Africa’s digital knowledge economy worrying

Students at the Essa Gisenyi secondary school for science education
Copyright: Panos

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  • In 2017, half of the world will have access to the internet
  • A study identifies Africa as having the smallest share of digital knowledge
  • Increasing internet connectivity alone is not enough

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Africa’s position in the global digital knowledge economy is a concern, write Sanna Ojanperä and Mark Graham.
Africa has traditionally been left out of what is called the knowledge economy. Whether it is the number of books published per capita or patents issued per country, much of Africa has tended to come at the bottom of such lists.
But the world is rapidly changing. In 2017, over half of the world’s population will have access to the internet: allowing them to read, listen to, watch and contribute to what Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales refers to as the sum of all human knowledge.  

In other words, while Africa has been left out of central positions in the global knowledge economy, the rapid growth of internet use on the continent has sparked hopes for the democratisation of knowledge production on the continent.
President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has embodied these hopes by stating: “In Africa, we have missed both the agricultural and industrial revolutions and in Rwanda we are determined to take full advantage of the digital revolution. This revolution is summed up by the fact that it no longer is of utmost importance where you are but rather what you can do.”

Academic articles are spread slightly more evenly across the continents, while digitally-mediated knowledge production is more concentrated in developed countries.

Sanna Ojanperä and Mark Graham

These ideas are full of excitement about the potentials of digital technologies to extend opportunities of access and participation to those that have been excluded from them.
In a new paper that emerges from our multi-year research project that we are involved with a team of researchers at the UK-based University of Oxford, we decided to investigate some of these claims.
We took one measure of traditional codified knowledge production (academic articles) and compared that to two digital practices of knowledge production: the uploading of computer code onto the world’s largest repository (GitHub) and the registering of domain names (such as .com or .za). While it makes sense that countries such as the United Kingdom or the United States that have huge resources to invest in tertiary education would be able to produce a lot of academic articles, shouldn’t the newly democratised access to the internet now mean that places such as Nigeria or Kenya can better compete in a digital knowledge economy?
We began the research with the assumption that traditional knowledge production is heavily concentrated in the global North, and digital knowledge production is more accessible and geographically distributed. However, it turns out that the global and regional patterns of collaborative coding and domain registrations are actually more uneven than those of academic articles!
Looking at the distribution of content creation across the world shows that academic articles are spread slightly more evenly across the continents while digitally-mediated knowledge production is more concentrated in developed countries. Sub-Saharan Africa contributes the smallest share of content to all three categories, providing only 1.1 per cent of academic articles. With 0.5 per cent of collaborative coding and 0.7 per cent of domain registrations, the region produces an even smaller share of digital knowledge.

Content creation across continents
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In fact, comparing the regional totals of academic articles, collaborative coding and domain registrations produced from Sub-Saharan African countries to France shows that France produces 3.2 times more academic articles, 5.7 times more collaborative coding and 3.4 times more domain registrations than all Sub-Saharan African countries together.
A comparison across absolute numbers is useful to pair with a standardised measure that informs us of the propensity of content creation across the regions. Considering the most productive countries in terms of their per capita content creation suggests countries even more clustered in Europe than other regions. Comparing the three maps reveals that in Sub-Saharan Africa, the level of individual countries’ knowledge production falls within the two lowest quintiles more often in the case of collaborative coding and domain registrations than with academic articles.

Knowledge economy across continents
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Figure 3 small
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Figure 4 small
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Our results also suggest that the factors that are often framed as catalysts in the transformation into, and development of, a knowledge economy do not relate uniformly to academic articles, collaborative coding activity and domain registrations. While connectivity plays a role in all three categories, it seems to have a strong effect only on digital content creation. On the other hand, the production of academic articles is more strongly related to a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) than to connectivity. Innovation capacity appears to have a positive relationship to all three content types. Education as a topically narrower variable appears to be related only to variance in academic articles.
These results suggest that while connectivity is an important enabler of digitally mediated content creation, merely increasing connectivity might not allow African countries to leapfrog to higher levels of digital engagement. Wealth, innovation capacity and public spending on education matter as well.

The uneven geographies of digitally mediated content indicate a worryingly diminishing role for Sub-Saharan Africa vis-à-vis other world regions.

Sanna Ojanperä and Mark Graham

Enormous public and private resources are directed to increasing connectivity and supporting digital development initiatives in Africa. It is important for key actors including governments, donor organizations, and private sector actors, to consider our findings in order to critically evaluate the effectiveness of their approaches.
While a comprehensive shift into industries based on technology and human capital may not be in the immediate horizon for Sub-Saharan Africa, where economies continue to rely heavily on extractive industries and agriculture, information- and knowledge-based economic practices and processes are emerging throughout the continent. Technology spaces, such as innovation hubs, labs and research and development centres are appearing across the continent and at the same time local entrepreneurial initiatives make use of technology in various grassroots applications.

But even if the growth in telecommunications might be slackening the continent’s reliance on extractive industries and agriculture, transformation into a knowledge economy requires far more concentrated effort than simply increasing internet connectivity. Amongst other challenges, the low availability of local content production has been proposed as a factor limiting the productive use of the internet – a view that our findings seem to support.
To the extent that digital information will continue to gain a more prominent role in contemporary knowledge economies, the uneven geographies of digitally mediated content indicate a worryingly diminishing role for Sub-Saharan Africa vis-à-vis other world regions.
Sanna Ojanperä is a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford. She can be contacted at [email protected]Mark Graham is Professor of Internet Geography at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and Faculty Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute. He can be contacted at [email protected]
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


[1] Half the world will be online by 2017 (International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 21 September 2014)
[2] Wikimedia Founder Jimmy Wales Responds (Slashdot, 28 July, 2004) [3] The NICI-2010 Plan (Government of Rwanda, 2006)
[4] Sanna Ojanperä and others Engagement in the knowledge economy: Regional patterns of content creation with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. (Information Technologies & International Development, 2017)
[5] GeoNet Project (GeoNet Project, 2017)
[6] Africa’s tech hubs (Tech Crunch, 9 December 2016)