COVID has worsened the digital divide, entrenching digital exclusion in several African countries as people are locked out of the very technologies that could be used to reduce inequality.
This is among the findings in Londa 2021, a report on 22 African countries released last month by pan-African digital rights group Paradigm Initiative. The report, which is published annually, provides a round-up of the state of digital rights and inclusion on the continent.
Speaking at the launch, Paradigm Initiative executive director Gbenga Sesan highlighted the need for African governments to respect digital rights and make ‘an urgent choice between focusing on clampdowns and maximising digital opportunities.’
According to digital rights campaigners, digital technology remains stubbornly limited on much of the continent. South Africa, for example, has one of Africa’s highest rates of internet penetration, at 60 percent, but Malawi comes in at less than 15 percent. Just 23.2 percent of the 90.9 million people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have internet access, while 17-20 percent of Ethiopia’s 118 million population are internet users.
But differential access exists also within countries. Florence Ogonjo, a researcher with the Centre for Intellectual Property & Information Technology Law at Kenya’s Strathmore University, explains that digital access largely mirrors the urban-rural divide.
In Kenya, Ogonjo says, the number of mobile users has breached the 20-million mark, but only one in five has internet access. This suggests that most Kenyans remain cut off from many of the benefits of digital technology. The Londa report shows that parts of the northeast and northwest of the country are entirely without mobile coverage or carry only a 2G signal.
Elsewhere on the continent, mobile technology has emerged as a key driver of digital transformation. But countries ‘still experience challenges with digital infrastructure, such as power supply,’ the report says.
Other issues include a lack of awareness about digital platforms as well as policy and regulatory barriers — and, of course, there’s the issue of cost. Sudan has the most affordable data in sub-Saharan Africa, at 27USc/GB, according to Cable.co.uk’s 2021 Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing Report. But four of the five most expensive countries in the world for data are also sub-Saharan: Equatorial Guinea ($49.67/GB), St Helena ($39.87), São Tomé and Príncipe ($30.97) and Malawi ($25.46). South Africa averages $2.67/GB on the Cable.co.uk measure.
Ogonjo says Covid has highlighted the extent of the digital divide, especially as services moved online during national lockdowns and people had to adopt digital technologies for sustainability.
Covid probably also increased these disparities, particularly in the realm of education. In Rwanda, for example, few students could access online education during the pandemic, the report says. In Zimbabwe, less than 30 percent of school-going children had access to digital learning opportunities, and in Uganda, the government ‘made no interventions to facilitate access to the internet, leaving the underserved at a disadvantage,’ the report says.
Given such disparities, Paradigm Initiative community manager Thobekile Matimbe urges African governments to prioritise the availability of digital services. ‘Without access to digital technologies people don’t have access to information, and [they] are not able to protect or exercise their rights and freedoms,’ the South African Financial Mail newspaper quoted him as saying.
As it is, many of the countries featured in the report ‘are too busy violating digital rights to focus on the digital opportunities that the Covid pandemic has [highlighted],’ Sesan said at the launch.
In particular, the report flags how some governments use repressive legislation to control access to information. Among other things, it also points to the tensions between legislation that promotes digital access and freedom of information, and practices that serve to undermine this — internet shutdowns in Ethiopia, for example, or crackdowns on social media comment in Malawi, as well as mis- and disinformation, content limitations and violations of user rights.
The report cites internet shutdowns as a leading digital rights violation, costing sub-Saharan countries about $1.93bn in 2021. In particular, it flags Nigeria’s decision to ban Twitter from early June 2021 until January 2022. This not only served to limit those Nigerian businesses that use the platform to promote their goods and services but also affected the dissemination of crucial Covid data from Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control to an estimated 110-million internet users, the Financial Mail reported.
Other countries that have drawn censure include Ethiopia, where ‘emerging concerns … include a lack of internet access, hate speech and disinformation regulation, draconian national laws … and internet censorship.’ The report warns that in Malawi, increasing crackdowns on online dissent could promote a culture of self-censorship. And Rwanda is criticised for its prosecution of YouTube commentators.