Developing the Digital Economy


Manchester is an English city with constants and contradictions. The constant is that it mostly rains during the day, and well it mostly rains during the night. It also has an epic contradiction surrounding those City and United soccer teams.  Further it is home of the productive, University of Manchester where my favourite developmental Professor Richard Heeks resides. 

I follow Heeks, as he has an interest in the value, nature and impact of ICT for Development (ICT4D) projects.  “What have we got to show for the billions invested in ICT4D projects?”  He continues “By and large, we’re not sure because relatively little impact assessment of ICT4D projects has been undertaken; and what has been undertaken often lacks clear framing and rigour.” 

When the opportunity to review and construct an assessment framework, he plunged into the work with co-author Molla. The result? The seminal ICT4D “Compendium on Impact Assessment of ICT-for-Development Projects” which has been cited hundreds of times. This compendium looks at the nature of the project, the deemed beneficiaries and proposes contextual frameworks for undertaking the measurement. 

The assessment of any ICT intervention that neither uses nor cites this bible is in my humble view simply not credible.  So, when he advised me of a conference in Cape Town, with the Development Implications of the Digital Economy (DIODE): Theory and Methods, I literally hopped in the plane in excitement. This is Heeks current area of research. His research output remains evolutionary, profound and relevant to Africa.

The DIODE attendees were an eclectic bunch of extraordinary researchers from all over the world such as Oxford and Simon Fraser University. The core of the digital economy is the ‘digital sector’ which is essentially the ICT sector creating and supporting digital goods and services. The digital economy is that part of economic output derived solely or primarily from digital technologies which is growing rapidly in developing countries. Heeks estimates the digital economy to contribute around 5% of the global GDP and 3% of global employment.

There are hundreds of thousands of enterprises employing millions of workers in this space. The fast-paced innovation provides ever-more opportunities, but also introduces challenges.  Regrettably digital economy research and policy advice predominantly exhibits a high-income country bias.  Heeks explains “We know very little about implications for low- and middle-income countries in the global South, at the level of government, firms and workers.  It is these knowledge gaps that the DIODE Research Network seeks to fill.”

The DIODE Network aims to help fill knowledge gaps with three main objectives. The first is to assess the current state-of-play and identify and map a future research agenda. The second, and why the event was  in Cape Town, is to create a research network with the capacities to implement research on digital economies and development. And finally to develop specific research proposals that address identified research priorities.

While I was working in the incubator and technology space I often heard of the App economy and ICT is going to generate millions of jobs and opportunity. The conference simultaneously reduced my expanding digital bubble and provided a healthy dose of realism. Consider, that the “hot” ICT Indian industry employs just 4m professionals directly with a further 10m indirect jobs being created. This is a country with 400m employable people. The number of employees may not be high at just 1% of the total employable. What is significant is that the sector boxes above its weight in its contribution to the GDP.

The Internet has provided for an avenue for remote freelance work for folk to work from home or a location of their choice. This is advertised through online forums such as Upwork. This is an evolution of the Small Office Home Office (SOHO) concept where workers still worked for a company although from their homes. The freelance jobs created opportunities such as technical editors, blogers, programmers, web developers, testers and graphics artists etc.

It was agreed that the Internet has made the world flatter and smaller and to certain degree more equal. Yet, it was also pointed that there remains an unevenness on the Internet for online jobs. There is clear evidence of a north-south divide where folk from the southern hemisphere, particularly Africa are discriminated in remuneration when it came to the same of similar jobs. An American Facebook click is worth 20 times more than an African click. The drive for online fairness is potentially the next wave of activism.

The conference was hosted by academic and adventurer extraordinaire Prof Jean-Paul van Belle from the Information Systems Department at UCT on 23-24 January. Jean-Paul is fascinating and has to be the topic of a column soon. 

Richard Heeks, claims to be a rainmaker.  Indeed, it did rain for a few minutes on each day of the conference. Capetonians please offer this Manchester United fan, who happens to be my guru, the Key to the City. You may just get rain. You will get digital opportunities.

Dr Colin Thakur is a digital activist who is committed to the dream of “one person, one connected device.” He is the KZN e-Skills CoLab Director, located at the Durban University of Technology.