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Why we need to address the mobile internet usage gap

22 Sep 2021Empowering People
3 minute read

Internet access is becoming more important for everyone as digital societies grow, including those living in low- and middle-income countries. Smartphones are increasingly the main gateway to digital public services including education and health support, and can enable people to access financial services, search and apply for jobs, and run their businesses. Around 86% of connections to the internet in these countries are made through a mobile phone.

Despite the importance of smartphones, 44% of the planet – around 3.4 billion people – live within range of mobile networks but are not using them. This usage gap is partly due to a lack of smartphone ownership.

We believe that everyone should have the ability to access the internet and digital services. That’s why Nick Read, Vodafone Group CEO, and International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Secretary-General, Houlin Zhao, are chairing a new Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development Working Group urging for multi-stakeholder action to connect 3.4 billion people with smartphones by 2030.

Smartphones can improve lives, businesses and communities across Africa – where the usage gap is highest, with 49% of people living in range of mobile networks not using the internet – and low- and middle-income countries in other parts of the world. We’ve shared a few stories below that show how.

Supporting the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out

Healthcare is one area where smartphones are playing an increasingly important role. For example, Vodacom recently partnered with the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) to offer the mVacciNation digital toolbox – a mobile technology platform that manages vaccination appointments and stock availability – in African Union member states to accelerate the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out.


The mVacciNation platform, originally having been used to manage vaccinations against malaria, is now being used to manage Covid-19 vaccinations in South Africa. The system offers increased efficiency for citizens, enabling vaccination bookings via smartphones and the ability to tie in with vaccine passport programmes.

Providing access to digital financial services

Vodafone M-Pesa african woman holding her phone

More than 50 million people across Africa use M-Pesa, Vodafone’s mobile money service, to send money and pay for goods and services. The M-Pesa app for smartphones takes that a step further, enabling users to access a range of financial services including payments, short-term loans and insurance through their smartphones. The platform has also enabled many users to set up and run their own businesses.

M-Pesa has largely contributed to the growth of formal financial inclusion across the continent. In Kenya, access to financial services and products has increased by around 56% between 2006-2019 driven by the availability of mobile money.

M-Pesa became an even more important platform for customers during the pandemic, with the number of transactions growing to 4.5 billion per quarter – with a total transaction value of €63 billion.

Empowering people with disabilities

For Julius Mbura, a visually impaired lawyer, poet and disability rights activist living in Nairobi, Kenya, smartphone technology provides the tools he needs to live an independent life.


M-Pesa helps Julius feel safer spending money, while Microsoft’s Seeing AI provides him with information about his surroundings.

Enabling access to education

Vodacom eSchool - african women teaching a child

Digital learning platforms became vital for many students during the pandemic, with schools closing due to lockdown restrictions. In South Africa, Vodacom’s e-School platform – accessible via smartphones, tablets and computers – enabled over 1 million students to access curriculum-aligned educational resources online. Vodacom zero-rated the platform as well as a series of other educational websites, meaning students could access these resources from a smartphone without incurring any data charges.

Other launch partners of the new working group include: the Alliance for Affordable Internet; GSMA; the government of Ghana; Safaricom; Smart Africa; Vodacom Group; and the World Wide Web Foundation. Together, we will produce a report and set of concrete recommendations to help address this challenge.

  • Africa
  • Agriculture
  • Digital skills & Education
  • Digital Society
  • Empowering People
  • M-Pesa
  • SDG 17
  • SDG 9
  • SDGs
  • Smartphone
  • Smartphones for All
  • UNGA
  • Vodacom

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