Africa’s digitalization and the ecological dilemma

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Almost everyone is convinced that Africa’s economic and social development is dependent upon its “digital transformation”. Yet the continent is already paying a heavy social, economic and maybe above all environmental price for the development of these technologies. Under these conditions, can we imagine a digital development that is both equitable and sustainable for Africa, but also on a global scale?


“Digital Economy for Africa Initiative” (DE4A, World Bank), “Africa E-commerce Agenda” (WEF/ITC), “Nairobi Manifesto on the Digital Economy and Inclusive Development in Africa” (UNCTAD)... », there are countless international initiatives aimed at helping Africa seize the opportunities offered by the “digital revolution”. They echo the multiplication of similar initiatives by African States themselves, both at the national level (e.g. “Digital Senegal 2025”, “Smart Rwanda Master Plan”, “Kenya Digital Economy Blueprint”, etc.) and at the regional level (e.g. the African Union’s “Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa”).


These initiatives are all aimed at addressing the fact that Africa is consistently arriving last (on average) in the different rankings that try to measure digital development [1]. This situation is all the more problematic as digital development is seen as a prerequisite for economic and social development in general, not to mention the promises it is supposed to hold for the “inclusion” of the most marginalized population groups, such as youth and women, for example.


There would therefore be a need for a “digital catch-up” for Africa, as urgent as necessary. The consensus is so broad on this issue, that the only thing that still seems to be debated is the conditions under which the continent would be best able to benefit from digital technologies and the digital economy. A good example of this is the ongoing WTO negotiations on “e-commerce” [2]. The majority of African countries - and many actors of international civil society - consider that the envisaged rules could harm the interests of the countries of the Global South in general, and of African countries in particular. Nevertheless, the question of whether digital technology itself is not as problematic is rarely, if ever, raised. “The digital economy is here, whether we like it or not, the question is how to make the most of it,” this is more or less what one hears from most people interested or involved in Africa’s digital development, including from a progressive perspective [3].


Yet, as with “development” [4] in general, it seems clear that it is neither desirable nor even possible for Africa to follow the same digital trajectory as the most “advanced” countries in this area, particularly for environmental reasons. Indeed, digital activities are very far from the immateriality that is generally attributed to them [5]. On the contrary, it is becoming one of the main sources of environmental degradation, and Africa is likely to pay the heaviest price.


Environmentally destructive technologies


This is the case, first of all, because many of the raw materials needed for the production and operation of the various digital devices come from Africa. The production of smartphones, for example, requires the use of metals (more than 40), some of which are found in very limited quantities and whose extraction has a particularly high environmental cost: deforestation, water pollution, mining waste, greenhouse gas emissions, etc. One of the best known cases is that of cobalt, a key metal for the manufacture of lithium batteries, which are found in particular in laptops and smartphones. Currently, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alone provides 60% of the world’s supply, with terrifying environmental and health consequences, not to mention human rights abuses and the geopolitical destabilization that accompanies them [6]. While this may be seen as an extreme case, it masks a more general reality: the digital economy is based on an “extractivism” that is at least as destructive and unsustainable for Africa as “traditional” industries.


The second problem is that the ever more massive and intensive use of digital technologies is also causing a colossal increase in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In a study relayed by The Guardian, Swedish researcher Ander Andrae was alarmed by a trend that is only increasing: "We have a tsunami of data approaching. Everything which can be is being digitalized. It is a perfect storm. 5G [the fifth generation of mobile technology] is coming, IP [internet protocol] traffic is much higher than estimated, and all cars and machines, robots and artificial intelligence are being digitalized, producing huge amounts of data which is stored in data centers.” [7] As a result, digital technology alone is expected to consume 20% of the world’s electricity by 2025 and to account for 14% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, thus contributing to global warming, the consequences of which are already disproportionately felt in Africa.


Finally, Africa also pays an extremely high environmental price in the last stage of the life cycle of digital technologies, namely their recycling or disposal. Friends of the Earth recently recalled that “one of the consequences of the high consumption and short lifespan of our products is the production of waste. In 2014, 41.8 million tons of electrical and electronic waste will be generated worldwide... a sad record” [8]. Most of this waste ends up being exported legally or illegally to countries in the Global South, particularly in Africa. In a documentary broadcast on France 5 in February 2019, directors Coraline Salvoch and Alain Pirot showed how many of Europe’s electronic waste ends up in illegal and non-compliant landfills in Africa, such as the one in Accra, Ghana [9]. This reality was confirmed by another survey, this time in 2018 by the NGO Basel Action Network, which estimated that Europe illegally exports 352,474 tons of e-waste per year, the equivalent of 2.5 billion smartphones. After having tracked the final destination of some of these illegally exported wastes, the NGO found that more than two thirds were sent to a country in the South, with”Africa as the destination of choice" [10].


Catch-up or transform?


Of course, this is all the more scandalous as this environmental degradation is largely the result of digital production and consumption activities that benefit the region only marginally, when it doesn’t widen the gap between the continent and the rest of the world [11]. In this context, however, many limit themselves to claiming for Africa a larger share of the digital cake, but without questioning its size or the conditions under which it is cooked. This is the case, for example, with proposals to deconcentrate and/or decentralize a global digital economy that currently benefits only a handful of American or Chinese multinationals [12]. This prospect is of course commendable, but it too often overlooks a fundamental fact: even if it is more democratic and fair, the current digital economy remains unsustainable from an ecological point of view. In this field as in others, the priority must therefore be to drastically reduce the global environmental footprint, in particular by moving towards what some people call “the age of low tech” [13] or “digital sobriety” [14], to use two titles from recent works.


In their most radical versions, these notions refer first of all to the idea of a break with the very ideology of digital technology and its “ever more” (ever more devices, ever more sophisticated, ever more efficient). It would therefore be a matter of accepting a form of “digital degrowth” or “digital decolonisation” [15] which would imply, in particular, breaking with the evidence of certain evolutions, such as the “necessary” digitization of schools, public administration, hospitals, etc., but also of Africa?


Common But Differentiated Responsibilities


It all depends on what is meant by “digitization”. In the North, the term refers to the continuation of a process that has already far exceeded its sustainability thresholds. In the South, and in Africa in particular, this is still far from being the case. Under these conditions, it is difficult not to think of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” that prevails in international environmental law [16]. Applied to the digital environment, it would mean that the bulk of the “digital decline” effort should be borne by the countries and categories of actors that have benefited most from it so far, including so as to leave others a margin of development that is not immediately synonymous with increased environmental disaster.


The current 5G race is a good example of this [17]. Indeed, the colossal environmental costs of this technology are all the more unjustifiable as its first beneficiaries are in already hyper-connected regions, where half of the world’s population and more than two thirds of the African population do not even have access to the Internet yet. Conversely, its refusal could leave more room for the development of a more accessible and less environmentally destructive global connectivity, while avoiding widening the already huge gaps between those “excluded” from digital technology and those with the most advanced technologies.


However, unless a pure and simple digital exit is envisaged [18], it will be difficult to avoid a radical transformation of the very way digital technologies are manufactured, used and recycled, including in Africa, if we wish to avoid both ecological disaster and the reinforcement of inequalities within and between countries. In concrete terms, this means, for example, favoring less sophisticated but more widely accessible and more easily repairable or recyclable devices, favoring community and/or shared rather than individual uses, or promoting digital self-determination through decentralized infrastructures and the widespread use of open source software [19].


African advantages


In all these areas, it may well be that Africa’s “digital backwardness” could be precisely its main asset. First, because while much remains to be done in the region in terms of digital technology, it also means that much remains possible. The further a country or region has gone in a given type of digital development, the more difficult and costly it is for them to get out of it, a phenomenon that specialists call “path dependency”. Conversely, there is therefore still time for Africa to avoid many of the mistakes that have been made elsewhere in terms of digital development, but only if it acts quickly and, above all, if it gives itself the means to do so, including in terms of policy and regulation spaces.


Secondly, because the various constraints (economic, social, environmental, infrastructural, etc.) that weigh on the uses and users of digital technology in Africa have already led to the development of initiatives and experiments, some of which are close to the “low-tech” or “digital sobriety” principles mentioned above. Professor Ramesh Srinivasan of MIT, for example, explains that: “In Nairobi, Kenya, I was amazed to see a 3D-printing business set up on a street corner, merrily printing everyday objects for passersby. Their custom 3D printers, which make everything from medical devices to household appliances, were cobbled together from circuits and wires salvaged from dumps and recycling centers. Not only are they a fraction of the cost of Chinese and even American printers, they are also far more robust and resilient, able to withstand the heat, noise, and elements of this East African country. Why? Because they were designed by Kenyans for their local environment and fellow countrymen.” [20]


The point is obviously not to idealize this “culture of resourcefulness” [21], and even less to overlook its ambivalences and very real limits. But simply to stress, along Mr. Srinivasan for example, that it is perhaps there, in spite of everything, that the outlines of a (more) desirable future for digital technology are taking shape. Much more, in any case, than in the almighty fantasies of the Silicon Valley giants.


July 13 2020





[1] See, for example, data compiled by the International Telecommunication Union: ; or UNCTAD:


[2] For more details on the origin and stakes of these negotiations: Cédric Leterme, “Global business of bytes”, Le Monde diplomatique, November 2019:


[3] This was the case, for example, in the seminar organized by the South Centre (with the participation of CETRI) in May 2019 for French-speaking African countries: “E-commerce rules in the WTO? Implications for developing countries”. Beyond the differences of opinion on the position to be adopted with regard to the WTO negotiations, all participants seemed to agree on the inevitability of the “digital revolution”.


[4] On this notion and the debates that surround it, read: “Changing the model here and now?”, Alternatives Sud, vol. XXIII, n°3, 2016.


[5] On this aspect, read: S. Chen, “The Materialist Circuits and the Quest for Environmental Justice in ICT’s Global Expansion”, tripleC: Communication, Capitalism and Critique, 14 (1), 2016.


[6] On this point, read: C. Braeckman, “Congo: les mines de cobalt, scandale écologique et désastre sanitaire”, Le Soir, 4 February 2020:


[7] ”‘Tsunami of data’ could consume one fifth of global electricity by 2025”, The Guardian, 11 décembre 2017:


[8] ”Les dessous de la high tech”, Friends of the Earth:


[9] C. Salvoch et A. Pirot, “Déchets électroniques: le grand détournement”:


[10] Basel Action Network, “Holes in the Circular Economy WEEE Leakage from Europe”, 2018:


[11] On this subject: Sur ce point, lire: “Impasses numériques”, Alternatives Sud, vol. XXVII, n°1, 2020:


[12] For example, some of the most ambitious and radical versions can be found in the proposals made by the Indian NGO IT for Change (for example, see here: A. Gurumurthy, D. Bharthur, N. Chami, “Platform Planet: Development in the intelligence economy”, IT for Change, 2019:, which nevertheless remain largely silent on the environmental constraints under which such proposals could be considered.


[13] Philippe Bihouix, L’Âge des low tech. Vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable, Paris, Seuil, 2014.


[14] The Shift Project, “Pour une sobriété numérique”, 2018:


[15] In the sense of combating the growing influence of digital technologies on all aspects of our existence. See, on this subject, Roberto Casati, Contre le colonialisme numérique. Manifeste pour continuer à lire, Albin Michel, “Bibliothèque Idées” collection, 2013.


[16] On this theme, see in particular the next issue of Alternatives Sud: “L’urgence écologique vue du Sud”, to be published in September 2020.


[17] On the issues raised by 5G, read, among others, the special edition of the Kairos newspaper: “5G: Faced with the fairy tale, the account of the facts”:


[18] A position certainly minoritary, but one that is not lacking in arguments, including from a political and philosophical point of view (cf. for example: Julia Lainae and Nicolas Alep, Contre l’alternumerisme, Babelio, 2020). Nevertheless, it seems difficult to be feasible in the short to medium term, given the degree of digitization already achieved worldwide.


[19] For some ideas of this kind: Éric Vidalenc, Pour une écologie numérique, Paris, Les petits matins, 2019 or Bihouix, L’âge des low tech, op. cit.


[20] R. Srinivasan, “Opinion: The Global South Is Redefining Tech Innovation”, WIRED, 11 juillet 2019:


[21] As, for example, does the World Bank, making it a key factor in “innovation”: K. Nonvignon, “Low-tech innovations will save Africa”, World Bank Blogs, 11 June 2019:

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