The Ongoing Intra-Gender Digital Divide in Africa Requires Targeted Social Innovation and Programming
According to the World Bank report of March 2023, Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the widest gender gaps around the world, specifically as it applies to mobile internet, with over 190 million women not using mobile internet services, representing a 37% gender gap. A similar report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace revealed that, in Africa, only 24% of women used the internet compared to 35% of men in 2020.
The Urban-Rural digital divide has also been in the spotlight for quite some time. For instance, the same report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace indicated that in Africa, only 15% of rural inhabitants used the internet compared to 50% of urban inhabitants in 2020. Due to available data and the socio-economic implications of the gender digital divide, key stakeholders have continued to develop policies and implement solutions to bridge the digital divide between men and women. Despite the efforts, the divide still continues to widen, especially when we take a look at the intra-gender digital divide.
For the sake of clarity, the intra-gender digital divide refers to the divide that exists within the same gender, in this case, the female gender. While there seems to be a clarion call to bridge the gender divide between men and women, not much has been said about the divide that clearly exists between women in urban areas and women in rural areas. For instance, according to the same GSMA report in 2021, in Nigeria, mobile internet was used by 67% of urban men, 46% of urban women, 41% of rural men, and only 24% of rural women in 2020. The report also highlighted that globally, the rural gender gaps in mobile internet use were wider than the urban gender gaps. Specifically, across nine of the ten survey countries (except Mexico), between 51% and 76% of the women who are not yet using mobile internet live in rural areas. This shows a clear intra-gender divide, not just in Nigeria or Africa, and this trend poses significant risks to socio-economic development.
Coming back to the African context, if we examine the available published information on the internet, only a handful of initiatives are targeted towards rural communities. This may largely be due to the infrastructural and literacy issues associated with rural communities, which make results slower to come by as opposed to urban areas. However, looking at the earlier data released by GMSA, the number of rural men who used the internet was almost twice the number of rural women who used the internet during the period under review.
The above data begs the question: Is it really a geographical or infrastructural issue? Are there other factors at play? Why are women in urban areas more likely to use the internet than their rural counterparts? Is it really because women are not the decision-makers in their homes as data have over the years suggested? Or is it a factor of income levels, motivation, literacy, or a combination of all the factors mentioned?
While the answer to all or some of the questions raised above may vary from context to context, it is imperative to note that the ongoing intra-gender divide will continue to widen if targeted social innovations and evidence-based tailored programming are not deployed as a matter of urgency.
In Nigeria, the federal government and key stakeholders are currently implementing different aspects of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy. This document covers key pillars that are expected to foster the achievement of an inclusive digital economy. However, all stakeholders need to play their part because some of the solutions cannot be solely implemented by the Government .
For Instance, during our interactions with women engaged by Tech Herfrica, it was revealed that, in some instances, lack of access to localized content, low literacy and the high cost of smartphones were the major causes of digital exclusion. Where some women had access to the internet and smartphones, they were not using them for productive activities because, according to them, they could neither read nor use the mobile applications appropriately as many of the devices they could access had complex interphases.
Our engagement with women in rural and peri-urban communities based on our mandate at Tech Herfrica has led to certain questions; can techpreneurs and social innovations begin to rethink the design and development of mobile phones? Can the specific literacy requirements of rural inhabitants be taken into consideration when designing mobile phones? Can mobile phone designs be done in such a way that the cost of production and acquisition becomes relatively lower than what is currently available in the market? How do we, as a people, begin to have tailored and focused conversations and actions that support digital inclusion for individuals across all levels?
The answers to the questions posed above can be looked at from different perspectives, but as it seems, this is not merely an infrastructural issue. Thus, it is imperative for stakeholders to consciously and deliberately consider the needs of rural inhabitants, especially women, in policy formulation and programme design such that rural women do not become even more marginalized than they already are because, as the continent transitions into a fully digital economy, there are also risks of deepening poverty and inequality if plans are not put in place to mitigate the same. While the government has a role to provide the enabling environment and create evidence-based policies, entrepreneurs, civil societies and other relevant organizations must also rise up to the challenge.
Recently, Tech Herfrica was invited to participate in the inauguration of the Digital Economy Community of Practice in Nigeria, which has been established to drive inclusive growth and sustainable development for stakeholders in the Nigerian digital ecosystem. It is hoped that the committee will implement key actions that will steer the nation into a truly inclusive digital economy. As earlier mentioned, the ongoing intra-gender divide will continue to widen if targeted social innovations and evidence-based tailored programming are not deployed as a matter of urgency. While we are all working to close the gender divide between men and women as well as the urban-rural divide, it is important to also isolate and deal with the issue as it affects women in rural African communities who contribute significantly to the continent’s food production and economic activities.
Written by: Imade Bibowei-Osuobeni, Founder, Tech Herfrica