It is a hot Friday afternoon and I am among several other passengers returning from Botswana on the Kasane-Kazungula pontoon.

As we near the loading bay on the Zambian side, about 10 speed boats suddenly emerge and the pontoon becomes a hype of activity with my fellow passengers grabbing their boxes filled with goods and throwing them onto the moving speed boats which disappear soon after being loaded with the goods.

At that point, it becomes apparent to me that the goods being thrown onto the speed boats are being smuggled from the surrounding countries into Zambia.

This incidence is not unique to Zambia and Botswana alone as almost all countries in southern Africa are experiencing such high levels of smuggling and are losing out on the much needed revenue through tax evasion.

According to the organised crime in Southern Africa report, which was published before the construction of the new Kazungula Bridge, speed boat owners on both the Zambian and Zimbabwean side have been assisting smugglers to load Zimbabwean Ivory, cigarettes, liquor and fish to sell to Zambians.

Zambians in turn have been supplying Zimbabweans with the much needed foreign exchange such as United States dollars and other convertible currencies, foodstuffs and toiletries and the transactions which are usually carried out at night.

Other goods that have also been smuggled are firearms, audio-visual pirated products, counterfeit medicines, cosmetics and cigarettes, fuel and counterfeit currencies as well as illicit drugs across borders of southern Africa.

This tax evasion, which sometimes also involves under-invoicing, entails reporting a lower quantity, weight or value of goods to pay lower import tariffs, misclassification, in terms of falsifying the description of products so that they are misclassified as products subject to lower tariffs, improper declaration of the country of origin and bribing customs officials.

With the coming of digital technology and big data, these high levels of smuggling by the informal sector in the southern African region are headed for a major turn-around.

This is because technological innovation such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) has the capacity to monitor trade among southern African regional countries through the use of big data.

As the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) report recommends, satellite data collection, AI and mobile telephone data collection can be used to detect informal cross-border trade as well as boost trade generally.

“To achieve recovery from the recession as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and move forward with integration, African countries, including the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) countries need to rationalize the industrial sector to support regional value chains, while leveraging the digital economy,” the UNCTAD stated.

The Development Dynamics in Africa 2021 report, which is the result of a partnership between the African Union (AU) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), presented last year reiterates the importance of digital transformation in creating quality jobs and economic recovery of post-pandemic African Countries.

OECD director Ragnheiidur Elin Amaddottir explained that the COVID 19 pandemic had boosted demand for digital solutions in Africa.

“COVID 19 is boosting the digital transformation of Africa by making people look for remote solutions in times of lockdown. The COVID 19 crisis is actually accelerating the digital transformation,” Mr Amaddottir said.

He urged African regional countries to share best practices, boost recovery and job creation.

With more than 629 million mobile-phone users, phone data is proving to be a critical need for many countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), from humanitarian assistance to e-health, e-governance, e-commerce and e-agriculture, among others.

The effective integration of Information Communication Technology in the various sectors of development in southern Africa is key to regional integration.

In Zambia, the country’s Development Agency has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with three entities to facilitate for the establishment of a cross border e-commerce industrial park aimed at linking small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to international markets.

The Zambia-China agreement e-commerce MoU is facilitating for market linkages of products produced by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to international buyers through an online portal.

In the agricultural sector, UNCTAD studies have suggested that ineffective farm operations such as late planting/weeding, the lack of proper land preparation and harvesting techniques, and poor housing and feeding for livestock can reduce smallholder farmers’ productivity by up to 40 per cent.

The use of AI has a potential to improve this condition by improving farmers’ livelihood and access to services.

One example is the AgriLife app, Varimi app, among others, that farmers in southern Africa are using. These apps are empowering the farmers with key farming information such as weather projections, pesticide usage, organic farming and improving food security, among others and this assists bettering the crop yields for the farmers in the region and promoting integration.

AgriLife, which is accessible via mobile phone, is also being used for collecting data and analyzing farmers’ production capability and history. To ensure fast, easy and efficient availability of resources and services to distant, rural farmers, the platform also acts as an integration point for financial institutions, mobile network operators, produce buyers, and their agents. The data analysis provides a better understanding of small farmers’ needs and production capability.

In Zambia, farmers use the plantix app and the app started uploading information on its 10,000 plus farmer clients, who used to travel long distances to consult veterinary officers on plant diseases.

“Before using Plantix, we used to collect plant disease information by paper-based questionnaires provided to us by agricultural extension officers and this used to make us lose our crops, but with the coming in of the plantix app, we are receiving the much needed assistance in real time,” says Nchimunya Mweemba, a plantix app user farmer.

The World Bank estimates that African food markets will be worth US$ 1 trillion by 2030 up from the current US$ 300 billion.

Demand for food is projected to at least double by 2050, driven by population growth, rising incomes, rapid urbanisation, changes in national diets, and more open intra-regional trade policies, all of which are helping create new opportunities for Africa’s farmers.

It is estimated that a one per cent increase in crop productivity reduces the number of poor people by 0.72 per cent in Africa.

The agricultural sector in southern Africa would benefit from the AI innovation because of its potential to improve productivity and efficiency at all of the stages of the agricultural value chain in southern Africa and enhance integration.

These technologies can empower small-holder farmers to increase their income through higher

crop yield and greater price control.

For example, drone technology can be used to plant and fertilise seeds at a speed beyond human abilities.

According to Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company, tailoring information and advice to farmers could increase annual world-wide crop production by about US$ 20 billion.

As United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director-General Audrey Azoulay says, promoting AI in Africa can help advance more rapidly towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ms Azoulay adds “This can be achieved by allowing better risk assessment, enabling more accurate forecasting and faster knowledge sharing, by offering innovative solutions in the fields of education, health, ecology, urbanism and the creative industries and by improving standards of living and our daily well-being.”

In the health sector, Southern Africa has also become an emerging arena for digital health innovations directed at strengthening health care, in terms of both patient management and disease surveillance and prevention hence strengthening collaboration and integration across the region.

So far, an analysis of the COVID-19 outbreak world over is showing that disease data from Twitter and online news reports giving world countries an accurate indication of the disease’s spread with a lead time of two weeks.

Through digital health, there are various telemedicine collaborations and use of social media tools for health promotion throughout the southern region.

District Health Information Software 2 (DHIS2) is changing the digital ecosystems for monitoring and analysing disease patterns, populations, and outbreaks, by gathering data collected routinely in health-care facilities and communities.

It is believed that by 2025, global data traffic will grow to 163 zettabytes, that is a trillion gigabytes and this growth will greatly contribute to regional integration.

Through AI and e-governance, public services are now more efficient and more responsive to citizens, enhancing impact on regional integration.

The AI system is also expanding access to financial services which are also now more secure and are reaching more citizens who need them across the region.

African banking markets have been described as some of the most exciting in the world as they are fast growing, nearly twice as profitable as the global average, and are full of innovation.

Recent studies suggest that approximately 40 per cent of African banking customers prefer to

use digital channels for transactions over branch channels.

For this reason, digitisation and innovation are two key factors in financial services which will assist grow the region and distinguish the leading from the lagging financial service providers.

Through AI Solutions, people in Southern Africa are now able to make online and in-store payments in seconds through quick response code scanning on any internet enabled phone.

Customers can now access their bank accounts on their mobile phones and transact.

In education, some countries in Southern Africa are using AI, especially in these COVID-19 times to monitor and grade students hence freeing up time for teachers, including offering additional support to students in the region through intelligent tutoring systems and automated teaching agents.

The SADC countries aim to develop the information and communications sector within the region to enable stronger Regional Integration and Economic Development.

To aid these intentions, SADC passed its Declaration on Information and Communication Technologies in 2001, which sets out the broad policy for the region on cultivating this increasingly important field.

The Declaration on Information and Communication Technologies established a coherent policy on information and communication technologies for SADC’s Member States as they endeavour to bridge the digital divide between Southern Africa and the rest of the world.

With the right mix of policies, southern Africa and its citizens can reap the benefits of the transformations in the years to come and this will include using AI or Big Data to gain a better understanding of the extent and nature of poverty and devise appropriate policy measures to curb this type of deprivation.

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