem to share experiences and best practices. Additionally, we support the training of the next generation of African payment professionals in partnership with top professional development institutions.

You were one of the speakers at the 3i Africa Summit in Ghana. What’s your take on the discussions that took place?

We are undoubtedly at a crossroads with the rapid changes in financial technology and its impact on inclusion for all in Africa. To ensure that inclusive digital public infrastructures deliver a digital economy that leaves no one behind, incentives must align around innovation, investment, and impact—the three I’s (3i) of the summit. I am thrilled to have attended the summit and anticipated not only meaningful discussions but also practical solutions and actions needed to transform challenges and potential into tangible impact. The summit’s theme was timely and relevant, as technology or innovation is no longer the primary barrier. Instead, the challenge lies in ensuring that policies and regulations enable technology to deliver financial, economic, and social inclusion. Additionally, access to capital for scaling innovative solutions both domestically and across borders remains elusive for most entrepreneurs.

Conversations around Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) took centre stage at the summit. Why is it* so important for Africa to talk about this?

Just like traditional infrastructure, Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) provides the digital rails upon which consumers, businesses, and governments can interact in the digital economy. It is vital to discuss how these infrastructures can be inclusive, interoperable, secure, and scalable to unleash their immense economic potential for the benefit of Africa. At AfricaNenda, we advocate for the inclusivity of DPI and contribute to the body of knowledge, particularly on inclusive instant payment systems in Africa, through our signature report, “The State of Inclusive Instant Payment Systems (SIIPS) Africa.”

DPI is a relatively still new concept, especially for Africa. How would you describe its state in the continent right now?

Interestingly, while the term DPI might be new, the work around its foundational elements—such as digital identity, payment systems, and data exchange—has been ongoing for some time. What has made DPI so prominent and relevant now is the recognition of the exponential gains countries can achieve by investing in and leveraging these foundational pillars in a coordinated manner, which has not been the case in the past. Success stories from countries like India and Brazil, which have accelerated inclusive development outcomes for large populations, demonstrate the actual impact of inclusive DPI and provide best practices on how to achieve it. 

Africa has embarked on this journey as well. Several countries are already investing in digital ID programs, leveraging initiatives such as the World Bank’s ID4D and open-source options like MOSIP. The payment layer is particularly dynamic. According to the SIIPS 2023 report, there are 32 live Instant Payment Systems in Africa, which facilitated nearly 32 billion transactions valued at approximately $1.2 trillion in 2022.

Again, the developments and impacts of DPI remain largely an under-researched area. Why is this case?

This shift may stem from a new perspective on development and impact. With DPI, we are examining how the foundational pillars of identity, payment, and data networks can create digital rails upon which solutions can be built to serve customers, businesses, and governments in the digital economy. For those further along in this journey, there are valuable resources on the impact of India’s Aadhaar biometric identity system and Unified Payment Interface (UPI), as well as Brazil’s PIX payment system.

In Africa, the process of viewing DPI systemically and documenting its impact is just beginning. We are currently contributing to building the evidence for a global state of DPI report undertaken by Co-Develop. With time, and with investment in talent and resources for the research and academic sectors, we will see more insights emerging on Africa’s DPI. Events such as the 3i Summit are crucial for raising awareness, encouraging peer-to-peer learning, and bringing together talent and resources.

How can Africa take advantage of DPI, especially in helping reduce poverty? Talk about the economic impacts of DPI.

Africa needs to invest in more inclusive, secure, and resilient digital systems to accelerate the financial inclusion of over 400 million adults who are currently excluded from formal financial services. Such investments can have significant impacts. For example, a UNDP report on the human and economic impact of DPI estimated that by 2030, an additional 7% of formalized MSMEs may gain access to credit, and households could experience an $80–$100 increase in benefits through improved direct benefit transfer mechanisms. 

DPI should be designed with gender intentionality, necessitating a collaborative and ecosystem approach. Moreover, DPI can enhance country resilience in the face of shocks such as COVID-19. The World Bank estimates that LMICs using digital payments, ID, and data sharing to identify and deliver payments reached an average of 55% of their population, compared to only 16% for LMICs reliant on cash payments and new eligibility information collection. 

The impact of DPI is indisputable. The challenge lies in enabling it in a timely manner.

According to UNDP, countries in Africa can speed up economic growth by up to 33 per cent – or the equivalent of two to three years of growth – by implementing DPI in the financial sector. Which other sectors of the economy do you think can take advantage of DPI?

This is the beauty of the DPI approach: it sets the digital rails for all sectors in the digital economy to leverage. For instance, through the digital payment layer and instant payment systems in Africa, governments can digitize payments to people (G2P) and enhance their capacity for domestic resource mobilization through tax and non-tax revenue collection (P2G). Once digital public infrastructure is in place, it provides a foundation to scale a range of critical services that can improve health and economic opportunities. These include healthcare (e.g., disease surveillance, vaccine distribution, case management), economic recovery (e.g., emergency payments, financial inclusion), agricultural development (e.g., farmer subsidization, crop monitoring), and climate change initiatives (e.g., digital soil mapping, climate advisory services), among others.

Closing remarks?

The time is now for Africa to lead the 5th industrial revolution, characterized by the convergence of digital, biological, and physical innovations. Bold visions for inclusive digital public infrastructure, swift actions to transform potential into growth and prosperity for all, and smart collaboration to unite all relevant stakeholders are essential to accelerate the financial, economic, and social impact we seek. Let’s walk the talk!

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Nixon Kanali

Tech journalist based in Nairobi. I track and report on tech and African startups. Founder and Editor of TechTrends Media. Nixon is also the East African tech editor for Africa Business Communities. Send tips to nkanali@techtrendske.co.ke.

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