Bridging sub-Saharan Africa’s digital divide will change the future

Last month, we commemorated national Human Rights Day in South Africa. It gives pause to reflect on the long, hard fought struggle for freedom and constitutional rights won 30 years ago.

These include the right to quality education and access to information; both of which increasingly necessitate access to and the ability to engage safely in a global, increasingly digitalised economy. Yet, most of the Global internet use (60%) remains concentrated in the Global North, deepening the digital divide, including across sub-Saharan Africa, where only one in five people are online.

This digital divide the gap between those who have access to and can effectively use technology, digital tools and platforms, and access digital literacy training, and those who do not has the potential to exacerbate existing and historically rooted socio-economic inequalities.

With 70% of the population under the age of 30, it is imperative that sub-Saharan Africa’s young people have the skills, knowledge, and capabilities to participate in the digital economy.

Digital Literacy and Learning Pathways

Critical to their capacity to do so is access to quality (digital) education. This requires strengthening the digital literacy capabilities and skills of teachers to equip students with the relevant knowledge and skills needed to pursue employment, entrepreneurship and income generating opportunities. It also means putting in place training and resources to effectively integrate technology into classrooms.

Our “Skills for Inclusive Digital Participation” programme, for example, helps to embed digital literacy skills development into national curriculums, with a specific focus on empowering women, youth, and people with disabilities.

As artificial intelligence (AI) enters our classrooms, grappling with its potential as a tool in enhancing quality learning outcomes while mitigating its possible challenges will be vital. In sub-Saharan Africa, where hundreds of languages are spoken, AI tools could support trans-languaging teaching and learning.

Affordability, Infrastructure and Connectivity

However, none of the benefits of the access points touched on so far can be effectively realised if the quality infrastructure and connectivity needed are missing. Rwanda and Kenya, among others, have made significant investments to enhance access to critical IT infrastructure, particularly in rural areas.

According to the Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing report sub-Saharan Africa has five out of the 10 most expensive countries for mobile data.

The unevenly shared benefits of access

This uneven access takes on many dimensions including geographical but also intersectional; with learners in well funded schools, often located in urban areas, benefiting from greater access to devices and (faster, more stable) internet connectivity.

While students attending less affluent and less well resourced schools, often also located in (historically) marginalised communities, are being left behind. Girls, women and people with disabilities are also disproportionately excluded.

 Working Towards Greater Digital Inclusion

Together, in partnership and through collaboration across civil society, government, development partners and the private sector we can help to bridge the digital divide.

We must start with young people as our guiding stars because the potential for real transformation comes when safe, positive exposure to digital technologies is introduced early on in a young person’s educational journey.

Bridging the Digital Educational and Employment Divide

Digital empowerment through quality education and skills development helps to better position young people for employment or entrepreneurship in today’s and tomorrow’s digital economy.

Recognising the importance of digital transformation in unlocking sub-Saharan Africa’s potential and tackling youth unemployment, our Going Global Partnerships, Innovation for African Universities (IAU) programme, was developed to strengthen the entrepreneurial and innovation capacity of higher education institutions in the region.

By working together, governments, educational institutions, the private sector, civil society, and organisations like the British Council, can create solutions that make technology accessible in order to empower young people and bridge the digital divide so that no one is left behind.

About Schools Now! 2024

British Council’s Schools Now! is a global conference that fosters educational innovation across our global community of over 2 500 British Council Partner Schools spread across over 40 countries.  The conference connects over 300 delegates face to face with a further 2 000 virtual attendees from around the world.

The Schools Now! 2024 conference was held at The Westin, Cape Town, on 27-29 February this year.

  • Barrett is country director South Africa, British Council

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