Is digital the key to get Africa off the ground?

Africa may have an abundant supply of commodities and raw materials, but is this the answer to Africa's economic growth—or should countries intensify efforts to diversify?

Antony Jenkins, group chief executive at Barclays, said that for the companies on the continent to achieve greater international expansion and seize growth, they have to "look forward" to future drivers and utilize technology.

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"It's quite tempting to look for 'analogs' in other parts of the world, and look at how they've created growth. I'd strongly advise against that. That's looking in the rearview mirror, this is very important to look in the forward mirror of the future. What are the assets that the continent has?" he said in a panel discussion chaired by CNBC Africa at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, South Africa on Friday.

"(One asset is) the power of technology to create jobs that we can't even think of now. In a way if there can be rapid deployment of technology, infrastructure and skilling, (this would) create a huge competitive advantage," he added.

Nhlanhla Musa Nene, minister of finance of South Africa, chimed in saying that previous experience proved reliance on commodities was unsustainable.

"Over-reliance on our mineral resources as a source of income over a period of time has proven not to be a sustainable path to take," he said at the panel discussion.

"If there is a fall in the commodity price that has been a source of revenue for your economy, this means you need to find and explore other sectors that would better place your lost revenue."

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Like other countries in the sub-Saharan region, South Africa is a big producer of precious metals like platinum. Since, the start of the year, platinum prices have fallen by nearly 10 percent.

"We need to transform our economies such that they are structured to respond to these challenges much more flexibly and favorably," added Nene.

Jenkins highlighted the success of other emerging markets, such as India, in entering the digital age and advised countries to work to increase their workforces' skills.

"If the nations of Africa can provide the skills, then businesses will provide the employment," he said.

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Diamond: Africa is a very exciting opportunity
Diamond: Africa is a very exciting opportunity   

The Baltic and eastern European countries of Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic provide other examples of emerging market countries that have built expertise in technology—although they are far richer than many nations in Africa.

Jenkins noted that Barclays alone employed 1,300 computer programmers in Lithuania.

"The notion that we have to digitally enable Africa, in many ways is the most powerful thing we can do," he said.

As well as boosting workers' skills, Jenkins said that countries could also look to finance technology infrastructure, following the example of India, which has introduced 4G mobile communications into its most rural of regions.

Although Africa has 80 percent mobile phone penetration, the technology in use is too "simple" to optimize the benefits of the Internet, said Jenkins.

"They don't facilitate delivery of content, they don't facilitate creation of micro-businesses, they don't create delivery of educational and healthcare solutions and they don't in general support fostering agricultural improvements," he said.

"But we know that's possible to do all those things, because's there's tiny projects doing those things across the continent and in other parts of the world."

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