I once indicated that one of the mistakes most local techies have made is not factoring in the digital divide. The digital divide is a huge challenge, particularly across the African continent. Zimbabwe isn’t an exception and this phenomenon is widespread with the rural domain being severely disadvantaged. The digital divide elementarily refers to the proportion of those with access to ICTs to those without access. Locally, that proportion with respect to urban and rural shows a huge discrepancy between those two demographics. The digital divide is synonymously known as digital split and in this article, I’m discussing some mitigatory measures.
Let me just briefly highlight some of the causes of the digital divide. The first cause is that of limited or no accessibility (particularly to computer devices and the internet). This is mainly tied into the limited or no infrastructure available for ICTs. There is also limited information and limited education on ICTs. The overarching cause is, of course, financial constraints with regards to funding and the general costs of having access. Some ways to deal with the digital divide:
There is a prerequisite to have numerous research activities conducted to have a pool of empirical data. The general perspective that’s known is that the rural demographic requires the most attention. There is a need, however, to go past that and conduct research that’ll provide data specific to localities so that solutions are proffered specifically and not generally. Data to be wrought from such initiatives will also help better inform public and government policy. This very same data is also a good basis for sourcing funding as most financiers prefer empirical data to substantiate the need for funding.
Equipping The Education Sector
The initial point of contact of effecting wide scale policies is obviously the education system – the school system. By pooling together resources and efforts from the respective communities and other stakeholders schools should be equipped with ICTs. This is a cheaper point of departure than starting off by endeavouring to equip every home. If schools are capacitated first then the ripple effects from the progress realized will spill off into the general communities. For instance, after equipping the schools’ systems, the next step becomes establishing ICTs centres e.g. internet cafes. Establishing and/or capacitating centres that service a greater reach of people is more cost-effective.
Adopting Native Languages
One of the contributors to the general lack of appreciation for ICTs amongst the rural folk is language barriers. Most ICTs are packaged with English being the base language. Even IEC, academic and basic tutorial materials tend to be in English. This makes most people shy away or be disinterested due to the language aspect. I do appreciate that the ICT arena is characterised by mostly technical jargon but a way should be pursued to adopt native languages. This will increase the potential interest and zeal amongst rural inhabitants for ICTs.
Addressing Gender Inequality
Despite seeming improvements in addressing gender inequality in other areas, it still is a huge issue in the digital world. It’s much worse in the rural domain where technical aspects such as ICTs are regarded as preserves for males. This is problematic when you note that the greater constituent of the general population is female with the rural population far outweighing the urban folk. Consequently, addressing the digital divide isn’t attainable without ensuring there is improved inclusion and participation of females to eradicate gender inequality.
The main areas requiring attention are electricity and internet connectivity. Most fibre-optic laying projects are yet to cover most rural areas. Most rural areas are yet to even have 4G networks. Such limitations seriously hamper any meaningful progress in making rural folk part of the digital grid. It’s important that the operating environment is opened up for more players. There are few players in the electricity and internet connectivity projects such that those few seem overwhelmed by the colossal need.
Tapping Into Solar Energy
Earlier on I pointed out that financial constraints are the biggest factor causing the digital divide. Electricity is one of the major stimulants of high costs requirements for establishing ICTs infrastructure and making general access cheaper. Most of the rural areas are endowed with perfect landscapes and abundant sunlight which can be leveraged on to generate solar energy. There is a need for putting solar systems on houses and any strategic infrastructure. I even challenge innovators and financiers to think of establishing whole grids by building solar farms. This will go a long way in reducing financial demand on any other developmental initiatives that can be put in place.
Lack of funding is the biggest impediment to addressing the digital divide. Two quick players that come to mind in channelling efforts in this regard are:
There are a lot of corporate players local, regional or international that have the financial muscle to address the digital divide. There is a need for favourable partnerships or alliances to be forged with them. Especially if the civil society and business sector players are engaged symbiotically, some robust solutions can be consummated.
Government has a major role to play as they can effectively eliminate red tape and bottlenecks that can be disruptive. They can provide funding for innovators with interest in tackling the digital divide. They can enact subsidies for such players so that they can smoothly implement their proposed solutions. This will result in overall increased accessibility through affordability and widespread presence of ICT infrastructure.
Three overarching areas that need to be ensured are infrastructure establishment, the increased affordability of ICTs (particularly data and devices) and public awareness or education. There is an indispensable need for progressive partnerships to be built amongst the government, civil society and the business sector. The reason why even some of the tech advancements now replete in other countries are still to take off locally is our digital divide.