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Tech leaders press for better response to Africa's demand for connectivity, digital literacy

While tech leaders often speak of ‘leaving no-one behind’ in the pursuit of digital economies and 4IR technology for Africa, the reality is that many people (particularly from rural communities) remain disconnected from the internet and without access to requisite telecommunications infrastructure, they are unable to participate in the digital era.

This was a key take-away from one of several panel discussions that took place during the Sentech Africa Tech Week hybrid event last week in Cape Town.

A discussion on attacking poverty through connectivity centred on the point that without access to basic telecommunications infrastructure, little of the benefits linked to technology – such as economic growth, job creation etc. – can be realised.

According to Stats SA, just 46% of South African households have access to the internet.

Panellist Shireen Powell, CEO, Project Isizwe, said it is difficult for people who lack access to the internet to participate in the digital economy. “You have to have internet access. Rural communities are lacking and South Africans living in rural communities make up about 33% of the population … just 1.2% of rural communities are connected to the internet. It makes it extremely for children to learn, it makes it extremely hard for youth to participate and be employed.”

According to Stats SA, as of June 2022, youth unemployment in South Africa stands at 66.5%.

While panellists acknowledged that access to infrastructure and connectivity remains a challenge, they also mentioned issues around South Africa’s planning in terms of its digital journey and how this actually plays into the digital divide.

Dumisa Ngwenya, Head of Research and Innovation at Sentech, said planning is the starting point. “If you look at the dimensions of poverty and what it means … yes we talk about data poverty and internet poverty, but in South Africa the fundamental is (those who live in poverty) and this around 54%. In Africa we are sitting somewhere there as well. Another dimension around poverty is inequality. South Africa is the most unequal society in the world, so you can imagine how this feeds into poverty.”

Ngwenya added another dimension that affects Africa more than any other part of the world is the rural-urban divide. He said Africa is predominantly a rural economy and the continent has to plan for this scenario going forward.

Shuaib Parker, Manager, Infrastructure, City of Cape Town, agreed that bridging this divide is of huge concern and requires a two-pronged approach. "On the one hand it requires infrastructure, access and internet connectivity. On the other side, however, you sit with the challenge of just providing access to the internet alone doesn’t solve your problem if those who need to use those services are still not able to. We talk about the digital literacy of our communities out there, and a lot of focus is paid on infrastructure and connectivity, making internet available, but not enough is being done to bring people along on the journey.”

This digital divide is clear if one looks at the country’s schooling system, said Parker. Companies claim that all schools are connected, but in reality, it is just the principal’s office or admin block, and the students in class still do not have connectivity.

“COVID-19 taught us a lot and opened up accelerated initiatives,” said Parker. 

As an example, he said that Cape Town city has connected libraries, and this is being supplemented with digital literacy interventions to empower local communities.

TopCo CEO Ralf Fletcher emphasised the importance of partnerships and collaboration in the digital transformation process in Africa.

Specifically, he added that the Cape remains focused on its objective to emerge as a major tech hub in the region and the next Silicon Valley in Africa, backed by continuous foreign direct investment.

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