How digital divide is denying African youth crucial opportunities brought by internet

Latif is a graduate hunting for a job like many other youths in Kenya. However, he has one key setback; he does not own a smartphone and lives in Wajir where access to internet is limited. This locks Erick, 24, out of job openings posted online.

Latif’s challenge reflects what millions young people in Africa are facing; their inability to access internet is denying them opportunities to better themselves.

A study funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Department for International Development found that some young people in Africa are using smartphones successfully to access or create employment.  The question now is how to connect more young people so that they benefit from such opportunities spawned by internet connection.

The importance of getting connected to the internet cannot be overemphasized in this and age as it has become almost an indispensable tool in all spheres of life such as economics, business, education, politics and general development.

Internet connectivity is the gateway to technological inventions that have generated myriad opportunities linked to transformed livelihoods and vastly improved services across the globe.

In addition, digital revolution has brought immediate private benefits, easier communication and access of information. Connectivity has shattered barriers to international trade and interactions, creating a more connected global community which provides limitless opportunities for those equipped with the necessary skills.

According to the World Bank, the number of internet users has continued to rise rapidly. As of April 2022, there were more than five billion internet users worldwide, which is 63.1 percent of the global population. Of this total, 4.7 billion or 59 percent of the world’s population were social media users. This means that businesses, people, and governments are more interlinked than ever before.

Nearly seven of ten people in the bottom fifth of the population in developing countries own a mobile phone, the Bank says adding that this population has the ability to reap the internet dividends if the analog complements are provided to them.

The World Bank report states that the unfinished task of connecting everyone to the internet – one of the targets in the recent approved sustainable development goals (SDGs) – can be achieved through “a judicious mix” of market competition, public-private partnerships, and effective regulation of the internet and telecom sector

The challenge is to expand broadband access, especially in rural areas, says the World Bank, adding that even “digital divides” in access exist across regions and countries. Such divides within countries, it notes, have a disproportionate impact on rural communities and the poor.

“Broadband (or high-speed) internet access is not a luxury, but a basic necessity for economic and human development in both developed and developing countries,” the World Bank says.

“It is a powerful tool for the delivery of essential services such as education and healthcare, offers increased opportunities for women’s empowerment and environmental sustainability, and contributes to enhanced government transparency and accountability. It also helps foster the social development of communities, including within the broader global context.”

Only about 35 percent of the population in developing countries has access to the Internet (versus about 80 percent in advanced economies), the Bank says, noting that broadband has also become a foundation for smart infrastructure (e.g. Intelligent Transport Systems and Smart Electric grids) that is facilitated by new wireless technologies.

“It can help create jobs in information and communication technology (ICT), engineering and other sectors, as well as help catalyse job skills development, an important avenue toward poverty reduction and shared prosperity,” it says.

In addition, broadband can help expand the reach of task-based work through online outsourcing platforms, which are projected to provide millions of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue over the coming years.

The World Bank says raising internet penetration to 75 percent of the population in all developing countries (from the current level of approximately 35 percent) would add as much as $2 trillion to their collective gross domestic product (GDP) and create more than 140 million jobs around the world.

A big proportion of African population are unable to enjoy the benefits brought forth by advances in technology because they live in isolated areas where modern communication gadgets are only a dream. Some, especially those in rural areas, are too poor to afford computers or smart mobile phones that are necessary to tap into the so-called information superhighway.

Out of the 7.9 billion people in the world about 5.2 billion, which represents more than half the world’s population, are locked out from enjoying the internet dividends, World Bank data reveals.  About 7 billion people are within mobile coverage, 5.6 billion of them have mobile phones while 3.7 billion people can access the internet. Only 1.4 billion people can access the high speed internet.

In Kenya, 42 percent of the population could access internet at the start of 2022. This means that a bigger population of Kenyans, 58 per cent, cannot participate in the digital economy.

These disparities impede shared prosperity and constrain access to pathways out of poverty. One possible solution for expanding broadband is to unleash private investment to the maximum extent possible, supplementing it where the social returns on these investments outweigh the private returns — for example, in rural areas where costs are high or revenues are low.

Kenya’s youth unemployment is the highest in East Africa Region, and internet access is a vital component in the search for jobs, and prospects shrink for those without it. For digital technologies to benefit everyone everywhere, there is need to bridge digital divide, especially in internet access.

The World Bank says in order for Kenya to get the most out of the digital revolution, it must work on the “analog complements”.

A number of initiatives have been unveiled in Kenya in bid to bridge this yawning divide. For instance, Kenya’s leading telecoms giant, Safaricom, initiated M-Pesa mobile-money service that can operate on a basic phone prompting greater financial inclusion.

M-Pesa – one of the largest mobile money services in Africa – has seen a steady increase in customer numbers from 2017, eventually reaching over 52.4 million customers in the financial year ending 31 March 2022.Through M-Pesa, households and businesses have access to a digital wallet that can use digital payments and financial accounts to interact seamlessly and efficiently.

M-Kopa solar is another initiative that has connected about I million homes to affordable solar power in East Africa by tapping analogue technology. In the M-Kopa model, consumers put down a small deposit for the solar panel and pay for the service using basic mobile phone.

Global Leadership Programme for Africa is also among the organisations in Kenya spearheading the push to reach out to the forgotten bottom million in Africa by coming up with innovative solutions that  use analog technology that connect them to opportunities in various fields.

The programme makes it possible for youth, who have no internet connectivity, to access fully funded scholarships, training, fellowships, workshops, grants and job opportunities through a basic phone with SMS capability for free. Internet connectivity is not required for one to benefit from the programme.

“We continue to build capacities of young Africans by exposing them to international opportunities abroad that would train them in key issues regardless of their internet connectivity, they only need a basic phone with SMS capability,’’ Says program lead Michael Onyango.





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