Digitalise borders to unlock Africa’s full potential


(Posted 30th May 2023)


By Jeremy Springall, Senior Vice President, SITA at Borders


Africa’s immense potential to become a global powerhouse is undeniable. It
has all of the ingredients including a market of 1.2 billion consumers (rising to
1.7bn by 2030) and a combined GDP worth US$2.5 trillion. So what is holding
it back?

The African Union’s (AU) members have all indicated their support for and
recognition of the benefits of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, the Single
Africa Air Transport Market and the Free Movement of Persons Protocol. All of them
are intended to unlock free trade, tourism, economic opportunities and promote
widespread prosperity across the continent.
At the SITA Borders Management Africa Summit in Nairobi this month, speakers and
delegates from governments across the continent identified and discussed solutions
to resolving the biggest hinderance to these AU flagship programmes realising their
full potential, i.e. efficient borders to enable the frictionless flows of people and
In our deliberations we were continually reminded that it is easier and faster to
transport mobile phones from China to Africa than to move a few bags of maize
across an African border post. At the root of this are inconsistencies in the criteria
and processes applied by immigration and customs authorities for issuing visas,
travel authorisations, goods import and transit permits, the use of unsuitable and
often incompatible equipment and the vulnerability to agile international organised
crime and terrorism. All of these have to be tackled with shrinking budgets and
diminishing resources.


Striking a balance

Therein lies the rub: For economies to grow and a free trade area to work,
governments need to balance protecting their countries from trafficking, terrorism,
pandemics, and crime while making it easier to move people and goods across their
borders and at the same time respecting personal data privacy and its underpinning
The good news is that proven digital border management technology and emerging
digital identities put Africa in pole position to lead the way. A key advantage for Africa
is that it faces fewer legacy challenges in the digital space and in many ways, it can
move faster. The digital transformation of borders will be inevitable if the continent is
to achieve its ambition.


Recognized benefits 

Airlines and airports understand the potential of digitalizing border processes. At the
coal face of international travel, the industry has long recognized the need for digital
immigration processes. The challenges of COVID accelerated this trend. For

example, SITA’s 2022 Air Transport IT Insights showed that 75% of airline executives
will ?invest in passenger biometric identity solutions by 2025. This means passengers
will be identified by a simple facial scan, making the identification process fast and
However, it can’t be done by one industry in isolation. It needs government and
broader industry support.


SITA is leading the way

SITA, the global air transport industry-owned IT and solutions provider, is leading this
push. Over the past 30 years, SITA has helped 70 governments – including South
Africa and Egypt – make their border crossings faster and more secure. We
pioneered what is now the global standard for Advance Passenger Information
processing and we are helping governments digitalise key immigration processes so
that they can be completed ahead of travel. This helps governments to effectively
extend their borders and assess who enters their country long before they arrive.
Travelers, on the other hand, only have to complete a simple check on arrival.
The benefit of this approach has been shown to work time and again, particularly at
big sporting events such as the World Cup. We helped South Africa in 2010, Brazil in
2014, and Qatar in 2022 to manage the vast influx of visitors.
Digital identities will take this to a new level. Driven by the UN’s International Civil
Aviation Organization, which sets global passport standards, the industry is shaping
a new digital identity that will replace physical documents such as identity cards or
passports. A key driver is that holders will choose what data they would like to share
with whom. It is privacy by design. These digital identities can be used at the airport
but also at land and sea borders or other touchpoints, such as hotels or major
events, as we did in Qatar for the World Cup. All that is needed is a simple scan of
your face a biometric touchpoint or on your mobile phone. We see these digital
identities being extended to goods and services.
Together these technologies will reshape how borders are managed.


Making free trade a reality 

The technology exists today to make an African free trade area a reality. It allows the
balancing of protectionist measures to keep national borders safe with a more
welcoming face to visitors. It is scalable. And it is inclusive, allowing all elements of
public life to be managed from a single identity.
With the right support from governments across Africa, we can pull many levers to
unlock free trade and tourism across the continent. Policy and intergovernmental co-
operation the two most obvious but digitalization must surely be essential among

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