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Only 24% of people in Africa use the internet. Tech investment can change their lives

Editor's Note: (Kristalina Georgieva is CEO of the World Bank and interim president of the World Bank Group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. )

Automation and artificial intelligence promise to have a profound impact on jobs in the industrialized world. Equally, if not more importantly, is whether these disruptive technologies will help workers in the world's poorest countries to catch up with the rest of the world, or whether they will fall even further behind.

The working-age population in Africa is expected to increase by some 450 million people between 2015 and 2035, according to a joint report by the World Bank Group, the World Economic Forum and the African Development Bank. And, if current trends continue, less than one quarter will find stable jobs and over 300 million people will be unemployed. Without new sources of growth, most countries in Africa will not be able to create the huge number of new jobs needed to match the coming wave of young workers.

One major source of new jobs will be the digital economy. In 2016, the digital economy was worth $11.5 trillion, or 15.5% of global GDP. It is expected to reach 25% in less than a decade, far outpacing the growth of the 'traditional' economy.

A flourishing digital economy in Africa would mean an ecosystem where people have digital skills, have a digital ID and have access to financial services and ecommerce. In turn, this would foster digital businesses ranging from immunization apps to pay-as-you-cook gas stoves using internet-of-things technology.

The digital economy has already started to take root in Africa, especially among young people. Cell phones provide financial services to millions of people, leapfrogging the need for a traditional bricks-and-mortar banking network. With the touch of a button, small farmers can find out how much they should be charging for their crops, cutting out the middleman. People get lifesaving blood delivered by drones in Rwanda, so supplies for life-saving transfusions can reach rural areas quickly and without relying on poor transport links and rural roads.

But if one compares Africa to other digital markets, the continent as a whole is not moving fast enough. With a population of over 1.2 billion , Africa is home to three unicorns, or private companies with a valuation of more than $1 billion. By contrast, the UK, with just 66 million people, has 16.

Of the 25 least connected countries in the world, 20 are in Africa. Only 22% of homes have access to the internet, while 24% of people use it. Too few citizens have digital IDs or mobile wallets — locking them out of access to critical services and e-commerce. Across North Africa, just 41% of adults have access to a formal account at a financial institution, well below the average for developing countries.

If countries in Africa do not accelerate investment in the digital economy, the development gap between Africa and the rest of the world will widen even further. We welcome the recent discussion at the African Union Summit that emphasized the importance of advancing Africa's digital transformation and ambitiously connecting every individual, business and government to the internet by 2030.

Investing in physical infrastructure, e-government and digital financial services can help African countries move forward across sectors from agriculture to health. Harmonizing regulation on data, universal digital ID systems, fin-tech and digital border crossings that cut down on time-consuming paperwork can create a digital single market of 1.2 billion potential consumers. If African countries can make this leap, they will become attractive growth markets for investors and businesses.

And investing in education will ensure people are ready for the new types of jobs that emerge from the digital economy. Putting the right curriculum and training programs in place can help people in Africa acquire the new skills that employers in the digital economy will want.

This is a Herculean task, a true African "digital moonshot," and we are putting money on the table to support the African Union's ambition. The World Bank will invest $25 billion in Africa's digital transformation between now and 2030, and we aim to mobilize at least $25 billion more from the private sector.

We know that the war on extreme poverty will be won or lost in Africa, and technological transformation is a potent weapon in this fight. The digital agenda is a growth agenda, a jobs agenda and a stability agenda.

As we stand on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution, we must seize the opportunity to help propel the world's most vulnerable people out of poverty.

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