Digital Africa 2020

Connecting the other 50 per cent

In early 2018 in an essay for GIZ akzente magazine, the Kenyan IT researcher and policy analyst Nanjira Sambuli highlighted the importance of universal access to the internet for social progress. Two years later, we caught up with her at GIZ Head Office in Eschborn, Germany, where she gave the keynote speech at the conference Digital Africa 2020.

Interview: Judith Reker

One of the SDG targets was that universal and affordable access to the internet in least developed countries should be achieved by 2020. What is the reality?

In 2019, we celebrated 50 years of the internet and 30 years of the World Wide Web. Unfortunately, the reality in 2020 is that just over half the world is connected, and the rate of connecting the other half, including the least developed countries, has slowed down dramatically. If this trend continues, it could take up to another 30 years.

What went wrong? What needs to happen for faster growth?

One of the most pressing issues in digitalisation in developing countries is the sheer complexity of the matter. The focus of governments and the private sector is too much on technologies. But technology does not exist in a vacuum. Maybe we must conclude that what we have done so far only works so well for a certain number of people in the world. The idea of 'build it and they will connect', i.e. the idea that if we just create access to the internet, people will go online, is no longer viable. There are many reasons for this, for instance the fact that many people do not have readily disposable income to purchase devices and access. We have to rethink our approach. It is now time to take a more discerning look at the political economies, the social and cultural dimensions that exist in different parts of the world.

What could such a different approach look like in concrete terms?

Community-owned networks are a good example. In rural areas which telecommunication companies consider not profitable enough, communities build their own networks providing small-range connectivity. One example is the Zenzeleni community network in South Africa, which I wrote about two years ago. I mention it again today because it really shows successful sustainable development. Now there are even networks of community networks forming across the globe so that they can learn from each other. And what is really fascinating about this cooperative style of doing things is that beyond connectivity, it does a lot for cohesion and can even help to challenge norms such as gender bias because everybody is in this together. The fact is that women have less access to the internet than men in many regions, but if they are involved from the very start, then their chances of participating go up. In short, I think that very good alternatives will come from the people who are experts in their lived experience.

GIZ has been supporting the creation of community networks in Cameroon and elsewhere. In general, what role do you think international cooperation can play with regard to digitalisation?

Development cooperation actors need to urgently rethink how they structure their support around digitalisation. Too often, it’s solutionistic; that is, ‘technology X is the solution, how can it be applied to, say, health care or education?’ The archive is laden with examples of how this approach has failed over and over, yet it is still manifest today. These include telemedicine initiatives – especially in rural areas – which do not take into account whether there is sufficient access to the internet. The same applies to the One Laptop per Child programmes: the results in Kenya were dismal because the programme had not taken into account, for instance, the lack of power supply and of teachers’ digital skills. The viable, innovative thinking for development cooperation actors along with the public sector is perhaps in taking a step back and accommodating a lateral, systemic view of the challenges. This would enable contextual, sustainable development for the communities they intend to support.

March 2020