Unleashing Africa’s Full Potential Through Border Digitalization
Africa’s undeniable potential to emerge as a global powerhouse is evident. It possesses all the necessary elements, including a market of 1.2 billion consumers (projected to reach 1.7 billion by 2030) and a combined GDP valued at US$2.5 trillion. However, certain barriers impede its progress.
Members of the African Union (AU) have expressed their support for and acknowledgment of the advantages presented by the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, the Single Africa Air Transport Market, and the Free Movement of Persons Protocol. These initiatives aim to facilitate free trade, tourism, economic opportunities, and widespread prosperity throughout the continent.
During the recent SITA Borders Management Africa Summit in Nairobi, representatives and attendees from governments across Africa came together to identify and discuss solutions to the primary obstacle hindering the realization of the AU’s flagship programs: efficient borders that enable seamless movement of people and goods.
During our discussions, it became apparent that it is much simpler and quicker to transport mobile phones from China to Africa than to move a few bags of maize across an African border post. This discrepancy stems from inconsistencies in the criteria and processes employed by immigration and customs authorities when issuing visas, travel authorizations, goods import and transit permits. Moreover, the use of unsuitable and incompatible equipment and the susceptibility to agile international organized crime and terrorism exacerbate the issue. All of these challenges must be addressed despite shrinking budgets and limited resources.
Striking the right balance
Herein lies the challenge: Governments must find a way to safeguard their countries against trafficking, terrorism, pandemics, and crime while simultaneously facilitating the movement of people and goods across borders. Additionally, they must ensure compliance with personal data privacy laws and regulations.
The encouraging news is that Africa is well-positioned to lead the way in this regard, thanks to proven digital border management technology and emerging digital identities. One advantage for Africa is that it faces fewer legacy obstacles in the digital realm, enabling it to progress at a faster pace. The continent’s ambition to achieve its goals will necessitate the inevitable digital transformation of its borders.
Airlines and airports are well aware of the potential that digitalizing border processes holds. As front-line players in international travel, the industry has long understood the necessity of digital immigration procedures, a trend that has been further accelerated by the challenges posed by COVID-19. In fact, SITA’s 2022 Air Transport IT Insights revealed that 75% of airline executives plan to invest in passenger biometric identity solutions by 2025. This means that passengers can be identified through a simple facial scan, ensuring a fast and secure identification process.
However, achieving this transformation cannot be accomplished by a single industry in isolation. It requires support from governments and collaboration across the broader industry.
SITA leading the way
SITA, the global IT and solutions provider owned by the air transport industry, is at the forefront of driving this initiative. Over the past three decades, SITA has assisted 70 governments, including South Africa and Egypt, in making their border crossings more efficient and secure. SITA pioneered the now-global standard for Advance Passenger Information processing, and it is currently aiding governments in digitalizing key immigration processes, enabling them to be completed before travel. This allows governments to effectively extend their borders and assess individuals entering their country well in advance of their arrival. As a result, travelers only need to undergo a simple check upon arrival.
This approach has consistently proven successful, particularly during major sporting events such as the World Cup. SITA provided assistance to South Africa in 2010, Brazil in 2014, and Qatar in 2022 in managing the significant influx of visitors.
Digital identities will revolutionize border management by taking it to a new level. Spearheaded by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization, which establishes global passport standards, the industry is shaping a new digital identity that will replace physical documents like passports or identity cards. A crucial aspect is that individuals will have control over the data they choose to share and with whom they share it, emphasizing privacy by design. These digital identities can be utilized not only at airports but also at land and sea borders, hotels, major events, and other touchpoints, as demonstrated during the World Cup in Qatar. A simple facial scan or biometric touchpoint, either at a physical location or on a mobile phone, is all that is required. Moreover, there is potential to extend these digital identities to goods and services. When combined, these technologies will reshape the management of borders.
Transforming free trade into a reality
The technology necessary to establish an African free trade area already exists today. It allows for the harmonization of protective measures at national borders while providing a more welcoming experience for visitors. This technology is scalable and inclusive, enabling the management of all aspects of public life through a single identity.
With the appropriate support from governments throughout Africa, numerous levers can be utilized to unlock free trade and tourism across the continent. Policy implementation and intergovernmental cooperation are two obvious components, but digitalization undoubtedly holds a crucial role among them.