COVID-19: Implications for the ‘digital divide’ in Africa

Students study in a library at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa, a secondary school on August 5, 2013 in Mbabane, Swaziland. Image: Getty, 
Per-Anders Pettersson/Contributor
Students study in a library at Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa, a secondary school on August 5, 2013 in Mbabane, Swaziland. Image: Getty, Per-Anders Pettersson/Contributor

This article is part of the ‘ COVID-19 and Innovation in Africa’ series, produced by the Africa Portal, Wits University and the African Centre for the Study of the United States.

In a time of social distancing and government-enforced lockdowns to curtail the spread of COVID-19, digital technology has enabled the continuation of work, education and communication. But for millions of people who are unable to connect to the internet, the offline world is economically and socially isolating. COVID-19 has emphasised the ‘digital divide’, a term referring to the uneven access to/distribution of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in societies, which is a global problem. However, it is even more pronounced on the African continent. This article examines four digital divide factors in an African context and proposes short- and long-term solutions at different levels: governmental, corporate, continental and global. Although there are no quick fixes to the digital divide in Africa, a number of strategies can be rolled out to mitigate it.

The first factor is socio-economic: not being able to afford the right technology (preferably both a laptop and a smartphone) or internet access (preferably high-speed) creates challenges for people forced to work from home. The same applies to millions of school and university students whose ability to keep up with their coursework depends on their level of access to technology. According to GSMA, a mobile operators trade body, approximately three-quarters of the population in sub-Saharan Africa – 747 million people – have a mobile connection. But only a third of these – 250 million – use a smartphone. In 2019, only 10 out of 45 African countries tracked by the Alliance for Affordable Internet were able to afford internet connectivity (defined as 1GB of mobile prepaid data costing 2% or less of the average monthly income). Unfortunately, very little can be done about this in the short term. This is a multi-faceted governance issue, which requires the adoption of macro-economic policies which would result in improving the livelihoods of citizens, so they are able to afford the necessary technology.

The second factor is weak ICT infrastructure, which could act as a powerful economic and social driver, if bolstered. Improvements in this area have the potential to increase information flows, promote entrepreneurial activity and boost trade between African countries. According to Internet World Stats, at the end of 2019 Africa had an internet penetration rate of 39.3%. This was the lowest figure among all continents, with Asia being second-lowest at 53.6%. Compare this to Europe and North America, with the highest penetration rates of 87.2% and 94.6%, respectively. The infrastructural challenge requires significant investment and adoption of policies to improve the status quo.

There are also ways that other stakeholders, such as the corporate sector, can help to diminish the digital divide. For example, South Africa’s two largest mobile operators, Vodacom and MTN, have cut their mobile data prices by up to 20%-50%. It must be noted though that this was done not in response to COVID-19, but following a two-year investigation by the country’s competition commission into the high mobile data costs which hampered access for many citizens. Yet the timing could not have been better for mobile internet users under lockdown. Admirably, both providers have also zero-rated many learning sites, meaning that they can be accessed for free. Additionally, Vodacom provides a zero-rated learning portal, with extensive free content for all school grades. Many fibre providers in the country also upgraded the speeds of the customers’ lines during the lockdown, although this will primarily benefit those in the higher socio-economic bracket.

The third factor is access to information and communication. During a lockdown this means losing touch with loved ones and not having access to the latest news and information on the spread of the disease, as well as advice on keeping safe. To connect more people, governments need to provide free WiFi hotspots to low-income communities to facilitate social inclusion, access to information and learning opportunities. This should be done as soon as lockdown restrictions allow it.

However, there are important caveats here about communicating and sharing information, especially during a crisis. Some of the ‘fake news’ and disinformation circulating on social media and messaging apps during the current pandemic can endanger peoples’ health and even put their lives at risk. Furthermore, not everyone has the knowledge and skills to use the internet for educational purposes and entrepreneurial activities. Both government and the private sector should focus on digital literacy and awareness campaigns, to capacitate citizens on navigating through available information and using the internet to improve their socio-economic situation. Fact-checking organisations such as Africa Check have an important role to play and should be provided with additional capacity (financial and human resources) to expand their public education work across the continent, particularly by working with social media platforms and messaging apps to negate the spread of fake news and disinformation.

Finally, the fourth factor is internet shutdowns on the continent, commonly used as a political tool by governments to suppress dissent and prevent information-sharing. Governments typically justify shutdowns due to national security or to curb the spread of fake news. In fact, they tend to happen in response to protests or during elections, as governments are increasingly fearful of mass mobilisation as witnessed during the ‘Arab Spring’. In 2019 there were at least 25 partial or total internet shutdowns on the continent — an increase from 17 in 2018.

Not only do these digital blackouts cut lines of communication between citizens, infringing on their rights, but they also have a negative impact on businesses. Shutdowns cost African economies over USD 2 billion in 2019. Uganda’s Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) illustrates an interesting link between internet shutdowns and political systems. According to their analysis, 77% of African countries which ordered internet shutdowns in the past five years are classified as ‘authoritarian regimes’ by the Democracy Index, produced by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit. These shutdowns add political challenges to socio-economic ones, especially for those living in closed and oppressive societies.

Tougher action against internet shutdowns should be taken at both national and continental levels. Libya, Malawi, Sudan and Uganda are currently under lockdowns and all have track records of government-mandated network disruptions. Governments should refrain from ordering these – both now, during their lockdowns, as well as in the future. If this were to happen again, other, more democratically-inclined states need to exert peer pressure and publicly speak out against such practices.

At the continental level, the African Union (AU) needs to respond more robustly to shutdowns than it has previously. Although the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has previously expressed concern at this continuing trend, no action has been taken to stifle it. One way to do this would be to adopt a similar approach as it does to unconstitutional changes of government in its member states – by suspending them from all activities of the union. This would send out a strong message that access to the internet is a right of all African peoples that governments cannot deny.

At the global level, all countries also need to work together to combat the current health crisis and mitigate the effects of the digital divide, particularly through multi-stakeholder initiatives. The International Telecommunication Union, a specialised United Nations agency dealing with ICT, recently launched a platform to assist governments and the private sector with information on how to ensure that networks keep up with increased demand and continue providing telecommunications services. As with any such initiative, success depends on the uptake by member states. African governments and the corporate sector should utilise and share information and best practices adopted during the pandemic in their ICT operations.

The current lockdown restrictions make internet access even more essential to sustain livelihoods and maintain social contact. Social distancing will require millions to continue using the internet to work, study and socialise from home for the foreseeable future. Against this background, the 2016 declaration of the internet as a basic human right by the United Nations Human Rights Council becomes even more important. The G20 leaders also set out a number of actions items related to technology in a declaration following their 2017 Summit in Hamburg: ‘bridge digital divides along multiple dimensions, including income, age, geography and gender’ and ‘ensure that all our citizens are digitally connected by 2025’.

The AU similarly adopted a ‘Digital Transformation Strategy’ in February 2020, which aims to ‘erase the digital divide’ and ‘narrow the gender digital divide’. Global and continental institutions therefore have a vision of the internet as a right for every person, and for everyone person to have access to digital technologies. But this vision needs to be translated into reality. To achieve this, a multi-stakeholder approach is needed between African governments, ICT corporate sector, the AU and development partners, who need to work together to prioritise investment in ICT infrastructure, connecting the highest number of people possible to the internet at affordable prices, and ending internet shutdowns.

18 May 2020
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