Author: Helen Lock
Site of publication: Devex
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: July 29th, 2022
The digital technology sector is set to take off in many African countries over the next few decades. A June report from entrepreneur network Endeavor estimates that the continent’s digital economy is currently worth $115 billion — and expected to reach $712 billion by 2050.
Such a shift would signal big changes. Currently, less than a quarter of the people in Africa have internet access, compared with around half the population globally.
However, a Brookings Institution report predicts that the rate of internet use could rise to nearly 80% in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030, setting in motion growth that could make the continent a “global powerhouse.” In most of the region’s countries, the internet is more readily accessible through mobile phones rather than fixed broadband, and the number of people using these mobile services has been rising steadily since 2014, with 20 million new users coming online in 2020 alone.
Addressing a deepening digital divide
Yet many citizens still lack the resources and skills needed to get online. Amina J. Mohammed, the deputy secretary-general at the United Nations, has warned of an increasing digital divide becoming “the new face of inequality” in the 21st century.
In addition to a lack of the essential infrastructure necessary for access, the internet itself comes with risks.
“We have seen digital technologies become vehicles for the spread of misinformation, hate speech, online child abuse, and violent extremism,” Mohammed said in April 2021 during a U.N. event on digital cooperation and connectivity. She added that a “common effort” is required to provide protection for users and consumers and to “connect everyone with a positive future.”
Some young entrepreneurs in Africa are trying to lead the way by improving access to both the technology and the skills needed to reap the benefits of the internet, including job opportunities in an increasingly global market.
Reaching rural women in Nigeria
Hafsah Jumare discovered the extra level of effort required to ensure inclusivity when she launched the startup CoAmana in 2018. She had quit her management consultancy job in the Nigerian capital of Abuja to do something with more of a social impact, she said, but reaching the rural women whom she wanted to support turned out to be a difficult task.
The startup uses a mobile app, as well as a text messaging service and a call center, to connect farmers and small-business owners with market information and buyers. ComAmana acts like a one-stop shop for business owners to access financial services, such as credit and insurance.
Some young entrepreneurs in Africa are trying to lead the way by improving access to both the technology and the skills needed to reap the benefits of the internet, including job opportunities in an increasingly global market
However, Jumare noticed early on that few of CoAmana’s users — only 11% — were women. “We realized we had natural demand patterns [causing this], so we had to specifically tailor a strategy for women to change it. Now about 80% of the users are women,” she said.
Reaching more women required investment. “It takes a long time to build trust. And it required a lot more training [for these users], because men are a bit more exposed to technology,”.
Instead of expecting women to simply begin using the app on their own, CoAmana hired more call center agents to answer questions about the app and its functions, as well as more field agents to go out and directly explain the service to women in rural areas.
Jumping on the digital skills train
Closing the digital divide is not only about access to technology. Ensuring that individuals — especially those in the remotest areas — have digital skills and literacy to take advantage of existing technology is equally important. Some development institutions have recognized this need — and in the past few years, a crop of new initiatives have sprung up.
Examples include a “Digital Enquirer Kit” launched by German development agency GIZ in January on a free learning app named atingi — developed through a partnership between GIZ, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Smart Africa Alliance — that aims to provide free access to digital learning in African countries. The training covers everything from identifying misinformation and using privacy settings to “tackling online gender-based violence.”
Another example is the Yoma digital marketplace, which was launched in 2020 and connects young people in Nigeria, Burundi, and South Africa with training opportunities, such as courses in data analytics, project management, and information technology support.
“The digital divide is going to close itself eventually because the telecommunications companies are aggressive and want to expand as much as they can,” Albino added. “The issue now lies in the ability of young people to be able to utilize that platform most effectively for their own growth and to contribute productively to the communities that they’re in.”
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