By Serpil Timuray, CEO of Europe Cluster and Vodafone Group Inclusion for All Chair
Vodafone’s Inclusion For All strategy seeks to ensure no one is left behind through improving equitable access to connectivity, digital skills and offering products and services for marginalized and vulnerable groups. Within Vodafone itself, we aim to develop a diverse and inclusive workforce that reflects our customers and societies.
The internet is a vital part of everyday life, enabling us to communicate and access vital services. Although 5.3 billion people were online in 2022, the digital divide persists. 2.7 billion people remain offline, and in Africa, 60% of the population is unconnected. In the world’s least developed countries (LDCs), this rises to 64%.
To tackle the digital divide, we remain dedicated to overcoming five key barriers – coverage, access to devices, affordability, digital skills and creating relevant products and services for those most at risk of being unconnected, such as older adults and women.
In the last year, we made significant progress in all these areas and continued to build on the partnerships crucial to achieving meaningful connectivity for everyone.
Access for all
Although mobile broadband networks reach 95% of the world’s population, coverage in Africa lags at 83%. Connecting everyone to digital services is a significant challenge, and expanding the rural range is a key focus for Vodafone, especially as 25% of the EU population and 58% of Sub-Saharan Africans live in rural areas.
We must take new approaches to overcome these barriers and deliver universal coverage. One example is our partnership with AST & Science LLC, who are developing the first space-based mobile network designed to connect directly to 4G and 5G devices without specialized hardware.
This year, AST successfully launched and deployed its first communications array. Then in April 2023, the first connection was made from space to a mobile. This space-based network has enormous potential to connect people in the hardest-to-reach areas, reaching an estimated 1.6 billion people across 49 countries.
We continued to make good progress on our goal to increase 4G population coverage to an additional 80 million people as part of the ITU Partner2Connect digital coalition, including in four of the least developed countries: Mozambique, Tanzania, Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On top of this, we have added 4G to an additional 1,429 sites across these countries, giving access to millions more people in Sub-Saharan Africa. During FY23, we have deployed more than 31,000 4G sites in Africa (excluding Kenya), reaching 70% of the population.
Smartphone ownership is lowest in emerging markets, with only 45% of adults owning a smartphone compared to 76% in advanced economies. Women are less likely to own a smartphone than men. A key challenge is affordability. Smartphones can cost over 70% of the average monthly income in some vulnerable countries.
Vodafone co-chaired the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development driving multi-stakeholder action to connect 3.4 billion people with smartphones by 2030.
To increase device financing options, Vodacom launched the Easy2Own payment plan. Customers in South Africa can buy a smartphone with a one-off deposit and spread payment over the following 11 months.
In partnership with Google, Safaricom’s device-financing initiative Lipa Mdogo Mdogo (Pay Little by Little) offers a flexible payment plan and low upfront costs. Since its launch in 2020, more than 935,000 4G devices have been connected through this initiative.
Propositions for equality
Most of those still unconnected are women, particularly in the LDCs, where just 30% of women used the internet in 2020 compared to 92% in high-income countries.
Therefore, Vodafone focuses on creating relevant services for women to bring them online. For example, gaining access to quality health information and antenatal care in many African markets can be very difficult.
Overall, Vodafone has made significant progress in helping to improve access for to connectivity for women and vulnerable groups. In 2022, we met our goal to connect an additional 20 million women in Africa and Turkey four years ahead of our original schedule.
Vodacom’s ConnectU platform provides South Africans with free access to information and life-changing online resources, including pillars on education, jobs, social, health, safety & security, government, and small, medium, and micro-sized Enterprises (SMME).
Since its launch in 2020, ConnectU has experienced exponential growth. In two years, the platform had attracted over 34 million unique users, with an average of 3.5 million new unique users accessing it each month.
Our Mum & Baby service in South Africa gives free access to maternal, neonatal and child health information and now has more than 2.1 million registered users. Another successful programme is Vodacom’s Je Suis Cap (I Am Capable) initiative in DRC, which empowers women living with disabilities through digital inclusion.
Two billion people remain unbanked globally, with limited ability to transfer or save money, access loans, or start businesses. With Safaricom, we have grown the mobile money platform M-Pesa beyond core financial services. Now it offers groups the ability to safely store and manage funds (M-Koba) and small enterprises a convenient way to pay wages and suppliers.
Around 26 billion transactions were made in the year using M-Pesa, the equivalent of almost three million per hour on average through a network of more than 670,000 agents.
These are impressive numbers, but the social and economic impact of M-Pesa is broader. New research in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme showed that countries with successful mobile money adoption could reduce poverty by around 2.6% - that’s 1.7 million fewer people living in poverty.
In 2022, we set out our target to connect 75 million people and their families to mobile money services by March 2026. I am delighted to report that as of the end of March 2023, 60.7 million customers were using Vodafone’s financial inclusion services, which includes 2.2 million in South Africa.
Additionally, we continue to support domestic abuse survivors with ‘Apps Against Abuse’, including the Bright Sky app, a safe, easy-to-use app and website that provides support and information on how to respond to domestic abuse.
The Vodafone Foundation’s ‘Apps Against Abuse’ portfolio has connected 2.5 million people to information, advice and support. (FY22: 1.6 million people).
Enabling quality education and digital skills
Enabling a quality education and boosting digital skills is pivotal to ensuring the digital divide does not worsen, especially given the new realities of increasingly digital societies.
Our Connected Education programme provides ready-made classrooms for around 1.7 million students and teachers in 5,500 institutions across 13 countries. The Vodacom e-School project that allows students and teachers to access learning materials on their smartphones with no data charges currently has 1.4 million users in South Africa.
In October 2022, Vodafone Foundation research found that 92% of teachers believed schools are responsible for promoting digital literacy, but a fifth felt they didn’t have the necessary digital skills. To address this, Vodafone Foundation’s €20m European ‘SkillsUpload Jr’ programme to expand digital skills and education has now reached more than 2.3 million teachers and students.
Vodafone Foundation and UNHCR have continued to scale their Instant Network Schools programme. In 2023, 84 Instant Network Schools were deployed, benefitting 247,000 students.
By 2025, Vodafone Foundation will deploy 300 Instant Network Schools, supporting 500,000 refugee and host-community students alongside 10,000 teachers.
Although many companies have undertaken significant initiatives towards inclusivity, the technology industry must unite to accelerate progress.
The #ChangeTheFace Alliance was established in 2020 by Vodafone, leading companies in the technology sector and other organisations. It is a one-of-its-kind network where members collaborate to exchange insights and best practices on diversity and inclusion, work together on joint initiatives, and share their learnings and resources with the wider industry.
Since its initial launch, the Alliance now consists of 15 companies and organisations with similar values and goals for making a positive impact.
At Mobile World Congress 2022 in Barcelona, Vodafone was presented with the Diversity In Tech Outstanding Achievement GLOMO Award, celebrating the Alliance’s efforts to accelerate diversity and inclusion in the technology sector.
The Alliance is open to new members and welcomes anyone working in the technology sector who wants to help accelerate the pace of change.
These achievements underscore Vodafone’s purpose to connect for a better future by using technology to improve lives and enable inclusive and sustainable digital societies.
Read more about our Inclusion For All strategy and our Planet and Digital Society purpose pillars in our Annual Report 2023.
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