Does Africa really need the internet? 

BY ANNE WANGARI NJATHI AND TSEMA YVONNE EDE

The African School of Internet Governance (AFRISIG) just concluded much-needed learning that successfully exposed us to the multiple layers of the issues surrounding internet governance and the role Africa played on the global scale. This meant that time and again whenever discussions around the need to create access and connectivity to the internet on the continent were raised, one would wonder, where is the infrastructure to provide internet services sustainably and equitably across the continent? Provoking our thoughts further to ask if we have solved the issues surrounding poverty, health, education, and energy to decide that access to the internet is a needed right in Africa, especially with the accelerated need for internet connection, usage and adoption brought to the fore by the COVID 19 pandemic. 

As a continent, Africa has seen steady growth in internet penetration since it rated 0.78% in 2000. The internet has now reached 28.7% of Africa, but there are major disparities in internet access and use across the continent. A 2019 report by the International Telecommunications Union, ITU, revealed that sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of people without access to an internet connection. The ITU data went on to show that over half of the total global female population (52%) are still not connected to the internet, compared to 42% of all men. ITU data show that while the digital gender gap has been shrinking in the commonwealth of the independent states and Europe, it is growing in Africa. The African region has an offline population of over 71% while Europe has the lowest of 17.5%. Europe has the highest internet use (82.5%) while Africa has the lowest (28.2 %). See the report here.

From our personal experiences, having been born and brought up in the everyday realities of Africa, we used to think that access to the internet was not an important right. While it has been declared a human right by the UN General Assembly 2016 Resolution and inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and despite having the privilege of witnessing some of its benefits, we did not believe that it was as important as the right to life or livelihood. When people are poor and hungry, they are not thinking about connecting with the rest of the world. However, the pandemic has shown us the critical yet undisputed role the internet plays in our lives. For these reasons, now we know and believe there will be no equality and equity if a large percentage of the world has no internet access. Attending the Afrisig 2021 contributed to changing our thoughts about how Africa’s internet need must be considered side by side with other critical gaps such as providing sustainable energy solutions, health services, and education, among others. Of course, since the pandemic, the most awakening contribution is for African governments to rethink how much Africa needs the internet and the role it plays in our daily lives. 

So, should we start talking about giving people smart devices and internet access or must we solve poverty and health gaps on our continent? These kinds of questions simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs. They are paradoxically leaving us with more questions than answers.

Well, this is not a debate of what should precede sustainable and equitable internet provision. It is a contribution to an ongoing conversation and research on the need for internet access as a basic human right. African governments in collaboration with other multi-stakeholder groups should provide internet connectivity just like the right to food, education, and health. The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) provides for the right to development, an individual and a group right. Article 22 of the charter provides that, “All peoples shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind.” The charter goes on to provide that “states shall have the duty, individually or collectively, to ensure the exercise of the right to development”. The Endorois Case established the fact that the provision on the right to development is enforceable.

So how about we ponder on ensuring access to the internet for not only enabling stronger economies alongside Africa’s potential to lead the digital economy but also dealing with unprecedented times like the COVID 19 pandemic?

The COVID 19 pandemic is not the first time the African governments are being put to task on the critical role the internet could potentially play in pandemic times. Between 2014 and 2016, schools in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea were shut down for several months. The closures interrupted educational progress, limited access to essential services families relied on, and a host of other services. Sadly, some children never returned to school, others fell behind in learning and development, and there was increased sexual abuse and exploitation. (Jenkins, 2020).

Ebola recovery was difficult for affected countries, former Liberian president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in a “letter to the world” explained the situation. 

“…Ebola is not just a health crisis—across West Africa, a generation of young people risk being lost to an economic catastrophe as harvests are missed, markets are shut and borders are closed … The time for talking or theorising is over.” (Sirleaf, 2014)

Who knows maybe African governments could have handled the Ebola outbreak better if they had utiliaed the multiple services internet access provided and applied those learnings for unforeseen circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A study conducted by GSMA Mobile Economy Sub Saharan Africa in 2020 underscores how the COVID-19 pandemic explicitly outlined and exposed the issue of the deep-rooted digital divide (the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet and those who do not) between the urban rich and rural poor in sub-Saharan Africa. More importantly, the divide between Africa and the rest of the world was crystal clear with social distancing, travel restrictions, and constraints on social gatherings. Connectivity for many across the world morphed from being a want to a need, serving as a critical tool to access essential services and accomplish day-to-day tasks such as working from home, schooling, shopping, socialising access as well as medical intervention. However, studies such as Mogaji (2020) and Olaleye et. al (2020) add that the digital surge was not experienced in equal magnitude for people in developing countries compared to those in developed countries. As they had to deal with the profound impact of the pandemic on top of the underlying economic challenges, poor infrastructure, lack of government support, and low literacy rates. 

What the above did was highlight our vulnerabilities here on the continent. It showed us how quickly things can change within a short time. A lot of jobs were lost, person-to-person interactions were limited to people living in the same house, and schools were closed, and for other people who could, they had to work from home. This automatically led to the fact that the only way the world could connect was via the internet. 

A lot of interesting questions arise for African governments to answer about the indispensability of the internet and the role it plays in attaining socio-economic and political growth.  The COVID-19 lockdown alongside social isolation has influenced technology behaviour in many parts of the world and Africa is not exempt.

This article chooses to draw a few technological divide implications, specifically on education, from three economically and technologically leading countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa are part of the so-called KINGS of Africa’s Digital Economy. In January 2021, internet penetration in South Africa stood at 64 %, with 38.19 million internet users in Nigeria Internet penetration stood at 50% with 104.4 million users and was at 40% in Kenya with 21.75 million users (Data Reportal, 2021). These figures imply that a large population of Africans is not connected to the internet. The number of unconnected Africans is likely more than these figures if the consideration of multiple device use is factored in. However, studies have shown that access to computers at home is increasingly playing a role in debates on the digital divide. Low-income members of the population, who constitute a majority, do not own personal computers. Notwithstanding, challenges of full connectivity for Africa goes beyond the infrastructure to lack of cost-effectiveness, availability, reliable electricity, cost of acquisition (mobile phones and internet), and language barrier (most of the digital content is in English), as argued (Bukht and Heeks, 2018). 

In Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa the population with internet access are mostly urban households with the ability to afford private education among other internet services. When schools closed, innovative education solutions were adopted. Every one of those solutions required some sort of internet access to be utilized. Some schools used Google Classroom, others used Zoom, and a few others had teachers resorted to recording their lessons on smartphones and sharing them in parent-teacher Whatsapp groups. This development implied that children without access to smartphones, laptops, or any digital device had no education. Situations like this worsen inequalities, placing children with privileged socio-economic backgrounds at an advantage over their public school counterparts. 

Essential elements of development in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are inclusion, access, and equality. The promotion of development on our continent will be further attained when a critical mass of Africans have equal access to every socio-economic and political right. 

Millions of people will remain unconnected unless the following is accelerated and implemented. 

  1. A multi-stakeholder approach is adopted to identify and tackle the very diverse issues that have impeded mass connectivity across the continent. The government and other relevant stakeholder groups have an opportunity to accelerate, foster and harness faster connectivity to ensure that no one is locked out of the access. 
  2. Multinational partnerships among African regional bodies is a prerequisite to attaining the growth of our digital economy. This can help States innovate around subsidising the cost of access and in creating African solutions to our African digital problems.
  3. Build a strategic Sub-Saharan Africa-wide connectivity infrastructure that not only opens up access but also inspires platforms and digital services that connect people to products, services, and information.
  4. In a technologically driven and media-saturated world, every citizen regardless of gender, age, disability, and otherwise need competencies to effectively engage with media and other information providers, including those on the Internet. (UNESCO, 2013) To address the digital divide, many African nations need to increase ICT access for learners in schools. UNESCO states that this is an essential precondition for equitable access and inclusive knowledge societies.
  5. Invest in the development of African professionals with the ability to produce software, applications, and tools which incorporate knowledge. How can African States start developing technological investment strategies to support a critical mass of citizens in gaining access to the internet? 

These recommendations are not exhaustive but they are a good way to start interventions and conversations around digital access.

In conclusion, we acknowledge that the internet is a fundamental human right. However, the reality is that Africa is dealing with multiple infrastructural gaps that could exacerbate rather than resolve the problems. These gaps indicate that the disparities in access to the internet harm development in Africa. The impact of this disparity, if not curbed, is that Africa will continue to be home to most of the world’s poorest people without opportunities to equitably compete on the global stage. Most importantly, Africa may not be able to leverage the Internet and technology in case of future pandemics if the gap is not significantly addressed. The side-by-side consideration proposed above is a tall order for most countries in Africa however with multi-stakeholder engagement, rigorous and dedicated efforts, along with baby steps, we might see the continent accelerate internet connectivity in astounding ways. 

Anne Wangari Njathi is a communication and digital media scholar whose research interests are driven by the changing tech ecosystem in Africa and what this means to various actors. Her research focuses on Africa’s fast technological uptake along the paths of digital innovation, infrastructure, governance/policy, user practices, and the transnational movement of the tech giants. She is reachable via [email protected]

Tsema Ede-Okoye is a lawyer with several years’ experience in human rights, conflict & dispute resolutions, governance, and gender. She can be reached via [email protected]

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