Skip to content

Estonian development cooperation in Africa: Why are we there and who benefits?


  • Katrin Winter

    Katrin Winter

ESTDEV Kenya opening


  • Development cooperation is a partnership
  • Why do African countries look to Estonia?
  • Economic benefits go both ways

Development cooperation is an important foreign policy instrument — the so-called “old” European countries have been using it for decades. Estonia may be relatively new to the game, but the simple fact that Estonia is a development cooperation partner is remarkable. Why? Only recently, we were on the receiving end. 

Over the past 30 years, we have carried out dramatic reforms and changed our society for the better. Now, Estonia is a role model for other countries. We have built a positive reputation as a trustworthy, skilled partner. We are in a unique position to expand opportunities for those beyond our borders and share our experiences so that others may learn from them.

Development cooperation is a partnership

Modern development cooperation is dynamic and adaptive, reflecting a more nuanced understanding of global challenges and the need for comprehensive, collaborative solutions.

In recent years, the goal of development cooperation has shifted towards sustainability and self-sufficiency. As such, Estonia does not merely contribute to African countries' budgets but sends its expertise.

We work with the representatives of the partner country (or region) to identify specific needs, and our task is to find where we can offer Estonian experience and expertise to meet these needs. Estonia’s partner countries in Africa — Kenya, Uganda, Botswana and Namibia — have been selected because their needs align with our experience. Estonian companies, experts and NGOs support the fulfilment of these countries' development plans and empower local communities.

Why do African countries look to Estonia?

The African continent is home to 1.2 billion people who speak nearly 2000 different languages. Though each of the continent's 54 countries has its own unique challenges, I will make one generalisation: almost all African countries see digitalisation and technology as the means to making a massive leap in socio-economic development.

Like many countries around the world, they see digitalisation as a tool to improve education, skills development and access to information despite facing challenges with infrastructure, affordability and digital literacy issues. Governments are adopting digital platforms to streamline administrative processes and improve service delivery, transparency and citizen engagement. As African societies move towards digitalisation, they seek to foster a culture of innovation, support start-ups and promote entrepreneurship and job creation.

Our digital reputation precedes us, even in Africa. Though the Estonian context is not one-to-one comparable to Africa, we still have a lot to share. Our development cooperation projects utilise innovative solutions and technology, which is especially important to African countries with large populations, where e-government technologies allow state services to reach a large number of people. Our interoperable data exchange technology is already in use in several African countries, and Estonia is seen as a benchmark for building a digital country. Every year, we host delegations from different corners of Africa who want to see what we’ve achieved with their own eyes.

The African context is also an interesting challenge for our experts and academics; working in Africa is certainly not a one-sided activity. The cooperation between Estonian and African academics is gaining momentum, and the possibility of contributing to the greater good through one's work and expertise can be inspiring. Furthermore, we can see more and more connections between development cooperation priority countries and Estonia’s well-being.

Economic benefits go both ways

Investing in Africa results in mutual benefits. Estonia and our partner countries benefit from increased economic opportunities as access to new markets happens in both directions.

Estonia's financial contributions are a drop in the bucket compared to larger EU member states, and yet our expertise in digitalisation, education and entrepreneurship is so valuable that bigger institutions, such as the European Commission, do not want to implement projects in these areas unless we are involved. Estonia has become integral to the European development cooperation mechanism. The Commission leverages our seed money, allowing us to provide opportunities for Estonian NGOs, entrepreneurs and experts through a transparent procurement process.

In addition to the public sector, our development cooperation model includes the private sector and civil society organisations because what we do must be human-centred, inclusive and beneficial to society. This approach to development cooperation is our trump card. 

Development cooperation between Estonia and Africa has grown out of its infancy. We have the opportunity to improve societies, strengthen Estonia's reputation on the global stage and introduce values based on human rights through our choice of projects and partnerships. I sincerely hope our development cooperation mechanisms will strengthen the bond between African countries and Estonia by creating shared opportunities, mutual understanding and open dialogue.

Author: Katrin Winter, ESTDEV’s regional head for Africa