Politics & Society

Between Infrastructure and Digital Skills for Africa

Is the EU Ready to Step In?

The European Union’s (EU’s) role as Africa’s primary trading partner is facing a significant challenge as the future of work in the growing African digital realm becomes progressively entwined with new socioeconomic dynamics, mostly in the digital sphere.

The EU is Africa’s primary and largest trading partner, responsible for the majority of exports (36%) and imports (33%) to and from the African continent, particularly in sub-Saharan African countries. Yet, considering the growth of a new emerging digital economy in Africa, this European position is now under threat. If the EU wants to remain Africa’s top partner and promote a collaboration based on democratic cooperation and multilateralism, it must meet the current and future needs of African economic development, especially as the African digital economy grows and its diverse local societies rely more and more on technology and digitalization.

The World Bank’s report on “The Future of Work in Africa” states that fast internet adoption has greatly improved job prospects for individuals in Africa. This trend has a positive impact on Africa’s economic prospects at both the national and regional levels. However, significant social challenges persist. In 27 sub-Saharan African countries, there is a significant shortage of digital education opportunities, particularly for women and low-income people.

African countries have specific local needs that influence and shape the adoption of digital technology and the creation of inclusive digital opportunities for their society. For instance, across much of sub-Saharan Africa, the creation of digital skills and digital educational opportunities is closely linked to the extent of internet access and the availability of electricity (or a combination of the two.) Without the establishment of robust physical infrastructures, the future of African digital development will lack inclusivity, leaving a significant portion of its workforce behind.

Therefore, the future of work in sub-Saharan Africa will depend heavily on the level of support from the international community in advancing physical infrastructure, inclusive education and opportunities for skills development in the digital sphere at the local and national levels. The balance between offering educational opportunities and developing effective infrastructure will be the central issue in shaping the future of the sub-Saharan African economy and its inclusivity vis-à-vis its most vulnerable people. However, the extent to which the EU can contribute to this equation remains unanswered.

In 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged the importance of this challenge and took decisive action by launching the EU’s Global Gateway. This ambitious investment plan represents a substantial European commitment aimed at countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Through the Global Gateway initiative, the EU has pledged to allocate €300 billion, a significant sum, for the 2021-2027 period to support development and cooperation efforts across the globe. Furthermore, through a new Team Europe strategy, which involves the collaboration of the EU, its member states, their implementing agencies, and public development banks, the EU aims to bolster its global influence by directing increased investments towards infrastructure projects in developing nations, African countries included.

This approach also seeks to promote the establishment of more inclusive societies and focus on key areas, such as education and skills development. In this context, subSaharan Africa emerges as a crucial testing ground for realizing these renewed EU ambitions, for instance by advancing infrastructure development, and ensuring that a more significant portion of the African population can actively participate in the digital economy by, for example, ensuring more access to opportunities and resources for African people who are currently excluded from the benefits of digitalization. In practical terms, the Global Gateway could mobilize more resources to address African digital needs as a whole and concretely improve inclusive digitalization of African societies.

Nevertheless, as of today, the EU has given precedence to approximately 70 to 87 projects within the Global Gateway framework, and a significant portion of these projects relies on conventional EU financial aid mechanisms, predominantly concentrating on physical infrastructure initiatives. Consequently, the complete scope of the Global Gateway and its far-reaching consequences has yet to be realized. Notably, the development of infrastructure within the Global Gateway has not yet been merged with education and skills development, particularly in African countries.

It could be argued that the Global Gateway’s scope extends far beyond the dichotomy between physical infrastructure and digital educational opportunities and that it is unrealistic to demonstrate comprehensive impacts of a new and massive program initiated just a few years ago. While these assertions may be true to some extent, it is vital to emphasize that, within the specific context of sub-Saharan Africa, a strong focus on digital education and skills development is absolutely crucial, particularly if one considers the specific trends of the workforce and the job market in the region and the specific digital needs at the local and national level.

For instance, African countries have more than 480 million mobile digital money accounts, which is constantly increasing. The World Bank has projected that just a small 10% increase in digital infrastructure could lead to a 1% growth in Africa’s overall economy and increase the work opportunities for millions of people. As a consequence, in sub-Saharan Africa, the next decade will see over 230 million jobs requiring digital skills and this will lead to incredible changes in the job market and job creation trends. As a result, individuals who will not have access to digital skills training and job opportunities, particularly women and people living in rural areas, will likely remain excluded from trends and career paths that could substantially reduce their poverty.

Moreover, it is worth noting that although digital education is pivotal for Africa’s inclusive economic development for broad segments of the African population, there is no sufficient data on the deficit of digital skills in the region to properly formulate effective and long-term policy-driven solutions. In particular, for many African countries, there is very limited statistical data on the use of the internet, digital skills opportunities and digital literacy. Therefore, policymakers can rely only on partial or aggregated data from international organizations and large NGOs. Furthermore, the absence of quality data has negative consequences in terms of coherent policy development. Even African countries that have a relatively robust digital ecosystem, such as Kenya or Ghana, have limited policy strategies and plans for digital growth. Hence, their digital strategies often remain vague or lack clear direction.

For the EU and its Global Gateway, the absence of such data poses additional risks. The infrastructure and projects established through the Global Gateway might not produce the desired long-term benefits that European policymakers aspire to achieve, particularly in fostering sustainable economic growth in Africa. For example, certain groups could remain excluded from utilizing the infrastructure developed through EU initiatives due to a lack of local skill development opportunities and specific data on their particular needs. On the other hand, enhancing connectivity in a particular African country might not necessarily translate into inclusive economic growth at the regional level. This issue presents a significant challenge to the global aspirations of the EU, its goal to remain Africa’s main trade partner and the objectives of the Global Gateway initiative as a whole. There is a risk that the EU may allocate considerable resources without realizing significant returns in local economic development and democratic consolidation and be unable to achieve inclusive social changes associated with the creation of a modern digital society.

Yet, the EU holds the potential to play a pivotal role in addressing the digital skills gap in Africa. However, achieving this goal necessitates the implementation of concrete and targeted actions in three different but related fields.


The Global Gateway has been characterized as a transformative action showing how the EU, member states, and privatesector participants can collaborate beyond the EU’s borders. Yet, at the moment the major focus of the Global Gateway initiative is still on hard infrastructure and, for the digital sector in Africa, on the area of connectivity. The real turning point for the Global Gateway could emerge if there is a solid investment ecosystem between the EU and partner countries in critical areas for global economic development. But in Africa, this appears to be extremely difficult, primarily due to the fact that millions of Africans still lack the digital education and digital skills required to participate actively in such an ecosystem.

If the EU aims for the Global Gateway to have a transformative impact in Africa, the inclusion of digital skills support must become a fundamental component of this initiative and create more and better opportunities for Africans to benefit from the positive aspects of technology. Without it, the Global Gateway is doomed to failure


As previously outlined, the scarcity of data regarding digitalization trends and skill development opportunities in Africa remains a significant challenge. Particularly, the understanding of trends concerning gender inclusion and rural development is notably very limited and therefore EU policy-driven initiatives might have limited impacts. As digitalization advances in Africa, and the current and future trends of its digital workforce depend on the ability to collect and analyze this data, it becomes crucial for the EU to play a more active role in supporting data collection efforts in Africa. This means supporting local statistical agencies and bodies, African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and NGOs in improving their capacity to collect and process data.

Moreover, the private sector and large European companies could find it in their business interest to support the collection of such data, particularly in countries where they are already operating. For instance, European telecom groups or software firms might be particularly motivated to collect data and establish private-public partnerships with the EU and its affiliated organizations for development and cooperation for specific countries.

Furthermore, the EU possesses substantial expertise in data collection related to digitalization and skills development. Entities such as Eurostat, EU member state agencies and EU agencies are well positioned to provide significant support to their African and international counterparts in improving data collection and sharing best practices.


It is no surprise that European higher education institutions and universities are known for their high standards of education and research and the capacity to attract students and facilitate mobility across the continent. European higher education can be an excellent way to promote digital skills development in Africa, particularly through innovative teaching methods, including digital learning platforms, interactive classrooms, and remote learning.

One way to do so is to better involve European higher education and universities in projects and initiatives such as Team Europe and the D4D hub. By doing so, European higher education institutions can enhance digital learning opportunities in Africa, and ultimately foster skill development, youth empowerment and economic growth across the African continent.

For instance, the EU has strong experience in facilitating university exchange programs, such as those offered by the Erasmus+ program. Thus, expanding opportunities, both online and in person, could be a beneficial approach to promote digital education in Africa and create more and better academic cooperation between African universities and their European counterparts.

Given the significant importance of digital development for Africa’s future, it is in the best interest of Brussels to actively promote high-level cooperation in the area of skills development. Specifically, establishing robust digital partnerships with aligned African universities could contribute to building greater global confidence in democratic principles, Western actors, European technologies and open and transparent policy frameworks. This approach would help prevent investment duplication, enhance the dispersion of international aid and better support Africans interested in gaining improved digital skills.


Originally published
in System Updates: Resetting the Future of Work

Andrea Castagna