One day in January 2021 — as the President of The Gambia was connected to a high-level meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), student Serra Darboe was trying to access her lecture notes at home, and entrepreneur Rohey Sowe was wiring mobile money transfer for one of her clients — all screens went black. The whole of Gambia had lost internet access. The country’s single submarine fiber optic cable had been damaged by a fishing boat, and a backup terrestrial route to Senegal broke down at the same time. It was not a single instance. The pandemic has amplified the persistent challenges the country faces in ensuring stable internet connectivity, as Serra mentions in her testimony. Let’s look more closely at what stands behind this.
Nestled within Senegal along the winding course of the River Gambia, The Gambia is the smallest country in continental Africa, caught in an intricate web of fragility drivers. The two-decade-long autocratic rule of the previous regime has left deep scars on the country’s development. Almost half of the population lives below the national poverty line, over 60 percent of the workforce has no formal schooling, and the cohort of children born today is expected to achieve only 42 percent of its productivity potential. Access to basic services is insufficient and uneven, while administrative capacity remains limited. It is a challenging context to accelerate socio-economic growth, let alone pursue digital transformation. Yet, pockets of excellence exist. Over the recent years, the electricity access rate increased to cover two-thirds of the population, and the power supply that could hold for just 2–3 hours a day in October 2017 now runs almost 24/7. Youth literacy rates doubled, and encouraging signs of increasing uptake of digital technologies among enterprises and individuals abound. All these give hope that the vision of The Gambia as a digital nation is not just a mirage.
A recently completed World Bank Group Digital Economy Country Diagnostic of The Gambia that leverages an ecosystem approach to understand and develop a vibrant, safe and inclusive digital economy as well as a comprehensive set of interviews with national and international stakeholders takes a critical look at this vision. Challenges are plentiful, but opportunities exist, although they unevenly cross the five foundational areas of the digital economy (digital infrastructure, digital public platforms, digital financial services, digital businesses, and digital skills).
Located on the Atlantic coast, The Gambia benefits from a direct submarine fiber optic cable access to Europe (that very same one breaking down in January 2021 and leaving the whole country disrupted) However, digital infrastructure still falls short of its potential due to several critical bottlenecks. These include the absence of international redundancy in the “first mile” (where internet enters the country), insufficient competition in the “middle mile” (where internet passes through the country) driven by a quasi-monopoly of the incumbent operator over the national fiber optic backbone, its poor management, and high access costs. Despite a relatively competitive telecom market, mobile internet experiences persistent usage gaps, as 63.5 percent of those covered with the signal do not use it — the second-highest level among benchmarked countries. This usage gap highlights the existence of underlying factors other than coverage hindering people from using the internet, such as high broadband prices, low quality, insufficient content relevance, and security (on the supply side), as well as weak literacy and digital skills (on the demand side). Indeed, mobile broadband is excessively expensive. In Africa, 32 countries are cheaper for usage of 300 megabytes per month, while as many as 40 counties offer cheaper rates for 20 gigabytes per month.
In view of these persistent connectivity challenges and other important constraints in the enabling environment, the adoption and usage of digital financial services (DFS) in The Gambia remains low, as only 2 percent of Gambian adults use mobile money with the penetration of other DFS equally subdued. At the same time, the growth of digital businesses is inhibited by a weak business regulatory environment (including in the domains related to taxation, private equity, venture capital, crowdfunding, and intellectual property protection), limited financing opportunities, particularly for early-stage start-ups, insufficiently developed and targeted support initiatives, and weak digital skills. Despite being narrow in scale, however, there have been some promising technology-enabled interventions to deliver learning in schools and enhance digital skills, as well as promising private sector initiatives, digital start-ups, donor-funded support programmes, and investor activity (including an angel investors’ network established in 2020).
The diagnostic highlights that these initiatives need to be nurtured and scaled up. To tap into digital sources of growth and unlock digital dividends, The Gambia needs a mix of supply-side policies and investments to support affordable and reliable broadband and digital public services, as well as demand-side interventions, incentives, and skills-boosting programmes to stimulate their adoption and productive use by individuals and enterprises (including those in the informal sector). Anchoring these in solid “analog”— legal, regulatory, and institutional — foundations as well as regional integration efforts will be critical for success and sustainability. It won’t be easy, but the will is there, and the World Bank Group stands ready to support it.