As our nascent digital economy emerges, we have seen signs that enormous possibilities exist for it to reduce the many divides in our society. From the education gap and a shortage of technological and technical skills to poor ICT access in rural areas, the digital economy has the potential to help bridge the inequality gap that appears to be worsening every day.
However, like the proverbial double-edged sword, if left unchecked, the digital economy could also increase the gap that’s already in place. If certain areas, usually rural areas, don’t have the infrastructure to participate in the digital economy, they risk being left behind as the world progresses without them.
As the need for digital inclusion increases, the deployment of newer and more effective forms of communication and Internet infrastructure is crucial. This modern economic approach could benefit all of Africa’s citizens, enabling them to expand their digital skills and knowledge, in turn, opening doors to personal, professional and continent-wide growth.
Digital inclusion in a changing world
Very recently, we have witnessed a world transformed by a digital, Internet-based economy. Although this digital transformation was already in the pipeline before the pandemic, lockdowns accelerated this process as the work-from-home movement, e-commerce and digitalisation have become commonplace. For some, an Internet connection and Internet-ready device are all that are needed to get an education, access healthcare and do their job. Some businesses have adapted, streamlining operations and culling unnecessary processes to facilitate remote working, reduce overhead costs and serve customers better.
But for others, who have been excluded from the digital economy, the pandemic has left them worse off than before. Unable to get online and join their more connected classmates virtually, many children will be left to play catch-up academically. Workers who were not afforded the luxury of being able to work from home have had to make a difficult choice: stay at home without an income or go to work and risk infection. The World Bank has warned that the pandemic is likely to reverse progress that’s been made in lifting people out of poverty, with 150 million people at risk of being pushed into extreme poverty.
A digital divide
Because Africa has the world’s lowest Internet penetration at 42%, this means that around 800 million people on the continent are unable to benefit from the digital economy and access innovation that’s experienced by others. Although for many of us the perception is that the entire world is moving forward and driving the digital migration, that’s just not realistic. With more than half of Africans living an Internet-free life, we run the risk of leaving them further behind in our pursuit of a digital economy.
If communities do not have reliable infrastructure in place to join the digital economy, or the means to go about building this infrastructure, how can they be expected to function in a digital world? The answer is simple: they cannot.
If all potential employees do not have access to the same level of technology and infrastructure, employers are likely to choose those who do have services such as reliable fibre. Digital jobs may be available, but you cannot do them without the correct support networks, meaning they’re more likely to be filled by more affluent workers, thereby worsening inequality. We cannot assume that everyone has equal access when such a large portion of the global population is at risk of being left behind.
The first step to growing an inclusive digital economy and decreasing inequality is to give everyone the tools they need to access it.
Public-private partnerships promote digital inclusion
Private organisations have the skills and infrastructure capabilities to assist governments in building and maintaining the networks needed to cope with the pressures of a digitally driven world. Public funding is hard to come by – especially now – and government departments are incredibly aware of this. As much as they would love to implement a large-scale digital rollout within the country, they simply lack the ability to do so. This is where private entities come into play.
Partnerships between government and the private sector can assist in driving the digital migration and giving everyone equal opportunities to access digital goods and services. The private sector needs to enable the adoption of new technologies to increase not only the public’s ability to benefit from online resources, but also to give government the tools they need to digitise, for example, by creating one convenient online portal to improve service delivery and reduce costs. By promoting public-private partnerships, Africa has the chance to stand out in an ever-evolving digital world.
Bridging the gap requires investment
Companies that are invested in the future of Africa should take it upon themselves to build partnerships that will improve digital inclusion instead of worsening it. As one of these companies, we have engaged in projects that will supply reduced-cost Internet to rural and excluded communities. By giving people the ability to connect, we’re allowing them to participate in the digital economy while joining a global community.
We need to drive digital inclusion and encourage government as well as other businesses to do the same. The success of Africa’s digital economy relies on our ability to reap the benefits that it offers. This cannot be done without collaboration as well as the correct tools and skills.
The journey to digital inclusion can only start when we acknowledge that a gap exists. Only then can we begin to find ways to reduce it.
This column was submitted by Tonny Tugee, Managing Director, SEACOM East and North East Africa.