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Closing the digital divide requires partnership

16 Mar 2022Digital Society
4 minute read

By Joakim Reiter, Chief External and Corporate Affairs Officer, Vodafone Group

Maseraele Motseki almost died but for the sake of a phone call. She experienced complications in labour with her second child in rural Lesotho and had heard about Vodafone Foundation’s emergency transport system for pregnant women, m-mama. A call to the toll free emergency line enabled a health worker to remote triage Maseraele and locate the nearest trained community driver to take her to the local health facility, and then on to the hospital. All of the m-mama community drivers in Lesotho are able to respond quickly to support the country’s stretched ambulance service because they are paid rapidly using the M-Pesa digital payments service.  

That Maseraele is with us today, highlights how access to telecoms connectivity is increasingly integral to enhancing life chances and removing the long-term impediments to growth in some of the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs). When internet connectivity is as ubiquitous as basic connectivity the scope and scale of these social care interventions can increase exponentially.  

So, before regulators, governments and international institutions set their minds to the rules of engagement within a virtual reality metaverse, we need a massive push to get nearly 3 billion people globally using the internet for the first time by the end of this decade.

The impact of mobile internet usage on healthcare alone goes beyond just emergency cases like Maseraele’s. Just 25% of the population of LDCs use the internet. Yet recent research from the GSMA and University of Pennsylvania underlined the important correlation between use of mobile internet usage and improved health literacy (the ability to use health information to take decisions that improve quality of life).

Making it affordable to deliver meaningful internet access in the most remote communities in the world should be a key focus for both private enterprise and government. The increased digitalisation of developing nations can be the accelerant that helps the whole world to achieve the United Nation (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. 

Everyone – whoever they are and wherever they live – should have access to reliable and affordable internet. Increasing the number of people covered by 4G networks is a key first part of that and will unlock a range of benefits for LDCs including access to better healthcare but also education, financial services and work.

World Bank research indicates that 4G connectivity can reduce the number of households in extreme poverty by 4.3 percentage points, mainly due to increased participation in the labour force, particularly by women. Less than a quarter of women in Africa are online at present (and only 35% of men).   

Yet, few people remain digitally disconnected out of choice and so mobile network coverage alone is not a silver bullet. We need to consider other barriers to access including the cost of smartphones (including tax), the relevance of services and low digital literacy. It will require a multi-stakeholder approach to address this challenge.

In this context the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Partner2Connect (P2C) digital coalition, developed in close cooperation with the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, is very welcome. This coalition has been set up to foster meaningful connectivity and digital transformation globally in the hardest-to-connect communities.

As part of our contribution to Partner2Connect, Vodafone is leading one of the four focus areas to facilitate the attainment of universal connectivity.

We are also making a pledge, through our main African business, Vodacom, to invest US$190 million over the next five years to increase our 4G population coverage to an additional 80 million people in Africa. We will leverage P2C to develop partnerships to co-invest with us to achieve this goal.

This means that we will increase our 4G population coverage from 54% (higher than the African average of 49%) to ~85% across six sub-Saharan African countries. This targeted intervention includes four LDCs - Mozambique, Tanzania, Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Our investments in those countries will help to close a particular gap in internet usage that is four times higher in urban communities than in rural communities within African nations.

Africa remains the continent with more LDCs than anywhere else on earth and so should be the focus for efforts to deliver meaningful connectivity to the internet by 2030. This will require co-investment, unlocking a range of development benefits for these countries and, most importantly, enabling more people who live in rural communities, like Maseraele and her family, to connect for a better future.   

  • 3G
  • 4G
  • Africa
  • Connectivity
  • Digital Society
  • SDG 10
  • SDG 11
  • SDG 9
  • SDGs
  • Smartphones for All
  • Viewpoint

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