Ghana is seeking to vie with Kenya as Africa’s most digitalised economy as the government pursues an ambitious drive to eliminate paper from most services and transactions by next year.
The government has said it will, by early 2020, have “electronically tagged” every home in the west African country of 30m people, including informal housing in slums, by using GPS to give homes an electronic address. It has also pledged to make payments for all government services, such as permits and driving licence applications, cashless by next year.
Speaking at the FT’s Africa Summit in London last week, Mahamudu Bawumia, Ghana’s vice-president, said digital technology would squeeze out middlemen and space for corruption, and would draw more people into the formal economy, making it easier to both tax them and provide services.
“By leveraging technology to improve transparency and accountability in administrative systems, we are completing in short order what many years of administrative reforms had not been able to accomplish,” he said.
Ghana, with Kenya and Ivory Coast, are among the most advanced of Africa’s 54 countries in digitalising government and payment services. By the end of last year, there were 456m unique mobile phone subscribers in Africa, a penetration rate of 44 per cent, according to GSMA, an industry body. That is expected to rise to 623m by 2025.
Mr Bawumia said that, in mobile payments, Ghana had already surpassed Kenya by enforcing full interoperability of mobile wallets across telecoms companies and banks, in effect turning every mobile phone into a mini-bank account. Kenya is considered a pioneer of mobile money after, a decade ago, introducing M-pesa, a phone-based cash transfer service that handles nearly 2bn transactions annually.
Ghana is also digitalising its land registry using blockchain technology, the vice-president said, reducing land disputes. Within two years, he added, it would have digitalised all hospital records and was in the process of digitalising court records.
Listen to the new weekly podcast from Gideon Rachman, the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist, and listen in on his conversations with the decision-makers and thinkers from all over the globe who are shaping world affairs
Ghana was also in the process of introducing national ID cards in what Mr Bawumia called a “game changer” for effective administration. “It will form the basis of an integrated database with passports, tax identification numbers, and drivers’ licences,” he said. “No one can hide.”
Gyimah Boadi, co-founder of Afrobarometer, a polling group, and a former director of Ghana’s Center for Democratic Development, said he welcomed the digital push in principle. “From the standpoint of pushing the development agenda I am fully in support of National ID for everybody,” he said. “For me it’s the beginning of citizenship.” But, said Mr Boadi, the implementation had been painfully slow.
Mr Boadi also said that, while digitalisation might be effective against petty corruption, it did nothing to tackle larger-scale theft associated with government procurement. “Ghana’s problems with corruption are more at the grand level and you don’t sort these out with a technical fix,” he said.
Nanjala Nyabola, who has written extensively about what she calls “digital democracy and analogue politics” struck a note of caution, arguing that civil society needed to provide checks and balances against increased digital scrutiny.
Mo Ibrahim, whose eponymous foundation monitors governance in Africa, said the benefits from a government having a handle on its population outweighed privacy concerns. “If nobody knows you are born or nobody knows you died, who are you? You’re a nobody,” he said.
Mr Boadi said that, while he was in favour of the digital push, he recognised the dangers. It had taken the auditor-general, he said, to uncover that the electoral commission had sold Ghanaians’ personal information to an Accra-based software developer. “There is a huge, huge gap in the legal framework for protecting data and for overseeing these institutions,” Mr Boadi added.