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Reducing the Digital Divide in Rural Africa

In today's progressively connected world, digital technologies such as smartphones, 5G cellular networks, and smart applications play an ever more crucial role in economic development. Deutsche Welle (DW) reports that with just 22% Internet connectivity, Africa is way behind the global average of 51%. The majority of those who remain unconnected are particularly in rural areas of Africa. Several obstacles that pose challenges for African rural populations include unaffordable smartphones, low-voltage networks, expensive Internet rates, and lack of Internet access in local languages, amongst others. This digital divide creates a barrier that hampers the potential for progress and exacerbates existing inequalities. Bridging this divide is crucial to empower individuals and communities as well as help in fostering inclusive growth and enabling access to vital services, information, and opportunities. This article explores the challenges faced in connecting rural communities in Africa and discusses potential strategies and initiatives aimed at bridging the rural digital divide.


Challenges in Connecting Rural Communities


In order to bridge the digital divide in rural communities in Africa, there are unique challenges that must be addressed. To begin with, there is a lack of physical infrastructure coupled with a lack of reliable electricity and Internet connectivity. Many rural areas do not have access to basic amenities, hindering the deployment of telecommunications infrastructure. The deprivation from basic amenities is heightened by the cost of infrastructure, as well as their maintenance, which gets much higher than in urban areas. Jha & Saha (2015) point out that the potential revenues in rural areas are insufficient due to low population density and low-income levels of rural populations.


Figure 1: A woman repairs phones in southwest Nigeria (Gillwald, 2018).

Additionally, there is a significant digital skill gap in rural communities resulting from limited education opportunities and awareness about digital technologies. The International Finance Corporation (IFC, 2019) estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa, over 230 million jobs will require digital skills by 2030. In an earlier study, Willet (1988) opined that the challenge for African digital information is to put in place information management and professionalism that possesses the skill and competence that can develop meaningful programs to support and activate the use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT).


Gyamfi (2005) brings an important dimension to the debate on the rural digital divide by examining the content of information available to rural communities on the Internet. He suggests that people can only make use of information that they can read and understand. He also points out that the information has to be relevant and culturally appropriate. On the Internet, English and other European languages predominate as the languages of choice. There is no content development in respect of the majority of the more than 800 languages spoken in Africa (Lagasee et al., 2001). The inability of many people living, especially in rural areas of sub-Saharan countries, to understand these languages create barriers to using information. Therefore, without the ability to find useful and relevant content, many users in sub-saharan countries would have little or even no reason to use the Internet to acquire information.


Figure 2: Lack of physical infrastructure in rural Africa is a reality (Hardy, 2006).

Furthermore, gender disparities persist with women and girls, who often face greater barriers to accessing and using digital technologies due to social and cultural norms. According to the latest data from the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) report on ICT Facts and Figures (ITU, 2016), women in developing countries are less likely on average by 16 percent than men to use the Internet.



Strategies to Bridge the Rural Digital Divide


Whilst the presentation has so far portrayed the gloomy situation in rural Africa, these challenges create opportunities for the private sector to provide a variety of services. In order to bridge the digital divide in rural communities in Africa, a multi-faceted approach is required, encompassing various strategies and initiatives. One area that needs attention is infrastructure development. Gopaldas (2021) suggests that in order to make their ICT infrastructure more resilient African countries need improved electric power transmission and transportation systems as well. This would make conducting business substantially easier and encourage greater participation from the private sector and foreign investors. He suggests that governments, private sector entities, and international organizations should collaborate to invest in expanding and improving digital infrastructure in rural areas.


Figure 3: Person using voice recognition technologies, such as Alexa (Consultancy.africa, 2018).

Another remedy for overcoming the rural digital divide is achieving community empowerment. Community involvement and engagement are vital for sustainable digital inclusion. Msedi (2020) makes an interesting case by suggesting that empowering and connecting communities in the context of community networks is about working with people so they understand how they can use technology to improve their lives.


In addition, local capacity-building programs should be implemented to provide digital literacy training and promote awareness about the benefits of digital technologies. Community centers and telecommunication hubs can be established to provide access to computers, the Internet, and digital services, acting as knowledge-sharing platforms. One way of achieving this local capacity building is through past student associations. Gyamfi (2005) suggests that former students of high schools and colleges, especially those who are studying or working in developed countries, could be called upon to contribute to this effort. Their intellectual and material contributions could take many forms, including, but not limited to, providing computers and accessories to their former schools and, most importantly, providing technology-related skills instruction to their schools.

Figure 4 : Laying of fibre cables (Kabweza, 2014).

Ensuring affordable access is another way to bring down the rural digital divide in Africa. Efforts should be made to reduce the cost of Internet access and digital devices, providing affordability to rural communities. This can be achieved through initiatives such as telecenters. These are technology-based community centers that provide telecommunications and Internet connectivity and access for under-served urban and rural populations (Colle & Roman, 1999). At these multipurpose centers, ICT facilities and services are made available to the public on a pay-per-use basis which turns out to be more affordable than the cost of renting a telephone line and services or purchasing a computer or any other ICT tool (Business News, 2004).


Creating relevant and localized digital content is crucial for increasing digital adoption in rural areas. The development of local language content, including educational materials, health information, and agricultural resources, can significantly enhance the value proposition of digital technologies for rural communities. In a revealing report by Netz-TippStudie (2002), a survey of web pages found that 56.4 percent of the web content was in English, 7.7 percent in German, 5.6 percent in French, and 4.9 percent in Japanese. The report also found that Africa generates only 0.4 percent of global Internet content (Economic Commission for Africa, 1999). Therefore Africa’s contribution to the global web of content is insignificant and making it imperative to encourage Africans to get involved in creating their own Internet content.

Figure 5: Model village information center (Mudzimngwa, 2020).

Perhaps the greatest tools that could be used to bridge the digital gap in rural areas are policies and regulations. Mohamed (2017) suggests a raft of policies that may be used by the government. He suggests a two-prong approach, including the supply and demand sides. On the supply side, he proposes improving ICT infrastructure, including even very basic elements like the public electricity grid, which is of poor quality in many parts of Africa. He also suggests the need for a deliberate focus on reducing the urban/rural disparity. On the demand side, he suggests, on a more general level, fighting poverty and facilitating access to ICT in poor populations as well as improving literacy, including electronic literacy (ICT knowledge) for women and men.


There are some examples that provide inspiration on how to reduce the digital divide. The Mawingu Project, initiated by Microsoft, is a successful example of bridging the digital divide in rural Kenya. USAID (2022) reports that the project provides affordable access to wireless broadband Internet as well as device recharge facilities in the rural Kenyan counties of Laikipia, Nyeri, Embu, and Meru. The project, which was launched in 2013, has more than 10,000 customers access its services through 300 Wi-Fi hotspots at less than 3$ per month. The source further reports that an estimated 300,000 other people in the district receive free access through libraries, schools, and health centers. The project relies on a combination of unlicensed spectrum and TV white space (TVWS) spectrum to provide last mile connectivity as well as backhaul.

Figure 6: Extension officers using ICT with farmers (IITA, 2016).

According to 1worldconnected (2020), the TVWS technologies utilized by the project provide links in areas that conventional 5 GHz links cannot serve due to terrain. TVWS can penetrate rough terrain and reach up to 8 kilometers. As a result of the technology, they are able to cover 16 times the area of traditional Wi-Fi, and nearly four times the distance. Within 12 months of Mawingu’s implementation, users reported improvements in farming and other trades activities resulting from online research on cost-saving or quality-enhancing products and methods. Users have also been able to more easily access government services, like filing tax returns.


The quest to bridge the digital divide in rural Africa is linked to transformative impacts on various aspects of society, which may lead to significant contributions to economic growth, social development, and sustainable livelihoods (World Bank, 2021). ICTs improve access to financial services, which could have significant impacts on economic growth and poverty reduction in developing countries (Burgess and Pande). A good example is the use of mobile money through M-Pesa in Kenya. Insurance, credit and savings services are also being developed based on the mature mobile money systems for farmers in Africa. For example, Kilimo Salama is a microinsurance product that uses M-Pesa to provide payouts to smallholder farmers where crops fail. ICT, especially through smartphones, is being used by farmers so that they can compare market prices for the grain they produce, and fishermen are able to sell their catch every day and reduce spoilage and waste by locating customers (Aker and Mbiti, 2010; Chavula, 2012). Studies have shown that the benefits of using ICTs in promoting access to price information in Africa have led to increases of up to 36% in farmers’ income, and up to 36% of traders’ income in countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Morocco (Halewood and Surya, 2012).

Figure 7: Mawingu internet center booth (Centre for White Space Communications, 2016).

Musingafi & Zebron (2014) observed that during the last fifteen years, largely due to the spread of mobile phone technology in rural areas, information and communication technologies (ICT) have demonstrated the positive and significant impact they can have on economic development by improving the business environment in rural areas. They point out that ICT helps local communities organize and link themselves, and, through the connection with others, exchange know-how and ideas. This, they claim, has the power to unlock the potential of rural areas and can make them more attractive places to live.


ICT tools like the mobile phone and radios offer diverse opportunities for rural communities to use timely and relevant climate information to enhance their livelihoods. Yohannis et al. (2017) state that ICTs offer rural people and farmers access to valuable information, enabling them to make informed decisions about their livelihood strategies. This results in reduced vulnerabilities and increased diversification of livelihood assets. For example, mobile phones and community radios are used to notify farmers about pest outbreaks or famines. In another scenario, simple information like weather forecasts and crop details helps farmers make decisions that protect their natural assets, reduce disaster impacts, and enhance income diversification. Yohannis et al. (2017) conclude that ICT-driven information is a key factor in empowering rural communities and strengthening their resilience.

Figure 8: Mpesa mobile money agent serving clients (Van der Beek, 2016).

It is evident from the foregoing discussion that bridging the digital divide in rural communities in Africa is a complex challenge, but it is essential for unlocking the potential of these communities and fostering inclusive development. By addressing the infrastructure gaps, promoting digital literacy, ensuring affordability, and tailoring solutions to local needs, we can create an environment where every individual has the opportunity to participate in the digital economy. Governments, private sector organizations, civil society, and international partners must unite in helping to bridge the rural digital divide in sub-Saharan Africa.


Bibliographical References

Gopaldas, R. (2021). The challenges and opportunities of bridging Africa's digital divide.Retrieved 10 June, 2023 from: https://www.ntu.edu.sg/cas/news-events/news/details/the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-bridging-the-africa-s-digital- divide


Gyamfi, A. (2005). Closing the Digital Divide in Sub-Saharan Africa: Meeting the challenges of the information age. Information Development, 21(1), 22–30. Retrieved 10 June 2023 from: https://doi.org/10.1177/0266666905051910

ITU. (2016). ICT facts and figures 2016. Geneva. Retrieved 10 June, 2023 from: http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Documents/facts/ICTFactsFigures2016.pdf


Jensen, M. (2002). The African Internet – A Status Report. Retrieved 8 June 2023 from: http://www3.sn.apc.org/africa/afstat.htm


Jha, A., & Saha, D. (2015). Techno-economic assessment of the potential for LTE based 4G mobile services in rural India. In IEEE International Conference on Advanced Networks and Telecommunications Systems, 1–6.


Mohamed, N. S. (2017). Africa bridging the digital divides. The Nordic Africa Institute (NAI), Uppsala, Sweden, NAI, Policy Notes Series No. 2017/4, 1–7.


Msedi, M. (2020). Digital Divide: Empowering and connecting with ICT People with Disability in Tanzania. Msafiri Msedi Ngololo. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10209-020-00714-x


Musingafi, M. (2014). THE ROLE OF INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY IN RURAL SOCIO-ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN AFRICA. International Journal of Public Policy and Administration Research, 1, 38–46.

Mutsvairo, B., & Ragnedda, M. (Eds.). (2019). Mapping Digital Divide in Africa: A Mediated Analysis. Amsterdam University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvh4zj72

Shibanda, G. (2001). Skills and competencies for digital information management in Africa. In 67th IFLA Council and General Conference.


Singh, S., Singh, S., & Kumar, A. (2018). Women and ICT: A Study on Access and Perceptions in North India. Indian Journal of Human Development, 12(3), 401–419.


Yohannis, M. A., Waema, T. M., & Hutchinson, M. (2017). Linking climate information to livelihood strategies through ICTs: The role of integrated sustainable livelihoods framework, 2017 IST-Africa Week Conference (IST-Africa), Windhoek, Namibia,1–8. doi:10.23919/ISTAFRICA.2017.8102295.

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