The digital economies of North Africa are quietly booming - often at arm’s length from political establishments. Over the past decade, a new eco-system of incubators and accelerators has emerged, such as Flat6Labs in Egypt, Biatlabs in Tunisia, and Bidaya in Morocco - not dissimilar from the ‘start-up’ scene in the UK.
Not all these endeavours succeed at first. But the region’s deficit in employment opportunities for its ‘digital natives’ is creating an appetite for many to invent new forms of employment for themselves. For Hanae Bezad of Le Wagon, a Moroccan coding school, ‘tech is a potential accelerator for a lot of changes.’
For example, in a region where the majority of citizens still have no access to bank accounts, mobile currency wallets, like Egypt’s PayMob, are set to revolutionise market inclusion across North Africa, as M-PESA already has in Kenya, where nearly 50% of GDP is now transacted through it. Egypt is set to introduce an ‘E-Payments’ law in May this year.
Many of the region’s new online platforms specifically tackle digital educational gaps to upskill the under- and unemployed. The impulse is partly an exercise in spreading the word that the new global economy requires skills that North Africa’s state-led education systems are not providing.
The under-30s together make up 75% of the population of Mediterranean North Africa
The target population for this buzz of activity is overwhelmingly the region’s most neglected sector: the under-30s together make up 75% of the population of Mediterranean North Africa.
Is the UK missing out on a digital boom in North Africa?
This demographic usually raises more apprehension than optimism for the UK Government, whose regional youth policies prioritise preventing youth radicalisation, defeating terrorism, and deterring migrants from crossing to Europe.
The UK Government has yet to engage fully with the potential that the region’s youth-led digital revolution offers to meet its more narrowly focused security objectives. Start Egypt, a UK-funded programme, is new and not well-known, while the trans-regional economic aspirations of young ‘Maghrebis’ (from the North African states from Morocco to Tunisia) have yet to find a response in British policy.
The links between socio-economic exclusion and the radicalisation of a minority are well-documented, but the UK also needs a policy capable of engaging with the majority, above all with the region’s next generation of leaders, whose aspirations increasingly parallel those of the global Millennials with whom they identify. They see the region not as a series of problems to resolve, but as an opportunity to leap-frog old ways of thinking in the search for prosperity.
Without exploring the independent digital sector, the UK risks seeing (and depicting) North African youth as a volatile complex of problems to be contained through official ‘top-down’ interventions, rather than through solutions promoted by the region’s young ‘disruptors’ themselves. This is to ignore how pervasive digital solutions to the challenges of economic inclusion have become in the UK itself.
There is also no regionally-focused policy in place to expand digital cooperation across North Africa’s borders. If linked to the UK’s regional security approach to North Africa, however, the prospect of setting up (for example) a Tech Hub could become a motivating force for British companies to identify new markets in a region close to the UK.
It’s a big ask, despite the optimism. But digital innovation is one of the few ways economies across the broader Middle East can re-invent themselves from their post-Arab Spring doldrums.
Algeria and Libya currently depend for more than 95% of their foreign earnings on exports of dwindling hydrocarbons, leading to under-developed domestic private sectors. In Egypt and Morocco, private sectors are closely tied to governments and do not welcome the disruptive competition that digital innovation poses to their comfortable status quo.
Outsiders need to tread warily if seeking to move this vision along. Much of what North African governments are doing to speed up digital reform is being instigated by active citizen-entrepreneurs in processes that may eventually forge new relations between them. Tunisia’s digital-friendly Start-Up Act adopted in April 2018, for example, emerged from just such pressures from below, and was drafted in consultation with end users and civic activists concerned as much with economic inclusion as with stimulating new areas of growth.
As this dynamic unfolds and speeds across North Africa, governments are proving much less open to outside pressure than in the pre-Arab Spring era. Europe in particular has lost much of its ‘best practice’ appeal within more globally-aware societies seeking to do things in partnership with, rather than at the behest of, external funders. Innovations are already moving faster than official strategies, which will necessitate British policymakers engaging as much with the region’s vanguard of disruptors as with the governments that risk lagging behind the rising technological tide.
How should the UK get involved?
The British Council convened a conference in the annual Hammamet series to look at the digital transformation of North Africa and the UK’s role in supporting it. Most conference participants wanted to talk about the social impact of their business models, rather than how to make a ‘quick buck’ and/or emigrate. They face significant challenges. One participant (speaking off the record) waited months to expand her business as she refused to pay the expected bribes.
Thanks to the global dominance of the English language, the UK is better positioned than most to explore conduits into countries undergoing profound socio-economic changes
Thanks to the global dominance of the English language, the UK is better positioned than most to explore conduits into countries undergoing profound socio-economic changes. For all its post-Brexit aspirations to strike out to new horizons and markets, however, the UK has yet to work out how to develop channels to explore the synergies that clearly exist between North Africa’s emerging entrepreneurial talents and the UK’s own digital natives.
The British Council has subsequently been convening in-country meetings for each Hammamet delegation to identify concrete steps that each might take to support the aspirations of the larger network. But for the wider British establishment, stereotypes of the post-Arab Spring world still thrive in respect of Egypt (where the UK is the largest foreign investor, and is thus keen to maintain stability) and Libya (seen as profoundly unstable, particularly given recent events), while the potential for building relations with Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia is rarely explored in any depth. The UK should redefine how it engages with North Africa in the digital age.
British entrepreneurs with experience of social impact funding in marginalised communities, for example, could help discussions with like-minded North African partners. If the relevant incentives and frameworks were in place for both sides to explore their mutual interests, training and tech skills for new markets could also be shared. These could prove as important for the UK’s own post-Brexit digital expansion as for North Africa.
What is unlikely to succeed are policies narrowly defined by British interests, whether short term security objectives, or trade promotion initiatives that fail to support investment in the region’s digital start-ups. This sector could fuel more of North Africa’s future growth. As a result, the UK Government should consider integrating parts of its own Digital Strategy in its policies towards North Africa.
Claire Spencer, Visiting Senior Research Fellow, King’s College London
https://www.kcl.ac.uk/people/claire-spencer and Hammamet Co-Chair 2018 and 2019