The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 8, 2017

Turning Africa’s digital divide into digital dividends

In Nairobi, Kenya, technological advances like Uber have brought positive disruption and significant benefits to consumers. The country has been called the Silicon Savannah for having hatched various technological innovations. But in some parts of Kenya, it’s not uncommon to wait for hours to get a stable Internet connection.

In the capitals of Madagascar and Burkina Faso, where smartphone and computer ownership is still low, people have to go to cybercafés to access the Internet, usually on run-down computers with old software, and even then, connection speeds may be painfully slow.

Slow connection speeds and lack of Internet access aren’t just a hassle though, they’re signs of the digital divide that sets many African countries behind.  

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2016 provides an in-depth analysis of countries’ access to and use of the Internet, mobile phones, and tools to collect, store, analyze, and share information digitally. We revisited the latest data and observed a persistent digital divide, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa lags furthest behind in Internet access. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 18 percent of the population had Internet access in 2015, compared with 87 percent in North American regions.

Access within sub-Saharan Africa is unequal. In Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, 48 percent of the population had Internet access. In Ethiopia, Malawi, and Tanzania, 9 percent had access.

internet users per 100 people

In sub-Saharan Africa, Francophone countries lag behind in Internet access relative to Anglophone countries. Francophone countries have lower GDP compared with Anglophone countries. Smartphone ownership is low as well. In countries like Senegal and Burkina Faso, less than 25 percent of the population own a smartphone.

internet access in anglophone vs francophone africa

What are these countries missing out on?

Digital technologies promote job creation, boost economic growth, and improve government services. Greater access to technology increases inclusion, efficiency, and innovation.

Job creation

Better Internet access boosts employment and earnings in the information and communications technologies sectors, which include such jobs as mobile application development and network administration. But most important, better Internet access increases employment and earnings in the sectors that use information and communications technology.

For example, companies in developed countries often outsource their work to developing countries to reduce costs and increase efficiency. Companies determine where to outsource based on various criteria, including the cost and quality of telecommunication infrastructures.  

The World Bank report states that almost half of this type of outsourcing is in banking and financial services, and another 20 percent is in technology and telecommunications.

According to A. T. Kearney, which ranks the top outsourcing destinations worldwide, only five sub-Saharan African countries are ranked in the top 50: Ghana (29th), Mauritius (30th), Kenya (39th), Senegal (45th), and South Africa (48th).

Among those five, Senegal is the only Francophone country, and it has a 22 percent Internet access rate. The four Anglophone countries average a 43 percent Internet access rate. Compared with Anglophone countries, which have better-quality infrastructure, Francophone countries are less attractive outsourcing destinations and miss out on job creation opportunities.

Higher labor productivity through online education

Internet access also promotes higher labor productivity through better access to online education. For instance, people have access to free high-quality education from anywhere through massive online open courses.

The empirical data on how these online courses directly affect economic development are limited. But the World Development Report shows that higher education is associated with more access to employment opportunities and higher earnings, which reflects the high demand for advanced skills. The positive impact of higher education is especially strong among women (figure 3). Easy access to high-quality online education enables the poor, women, minorities, and people in remote regions to receive quality education they would not have otherwise.

Even with Internet access, language barriers prevent many people from taking these courses. About 75 percent of these online courses use English, which makes it difficult for people in non-English-speaking countries to benefit.

education attainment in Africa

Stronger government accountability through citizen engagement

Internet access also allows citizens to engage with their government. For example, the I Paid a Bribe website in India and the U-report in Uganda have shown huge uptake. In our work in Tanzania, the US Agency for International Development helped each local government share information on their websites with citizens.

The private sector can help close the digital divide. Facebook, for example, recently announced plans to use land-based and satellite technologies to provide better Internet access to African countries. But public investment and involvement will be necessary to reap the digital dividends. Making the Internet more accessible and affordable should be among governments’ priorities, particularly in sub-Saharan African countries that lag behind the most.

People browse Facebook in the popular West African language Peule on September 30, 2016 in Abidjan. Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images.

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