With a now-stable political situation, Côte d’Ivoire is developing a genuine digital strategy as an essential component of the country’s economic growth.
Interview with Innocent N’Dry, Head of New Technologies, Innovation and Services Development at the Ubifrance office in Abidjan, on the sidelines of the 6th annual Rencontres Internationales du Numérique (International Digital Forum) hosted by French export promotion agency Ubifrance on 23 and 24 October in Paris,
L’Atelier: In general terms, how is Côte d'Ivoire doing in terms of digital and innovation?
Innocent N’Dry: Over the last ten years Côte d'Ivoire has seen strong growth in the digital sector. Since 2003 the telecommunications and Internet sector has been growing at 7 - 8% per year. We’ve created 5,000 direct and 50,000 indirect jobs, and the government has received around €300 million in tax revenues from this field. The sector has become, and continues to be, a major market in Côte d'Ivoire, estimated at around 6% of GDP in 2013. This sustained growth, coupled with the fact that telecommunications have now truly become part of people’s everyday lives in our country, have resulted in our having one of the highest mobile penetration rates in the region, at a little over 75%. We have 10 million Internet users and, in first-half 2013, 18.5 million telephone subscribers out of a population of just 23 million.
Yet despite these excellent figures, you were telling us that Côte d'Ivoire is still lagging somewhat behind when it comes to digital...?
That’s right, but I meant more in terms of of network speed rather than of devices or digital usage. We have very little fibre-optic network, but the authorities are pushing very hard to install close to 6,500 kilometres of fibre optics in order to enhance our network infrastructure. In actual fact, Côte d'Ivoire was already one of the few countries in the region which had received 3G certification by 2012. Ivorians’ Internet use is today mainly based on mobile connectivity, with roughly between 75 and 80% of the population owning a smartphone. In terms of young companies and new technologies, there is real entrepreneurial dynamism, with the creation of incubators, the Orange Technocentre in Abidjan, and also many competitive tenders organised by private business. In the public sector, work is being done on the infrastructure, but support for the sector is still rather limited.
From your own experience, do you see a business model for digital development emerging – if not necessarily a pan-African model then at least an Ivorian model?
Yes, there is one, for us at least. We’re following, or at least trying to follow, the Senegalese model, which calls for solid support from the state authorities for young companies. With this in mind, the Côte d'Ivoire government implemented several years ago a free zone dedicated to ICTs just outside Abidjian but, as I said, there’s still a lack of investment in infrastructure, especially networks, which is rather dampening companies’ enthusiasm. This is certainly a business priority for the government but, while we have similar advantages to Senegal in terms of widespread digital usage and market penetration, Côte d'Ivoire policy for the ICT sector is still in its infancy. The government wants Côte d'Ivoire to be part of the group of emerging countries by 2020, and is hoping that these new technologies will enable us to become a regional ICT hub.
What, if any, has been the impact of new service sector mobile apps, mainly for m-health and m-banking/payments?
As I said, smartphones are very widespread among the population in comparison with computers, and there is a very strong market for service sector applications in Côte d'Ivoire. In the banking and payments sector especially, a large percentage of Ivorians pay for their shopping, pay their bills and make money transfers on their mobile devices.
As regards other major sectors such as health and education, there are still very few dedicated apps on the market. However, m-health and e-education are among the flagship projects in terms of public investment in the coming years. So, they shouldn’t take too long to appear on the scene and become an integral part of our daily lives in Côte d'Ivoire, just like our banking applications.