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  • Digital Society

The digital divide: What does it mean to you?

Four African artists tell us what connectivity means to them and their communities to help get more people talking about the growing digital divide.

30 minute read

Since the dawn of time, art has been part of the way we express ourselves.

Thanks to advancements in publishing and technology, we can now take that creativity online.

Starting in the 1960s, when computer-generated imagery was in its infancy, digital art is now a booming part of popular culture.

Breaking down the boundaries between the artist and the audience, anyone with a smartphone can now become an artist and share their work—making it instantly available to the masses.

Yet while more than 4.9 billion people around the world are now online, 2.7 billion remain offline. And they are missing out on opportunities because of it.

Most of these people live in less developed countries or fragile areas affected by conflict.

Poor network coverage plays a role, but one of the biggest barriers is the cost of smartphones.

That is why we're on a mission to give more people access to smartphones. Because we believe reliable and affordable Internet should be available to everyone.

But we cannot do it alone. We need global industry support.

Today over 4.9 billion people are online, with more than half of the world's web traffic coming from smartphones.

This is where art can play a role in highlighting real issues.

Working with four artists from some of the countries most affected—Ghana, Kenya and South Africa—we’re leveraging the influence of art to get people talking about the growing digital divide in support of the conversations taking place at the 77th session of the UN General Assembly.

Using their work to celebrate both the transformative power of digital as well as the challenges around it, we asked them to illustrate how smartphones have transformed African society and why access to them is crucial for creating a fairer and more sustainable future.

By raising awareness of current digital injustice, we can work together to close the gap—once and for all.

Lethabo Huma

Digital Artist, Cape Town

Lisolomzi Pikoli

Digital Artist, South Africa

Jebet Naava

Digital Artist, Nairobi, Kenya

Derrick Ofosu Boateng

Digital Artist, Ghana

Meet Lethabo

She’s a digital artist based in Pretoria, South Africa.

Inspired by her emotional responses, thoughts and experiences as a young African woman, Lethabo uses various techniques to convey complex messages through her art.

I use my work as a way to speak. Visually, that's the best way I know how to connect with the world.

Although she explores various digital tools for a more precise finish, Lethabo is best known for her born-digital work. Starting with traditional painting and drawing methods to achieve expressive brushwork textures before moving to her tablet to digitise her work.

As a child, drawing was the mechanism she used to escape everyday life. But today, her digital portraits are in direct dialogue with reality, poignantly exploring the relationship between the self and the modern world.

We spoke to her about what inspires her, how she got into digital art and why she's now helping others to follow their dreams too.

It's because of connectivity and technology that I am doing what I’m doing. Without it, I wouldn't survive.

Watch Lethabo's interview

Lethabo's piece, Hope, focuses on the power of connectivity. It showcases how access to technology has changed the lives of people in Africa, especially women, allowing them to build their own businesses in the digital space and interact with a worldwide community of people who support them.

Inspired by other digital creatives, Lethabo's piece features Podcasters, a Digital Artist, a Vlogger and a Make-Up artist, celebrating the different career paths now available.

These individuals, like Lethabo, sustain themselves by doing something they love. It is a positive piece that reflects Lethabo's happiness since she began her journey into the digital art world.

Meet Lisolomzi

Lisolomzi Pikoli is a visual artist from South Africa.

Fascinated by cosmology, biology and the natural world, Lisolomzi’s work explores the fabric of the universe, breaking down lines, shapes and forms, and combining them with his own thoughts and experiences.

A creative through and through, his first job was making and selling mixed tapes before he turned his hand to art. His work has now been shown around the world, from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Berlin, Amsterdam, London and Tokyo.

We met Liso in Johannesburg to discover what inspired him to get into digital art and to understand why he believes greater connectivity can help drive a more equal society.

The first cartoon I copied was Looney Tunes, and I loved it.

There's like a little bit of a voyage of self-discovery. Sometimes I'm offloading through my work, reflecting at times myself, my environment, people around me, moments and things.

It's a chilly day in Johannesburg as we head north of the city to Liso's studio.

Nestled between the desirable areas of Parktown and Rosebank, he greets us with a warm yet nervous smile. His studio space mimics his personality — modest and humble, with a flash of quirkiness. His artwork is present but minimal, and a pile of National Geographic magazines in the corner hints at his inquisitive nature.

Growing up in nearby Pretoria, Liso recounts how it never felt the most creative of places, but he had good encouragement from his family. “Back in the day I used to see my uncle, my dad's older brother, drawing a lot. He never pursued an artistic career, but I remember drawing around the table and him coming to show me some pointers on form, which was cool.”

Although his parents were more politically minded, they also loved literature, so creativity seems to be in their genes — Liso's sister and late brother both became writers. Knowing he would be a painter or an artist early on, Liso remembers being captivated by cartoons. “The first cartoon I copied was Looney Tunes,” he says, “and I loved it.”

Joining the local prestigious school of arts, Pro Arte, Liso began his journey into digital art through a design and graphic print-making course. “I wanted to challenge myself, and at the time, I could see a shift towards computers, graphic art.”

He was right. The digital art scene is booming in South Africa, and Liso has gone on to work with the likes of L'Oreal Europe, MTN South Africa, Saatchi & Saatchi, Comic Con Africa and more. He has also been hosted as an artist-in-residence by the Trinity Sessions, Soul City Movement and the Keleketla! Library in Johannesburg. In August 2017, he was selected as one of South Africa's Top 100 Young Independents.

Thinking back to the first piece he sold, he cringes. “Well, I mean, it's embarrassing. The first person to buy my artwork was my sister. It's really sweet actually, and then my dad bought a piece from me afterwards.”

His first offical commission came during his first year at Pro Arte — a mural inspired by graffiti and street art in Cape Town.

Since then, he has continued to pursue his art career working as a muralist, full-time painter and freelance designer, with the intention to go back and complete his course when he is ready. “I still believe in education”, he giggles. “I've been patching it up with some courses and will finish.”

Liso's Step-by-Step
Digital Art Masterclass

Already exhibiting around the world and working with leading global brands, in 2017, he added author to his extensive repertoire by releasing a book of some of his work called ‘Man Like Mountain: Of Memory and Scar’. The graphic expressions portray life from the perspective of young, black millennials—a theme often present in his work.

“There's like a little bit of a voyage of self-discovery. Sometimes I'm offloading through my work, reflecting at times myself, my environment, people around me, moments and things.”

A naturally curious individual, Liso's eyes light up as our conversation turns toward the extra-terrestrial. He talks excitedly about a documentary he watched where they explored the probability that there are similar planets to earth in other galaxies that are terraforming in different ways, inhabiting different and alien lifeforms. It's clear this notion doesn't scare him but invigorates him.

Interested in the world and its mechanics, he enjoyed biology and physics at school but wasn't so good at maths. He says he's making up for it now through his work by “uncovering the world around us, the world unseen and the world inside of us.”

Currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci, which was gifted to him, he draws similarities in his work. Da Vinci, he observes, “picked apart nature for form, and it would influence so much of his work.” He also mentions Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and the impressionists, who were studying light and breaking down form in new and radical ways.

“It's what I'm trying to do. When we break everything down, for instance, this room, we see it's man-made and angular. But, once we get out, we see that natural things are almost formless.”

Listen to our chat with Liso about the universe.

There's like these stock understandings of the black experience. There's hardship or big celebrity and I feel it's missing these very human, intimate experiences sometimes, and that's what I try to get through in my work.

Liso clarifies he doesn't use art simply as escapism but instead describes it as a reality check. For him, it's more a way of working through his own emotions. “To be honest, to this very day, I think art can be quite a challenging practice. You are kind of naked and expressing yourself and letting everybody know what's happening in your mind, your colours, and whatever.”

Fortunately, the responses he gets are usually good, and he puts that down to the fact that “through my work, I am telling the story of us.” He doesn't want to be exclusive on that but feels that African and black voices in media and popular culture haven't been represented as well.

“There's like these stock understandings of the black experience. There's hardship or big celebrity, and I feel it's missing these very human, intimate experiences, and that's what I try to get through in my work.”

Liso explains that only around 1% of people travel to museums and galleries in South Africa, which is one reason why he got into digital art. “It's a democratic way to share. Having art online means everybody can engage with it, and you don't necessarily have to know about the gallery or the museum housing it.”

The challenge is getting everybody connected in an environment where many still struggle to gain access to housing, water and sanitation.

“These, you would think, are basic things that are catered for, but sometimes they are just not. There are real problems with corruption, and it's undermining the social project to make South Africa what it should be.”

In addition, there is a concern about the growing educational divide. Social inequality will only worsen if people aren't given the digital skills needed to attend a school or enter the workplace.

Liso sees connectivity and smartphones as tools that can help minimise this gap and create a more equal society. Explaining that not many Africans have access to computers, he describes smartphones as a ‘quick computer’ that makes the transition to learning a computer a lot easier and that helps boost inclusion.

“A lot of the apps cater for the daily things that we need in life logistically and administratively, and it creates a space where people can run small businesses. So, this does help with some of the financial inclusion problems.”

He goes on to talk about how smartphones have brought people in Africa closer together and how they've raised awareness of what people deserve in terms of equality, exposing the different standards of living across the world.

Yet, in Africa, devices are the least affordable on the planet, at 62.8% of the average monthly income.

Through a new report by the Broadband Commission Working Group, we want to give more people access to smartphones and raise awareness of the challenges around connecting people, working with governments and partners to come up with more solutions and ways of tackling the problem.

Keen to be involved in the project, Liso is one of four artists we've asked to create a piece of work that celebrates the transformative power of technology and highlights the growing digital divide and current digital injustice.

“It's just another way to break down or look at complex issues, and I think that art is a nice way of making the journey of connecting these dots a little bit of a nicer experience.”

Telling us about the painting he's creating, he explains how it began as a pencil sketch before becoming an acrylic watercolour painting to which he will add digital finishes. Liso finds digital tools are great if you want things to look hyper-realistic. For example, animating small parts of the artwork makes it more interactive and modern, he says. “I want it to eventually come alive and show that in the new digital era that you can literally make your paintings come alive.”

I want it to eventually come alive and show that in the new digital era, you can literally make your paintings come alive.

The painting is a complex and fun composition, showing a boy comprised of many different shapes, scenes, planets, nature and man-made objects. It features vibrant and attractive colours, including Vodafone's signature red.

Seeking to explore the wonders of the world through the eyes of a child connected in the modern era, it also addresses issues of the digital divide. It shows how a lack of access to digital resources can create a vacuum, depleting the efforts of developing nations.

While Liso recognises that governments and businesses need to work together to close that divide, he also believes Africans need to start empowering themselves by using what they have at their disposal.

“Africa doesn't see its potentiality. For instance, in the technology sciences, we feel like maybe that's not our strongest point. We are more cultural people, but even in rural schools, you get many brilliant students that are really good at the technical industries.”

“Next up on the agenda for Africa, let's start seeing ourselves as the new technologists.”

Liso is keen to do his bit to help drive that change. For example, he is creating a step-by-step masterclass for this project to show others how to create their own digital art.

“Especially in a developing country, we all need to play an active role in building our society and communities.”

Decidedly optimistic about his continent's future, Liso truly believes most people want to do good in the world. Given our innovative tendencies as a species, he is positive about society's ability to become more balanced. For instance, for Africa to not always consider itself developing.

“Hopefully, we will exceed our own expectations from what we can add to the world.”

This piece is titled Izandla Ziyagezana, which means ‘handwash each other’ and speaks to the interconnectedness of people and nature.

Here Liso seeks to explore the wonders of the world through the eyes of a child, connected in the modern era.

It is a complex composition, showing a boy made up of many different shapes and scenes, both natural and man-made. Once you look closer, you will notice the boy is holding a smartphone, which Liso believes has become part diary, part computer for the modern man and can be seen as a personal extension of ourselves. It shows the wonders of a life lived and all the amazing daily experiences we have through connectivity.

Using vibrant colours, including Vodafone's signature red, Liso has created a fantastical world that highlights the issues of the digital divide. Specifically, it explores how a lack of access to digital resources can create a vacuum, depleting the efforts of developing nations whilst highlighting the benefits of smartphones. Interestingly, it also observes how, once we break down matter, we can then see ourselves as one with all that surrounds us.

Meet Jebet

She is a digital artist and photographer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

A self-taught artist, she is inspired by the colour and vibrancy of Nairobi, and through her work, she explores what makes us human.

My whole career has been possible because of connectivity and access to a smartphone and the Internet. So, connectivity is so important to me, and I believe it should be important to all of us.

Jebet has battled depression, so her work often examines themes of mental health, self-love, womanhood and resilience.

Jebet's artistic career has grown almost entirely through the internet, so she is passionate about the powerful influence that connectivity can have on people's lives.

Through her art, she demonstrates how technology can help Africa build more sustainable and inclusive societies.

Watch Jebet's interview

This piece is titled RUKIA, which means to jump in Swahili and ascending or rising in Arabic.

Jebet’s work reflects the energy and confidence we can give each other through social media. Giving us a space to share our talents and stories, we now have an opportunity to impact the lives of one another.

Inspired by her own journey, Jebet’s art shows a woman from Africa with a smartphone as her face. The various symbols show how smartphones allow us to see and connect with loved ones, wherever they are, while the globe and book promote knowledge sharing and education.

The patterned background represents the growth this access to knowledge allows, complimented by the women’s rocket earrings which depict elevation.

It highlights how, through connectivity, we now have endless possibilities and opportunities if we are only courageous enough to take them. Access to knowledge helps level the playing field in the digital age, improving accessibility for all and creating more inclusive societies.

Meet Derrick

Derrick Ofosu Boateng is a photographer and hue-ism artist from Ghana. Proud of his homeland, his work is full of colour and motifs that display the vibrancy and energy of everyday life in the country's capital city, where he grew up.

As the baby of the family, he tells us how he got away with more than his siblings and would regularly steal his dad’s phone to take photos. Still shooting and editing on a smartphone today, he has accrued a large social media following and has worked with the likes of Google, Louis Vuitton and American rapper, Common.

We met Derrick in his studio in Accra to discuss colour, culture and why he believes a connected society is a successful one.

This is one of the reasons I wanted to come into photography, and I had to take photography seriously. I always thought it was a responsibility for me to defend the idea that our continent, and my country Ghana especially, isn't something negative.

It never crossed my mind to be an artist,” Derrick explains as we join him in his studio located east of the city, in the residential suburb of Cantonments.

“I thought my parents wouldn't accept if I were to become an artist because they were spending a lot of money on schools, so I thought maybe I should become a lawyer or a doctor.”

Playing around with his dad's camera when he was young, Derrick started shooting on his dad's phone in his teenage years. “Most of the time I would take his phone without him even being aware of it - it got to a time where he'd just give me the phone and I'd take it, go to school and study photography.”

For Derrick, art initially was something he did just for fun. But, when people kept telling him that they liked his work and wanted to buy his prints, he began to realise he might be onto something special. That’s when he started experimenting with colour in his imagery and developing his own style.

That style is identifiable by its staged compositions, statement props and bold hues. Not to mention its ability to capture Ghanaian culture vibrantly and positively.

A huge part of that culture is colour. Vivacious cloth designs can be seen across Africa, communicating everything from emotion and tradition to history and even status. Growing up, when Derrick’s mother went out, he could tell where she was going without asking her. “So, let's say it's Saturday, and my mum is wearing black, I know she’s going to a funeral or something. Whereas if she’s wearing white, I know she’s going to a party or an engagement”.

Bringing colour association into his work, also known as ‘hueism’, Derrick uses different shades to help tell the story behind each piece. Very particular with the colours he chooses, he explains that blue is a relaxing hue, pink is joyous, and red is aggressive – although, in some instances, it can also convey love and romance.

When asked what colour he associates with his family, he’s quick to say his parents would have elements of blue but is less sure about his siblings. Amused, he adds that one of his siblings would be red, but he doesn’t name names.

Derrick takes great pride in his country’s traditions. For example, recently decorating one of Louis Vuitton’s iconic trunks as part of a collaboration, he told the fashion house that the idea for the design came from the popular African proverb, ‘two heads are better than one’. Using colour and art, it tells the African story of unity.

“Reading the proverbs over and over creates an image in your head. It has a subject, so what you create already has a subject,” Derrick says.

Often though, he says the world around him is what inspires him the most. “Sometimes it just comes out naturally, sometimes it may be a mistake, and sometimes it comes from walking around, looking at people in their environment, in their communities. Most ideas you see are based around what people do.”

This portrayal of everyday life in Ghana is very much intentional, as Derrick is keen to change the often-negative narrative around his homeland.

“To be frank, I think the people here are very happy people. They are very stable in whichever situations they have. I don't think that the black people are not happy with themselves, but it seems the media is always talking about poverty and debt.

Lean On Three

Like every human, we are rooted, channelled and connected to the world

Our organs, every pound of flesh and muscle palpitates in intricate rhythms

We cannot deny the beauty that the windows of our eyes bestow us with

Again and again, we find ourselves in the spiral of cinematic realities

But our connections to our world are weakening

Laughter has turned to pain and suffering

Green is fading and turning black

And once flowing rivers produce concrete bubbles

But I hear loud echoes of redemption

Our hands hold our future.

Brighter than ever

Our society shall be greener than before

And our happiness will know no limitations

Listen to Derrick read his poem in Ashanti Twi

This translates into skin colour too. Casting local models, he shares how he doesn't want to move away from featuring darker skin, saying, “black is good. If you have black skin, it's nice - the idea of black is something that needs to be cherished.”

This isn't because he feels underrepresented. In fact, he rarely comes across anyone who does feel underrepresented, and when he does, often it is an idea that has been passed down from previous generations to them. To break this cycle, he believes education is key. “If we black people try as much as possible to change that idea, that’s the best thing.”

Try 70,100 people, the number of followers he’s amassed on Instagram since he started posting back in 2018.

With so many people able to instantly comment on his work, we ask Derrick if he ever feels anxious about sharing his art.

“Honestly, I have no expectations”. He instead puts the onus on himself, believing he needs to be in the right headspace to interact with the world. “So, if you are happy—this way, you just boost your happiness. So, it depends on yourself and what you're going through at that time.”

Talking about the challenges around creating art, he says it can sometimes be difficult to help the models understand his vision. “I think it's just communication. Communicating with them, for them to understand the reasons why you are creating this specific image.”

As the youngest child in a family of eight, Derrick loves being surrounded by and collaborating with people. He is confident that is how you get the best results. “I think whenever two people connect on something, most of the time it turns out more successful than one person struggling to do it.”

That is why he believes connectivity, in the broader sense, is good for Africa. “The idea of connectivity—connecting people together to create something—it's getting success. Connectivity will bring success for us.”

Connecting people together to create something — it's getting success. Connectivity will bring success for us.

Talking about how smartphones have impacted his community, Derrick says, “you don't need to stress communicating something from here to someone in Europe or something.” Adding, “they have also made our lives simpler. It has made information quite simple. Everywhere you can take your phone, Google, use the Internet and just know what's happening in other parts of the world.”

However, not everyone is connected.

Data from a new report by the Broadband Commission Working Group has found that at least 76% of adults in advanced economies own a smartphone compared to only 45% in emerging economies.

To change this, we are working hard with governments and partners around the world to improve coverage and access to devices. In addition, to increase awareness of the problem, we’ve teamed up with four digital artists to create emotive, visual stories that celebrate the transformative power of digital and highlight the digital divide during the 77th session of the UN general assembly in New York.

When we talk with Derrick, he is still playing around with several concepts for his piece and doesn’t give much away, but he does share that he will “use either two or three models.”

Using the power of words to bring his work to life, Derrick reads ‘Lean on three’, a poem he’s written to accompany the piece.

Optimistic about society’s future, Derrick believes connectivity is a tool that can bring that happiness and, therefore, success.

“That sense of connecting together—what comes out for me? Victory comes out for me, success comes out for me.”

Derrick's piece highlights how connectivity can bring people together and create close communities.

Passionate about the power of collaboration, Derrick’s art shows three people joined in a way where one supports the other, portraying how we can be victorious when we connect. Red in this setting depicts love for each other, while the yellow balloon and props represent joy and brightness, both about the issues being communicated and the bright future ahead of us — if we reach down and grab it.

The beach surroundings give a nod to sustainability. Evocative of a beach clean-up, it shows again how communities can achieve great things when they work together. On the edge of redemption, it is clear the role connectivity must play in enabling happy and successful societies.

Partnering with like-minded organisations, we are working towards a collective goal of ensuring that accessing the Internet through a smartphone is not a luxury.

Placing a smartphone in the hands of a, let’s say, a young woman in Kenya opens countless opportunities for her. It empowers her to pursue education through virtual classrooms and online learning platforms. Having a smartphone can also give her access to mobile money platforms such as M-PESA, which could help her start her own business. What's more, access to social media means she can market her products and services beyond her usual geographical borders, creating more sustainable living conditions. There are endless ways in which technology can improve lives.

At Vodafone, we are passionate about getting more people connected and are working hard to deliver meaningful connectivity and digital transformation in the hardest-to-reach communities.

In Africa, for example, we’re expanding coverage and modernising networks to support rural communities and SMEs and enhance digital and financial skills. In doing so, we can ensure that no one is left behind.

But no organisation can bridge the digital divide alone.

Partnering with like-minded organisations, we are working towards a collective goal of ensuring that accessing the Internet through a smartphone is not a luxury.

As part of the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, a working group dedicated to bringing connectivity to the forefront of global policy discussions, we are aiming to ensure that an additional 3.4 billion people can access and use the internet through a smartphone by 2030. And through Partner2Connect, Vodafone has pledged to invest US$190 million over the next five years to increase our 4G population coverage to an additional 80 million people in Africa.

There is more we can do, though. Our latest report, ‘Strategies towards universal smartphone access’, examines the opportunities and barriers of smartphone and Internet-enabled device ownership.

Analysing the impact of initiatives such as device financing, digital literacy training, the reuse of preowned devices, local manufacturing and reduction in taxes and import duties, for the first time, we have outlined actionable recommendations for addressing these challenges.

Because everyone - whomever they are and wherever they are — should have access to reliable and affordable Internet.