Beyond Access Africa Masiphumelele, via Flickr Commons.

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 plays on the global scale.

AfriSIG was launched in 2013 as an annual five-day residential course, run by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC). Its goal is to develop a pipeline of leading Africans from diverse sectors, backgrounds and ages with the skills to participate in local and international internet governance structures, and shape the future of the internet landscape for Africa’s development.

Given the continuing reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s AfriSIG was held virtually over two weeks, from 4 to 15 October 2021. Over the course of those two weeks, we came to view access to the internet in a new way.

Time and again, whenever discussions around the need to create access and connectivity to the internet on the continent have been raised, one would wonder, where is the infrastructure to provide internet services sustainably and equitably across the continent? Inevitably, our thoughts would turn next to whether we have sufficiently solved the issues surrounding poverty, health, education and energy to decide that access to the internet is a needed right in Africa.

More recently, however, we have witnessed an 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 from a rate of just 0.78% in 2000. The internet usage rate had reached 28.2% by 2019, according to a report by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), but Africa remained the region with the lowest usage rate. In Europe, the region with the highest internet usage, the rate was 82.5%. Moreover, there are major disparities in access and use across the continent. The same report revealed that sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of people without access to an internet connection.

The ITU report goes on to show that over half of the total global female population, 52%, is still not connected to the internet, compared to 42% of all men. Nevertheless, while this “digital gender gap” has been shrinking in regions like the Commonwealth of Independent States and Europe, it has been growing in Africa. By 2019, the year that the report was released, the percentage of the male population on the continent using the internet was 33.8%, compared to 22.6% of the female population.

From our personal experiences, having been born and brought up in the everyday realities of Africa, we were not aware that access to the internet was key to human rights. In 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, which affirmed that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, while the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has stated that access to the internet is in itself a human right. At the same time, we have had the privilege of witnessing some of its benefits. Nevertheless, we did not believe that it was as important as the right to life or livelihood, in the same realm as food, for example. 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 undisputedly critical role that the internet plays in our lives. As a result, now we know and believe there will be no equality and equity if a large percentage of the world has no internet access. Attending AfriSIG 2021 contributed to changing our thoughts about how Africa’s internet needs 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 crucial need 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 an enabler of basic human rights. African governments, in collaboration with other stakeholders, should provide internet connectivity just like the right to food, education and health.

The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights includes the right to development as 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.” It goes on to stress 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 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 that 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 in response to the Ebola virus. The closures interrupted educational progress and limited access to essential services that families relied on. Sadly, some children never returned to school, others had fallen behind in learning and development, and there was increased sexual abuse and exploitation, according to UNICEF’s chief of education, Robert Jenkins. Ebola recovery was difficult for affected countries, as Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf explained in a “letter to the world” broadcast on the BBC. “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,” she said, adding, “The time for talking or theorising is over.”

Perhaps African governments could have handled the Ebola outbreak better if they had utilised the multiple services that internet access provided, and later applied those learnings for unforeseen circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic.

A study conducted by the GSMA, The Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 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 and socialising, as well as providing access to medical intervention. However, studies such as those by Mogaji and Jain and Olaleye, Ukpabi and Mogaji point out that the digital surge was not experienced in equal magnitude for people in developing countries compared to those in developed countries. In developing countries, people 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 pandemic 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, schools were closed, and people who were able to 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 about the indispensability of the internet and the role it plays in attaining socioeconomic and political growth. The COVID-19 lockdown alongside social isolation have 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, the internet penetration rate was 50%, with 104.4 million users; and in Kenya, the rate was 40%, with 21.75 million users, according to DataReportal. These figures imply that a large percentage of Africans are not connected to the internet. The number of unconnected Africans is likely even more than these figures imply 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, the challenges of full connectivity for Africa go beyond the lack of infrastructure to include other factors such as cost-effectiveness, availability, reliable electricity, cost of acquisition (mobile phones and internet), and language barriers (most of the digital content is in English), as argued by Bukht and Heeks.

In Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, the sectors of the population with internet access are mostly urban households with the ability to afford private education in addition to internet services. When schools closed, innovative education solutions were adopted. Every one of those solutions required some sort of internet access to be utilised. Some schools used Google Classroom, others used Zoom, and a few others had teachers resort 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 other digital device had no education. Situations like this worsen inequalities, placing children with privileged socioeconomic 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 socioeconomic and political right.

Millions of people will remain unconnected unless the following measures are accelerated and implemented:

  1. A multistakeholder approach should be adopted to identify and tackle the very diverse issues that have impeded mass connectivity across the continent. Governments and other relevant stakeholder groups have an opportunity to accelerate, foster and harness faster connectivity to ensure that no one is locked out of access.
  2. Multinational partnerships among African regional bodies are 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. Efforts are needed to 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 or any other factor, needs competencies to effectively engage with media and other information providers, including those on the internet. To address the digital divide, many African nations need to increase information and communications technology (ICT) access for learners in schools. UNESCO states that this is an essential precondition for equitable access and inclusive knowledge societies.
  5. It is also essential to 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 fundamental for the full enjoyment of human rights. 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 multistakeholder 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.

Tsema Yvonne Ede is a lawyer with experience in human rights, governance and gender. She is a policy expert who has worked with the government, business corporations and non-governmental organisations on the implementation of people-centred policies in the protection of citizens and their rights.

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