Kathy Gibson is at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town – The next stage of digital innovation could come from Africa: the ingredients to create digital economies are all there and some key interventions could stimulate massive growth.

This is the word from Baskhar Chakravorti, dean of global business at the Fletcher School of Tufts University, who has studied the leapfrogging potential of Africa and created the African Leapfrog Index (ALI).

Speaking at a Mastercard event on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum, he says the so-called lions of Africa appear to be sleeping at the moment, and the ALI looks at what’s needed to wake them up. “We need to get the lions to leap – to leapfrog.”

The ALI was created with the context of Africa in mind, with the enormous potential of a young population the top consideration, followed by the technological-enablement seen in the massive adoption of mobile phones.

The continent is industrializing rapidly and has an innovative culture. “We should expect innovation of revolutionary proportions.

“But can the penetration of the mobile phone help to close the gap to bring Africa up the socio-economic curve, quickly and in a way that is inclusive? And how does it tie into the larger pan-African context?”

The ALI measures where individual countries are relative to a benchmark.

The benchmark examines 250 indicators across three main elements: the ease of creating jobs; resilience of the fundamental infrastructure; and the fundamental digital potential of the country – including its propensity for using digital payments.

The initial index examines six countries: South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Egypt and Kenya, all key drivers of growth across the region.

South Africa leads the index in many areas, but lags in mobile payments.

The country is the regional leader in ease of creating jobs and in the deployment of several emerging technologies.

It also has the lowest number of average monthly power outages across all countries; while Cape Town is a recognised entrepreneurial hub.

However, to reach its full potential, a number of interventions are required, says Chakravorti.

With 54% Internet penetration, South Africa needs to increase access and availability. Current broadband and mobile speeds of 18,7Mbps and 27,6Mbps are below the global median and must be increased.

Digital payments capabilities have to become more inclusive: while 67% of South Africans engaged in digital payments in 2017, this number falls to 30% for the poorest 40% of the population.

A massive 650 000 to 700 000 young people join the workforce each year: with a 27,6% unemployment rate – rising to 55% for those aged 15-24 – and slowing GDP growth, digital economy jobs must be prioritised.

Other countries have different strengths.

For instance, Kenya leads the continent in mobile payments. This still needs to be expanded, however, since a massive 71% of total payments are still in cash.

In Rwanda, government has a deep commitment to transform the state to a digital powerhouse; and has rolled out the infrastructure to enable this vision.

In Egypt, digital technology is the second fastest-growing sector; and it is the fastest-growing innovation hub.

Nigeria one of the most significant powerhouses on the continent, Chakravorti says, being home to innovative, creative and energetic entrepreneurs.

Nigeria has a strong entrepreneurial culture; and also have strong connectivity with partners outside the region.

Ethiopia could be poised to transition soon, with the major benefit of its education system producing a strong cadre of STEM graduates.

Chakravorti stresses that, overall, digital transformation is a catalyst for growth and enables democratisation. “Access to a mobile phone becomes the mechanism for individuals to be entrepreneurs or set up business,” he says.

“They need to be paid in a simple, secure way – and the phone enable mobile payments.

“A platform that is democratic needs to be inclusive if it’s going to be successful. It needs to reach as many entrepreneurs as possible.”

Africa’s ability to leapfrog into the digital age connects strongly with the new move to free trade, Chakravorti adds.

“Digitalisation could be to Africa what traditional industries were to the EU,” he says.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement will create a single market of 1-billion customer with $3-trillion in GDP.