Fostering the Digital Economy in Africa's Small Islands

The application of digital technologies in international trade can contribute to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.

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Rebeca Grynspan, UNCTAD

UNCTAD has launched a new project to strengthen the capacities of 38 small island developing states (SIDS) in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia and the Pacific to adopt trade policies that develop the digital economy and enhance crisis responses.

Digital technologies and e-commerce have immense potential to support the participation of SIDS in international and regional markets. They can also help build resilience and promote stronger recovery from disasters.

But the digital economy is in its early stages of development in SIDS, whose common challenges to digital transformation include limited access to affordable infrastructure.

And the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced pre-existing bottlenecks in SIDS’ e-commerce ecosystem.

The project, run by UNCTAD’s TrainForTrade programme, aims to develop the skills and knowledge of targeted SIDS’ representatives with innovative approaches based on a recognized blended learning method and state-of-the-art technological solutions.

“This new project will draw on the experience of our previous blended learning activities,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, director of UNCTAD’s division on technology and logistics.

“We are proud to work in collaboration with our other UN partners to ensure that SIDS will be better placed to harness the digital economy,” she added.

A holistic and multifaceted project

The project has three training components geared towards providing holistic support.

Its “legal aspects of e-commerce” component seeks to enhance the capacities of lawmakers, government officials and other stakeholders involved in drafting electronic commerce laws.

Adequate legal frameworks can facilitate the transition to a digital economy, reduce uncertainties, enhance trust and address potential harms.

“An adequate legal framework and digital identity system are needed to facilitate the uptake of e-commerce and the transition to a digital economy,” said Shani Griffith-Jack, first secretary at the Permanent Mission of Barbados to the UN in Geneva and previous chair of the SIDS group.

The “digital identity for trade and development” component is aimed at increasing knowledge on solutions to implement e-commerce at the policy level and for small and medium-sized enterprises.

A secure and reliable digital identity system is critical to enabling citizens’ full participation in their society and economy. The component will also cover risks and challenges related to digital authentication.

The “digital economy statistics” component will increase knowledge in this area and enhance statisticians’ work on data related to the digital economy.


UNCTAD staff and representatives of small island developing states discuss the project during its launch.

“The lack of official national statistics on information technology use and e-commerce constitutes a handicap for the formulation and evaluation of digital development policies,” Ms. Griffith-Jack said.

Official national statistics support the formulation and evaluation of digital development policies.

The project’s courses will involve online brainstorming, co-working sessions, interactive online courses, webinars and a high-level hybrid conference.

Assessing beneficiaries’ needs

UNCTAD will conduct a needs assessment to determine the capacity needs of targeted SIDS representatives, which will inform the development of the courses.

The assessment will involve the main actors at national, regional, and international levels. It will include open-ended questions, informal discussions, and questionnaires.

UNCTAD will compare the realities of the 38 countries and identify both their common challenges and specific needs.

The project scheduled to run until 2025 will culminate in an international meeting during which participants of the courses will present their national and regional policy recommendations.

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