By Shameel Joosub, Vodacom Group CEO
Today is Africa Day, celebrating the foundation of the African Union (AU). The AU now represents 55 member states that are guided by its vision of an integrated, prosperous Africa. If we have learned one lesson from the past year, it is the importance of telecoms connectivity to achieving that vision and creating inclusive, prosperous societies in Africa.
During the pandemic, Vodacom, Safaricom and Vodafone worked hard to keep African communities connected, accelerating investment in our networks to maintain capacity for over 170 million customers. We also connected more than 3.5 million students with digital education services, while enabling 14 million people to access online health services without using mobile data. We helped businesses digitalise and we’re supporting their recovery. And through fintech platforms like M-PESA, we enabled millions of people to transact safely without the need for notes and coins.
Now all the nations of Africa are starting to look beyond COVID-19 and consider how we build back stronger. That must include rapid digitalisation to help national economies to grow back to pre-pandemic levels and to improve the infrastructure delivering social services.
Africa is a continent of diverse nations and rich cultural heritage. It’s home to more young people than anywhere else in the world – innovators, entrepreneurs and the potential for fast and significant economic growth.
But it is also a continent of nations with shared challenges. Half a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa alone are facing barriers to mobile and internet usage, which also restricts them from fully accessing a range of critical services like education, financial services and healthcare.
Bridging the digital divide – improving access to technology
Closing the mobile usage gap is crucial to securing a successful future for nations across Africa. For example, with youth accounting for 60% of all of Africa’s unemployed, preparing learners to thrive in a digitally enabled future is key. With 45% of the 128 million children of primary school age in Africa not learning basic literacy and numeracy skills, the need to support learning is critical.
The past year has also seen millions more people in Africa use mobile financial services. However, for the poorest 20% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population, the cost of a smartphone equates to roughly 375% of monthly income. Taxation adds another affordability barrier – mobile ownership taxes alone accounts for 7% of their income. This is 5% more than the United Nations’ (UN) affordability target, which policymakers must address to accelerate digital inclusion.
Africa’s mobile companies alone cannot bridge this digital divide. Increasingly we are seeking partnerships with manufacturers and support from governments to address this issue. In Tanzania, Vodacom partnered with KaiOS Technologies to launch the 4G-enabled Smart Kitochi, the first ‘smart feature phone’ in a country where only 10% of people currently use mobile internet. In both South Africa and Kenya we have also partnered with Google to offer discounted smartphones to people on low incomes.
We see similar partnerships as key to addressing a number of challenges as we seek to increase access to digital services across Africa. That is why we launched Africa.Connected earlier this year, a Vodacom, Vodafone and Safaricom campaign which aims to accelerate economic recovery by driving digital inclusion through partnerships both within Africa and with the international community.
M-PESA is a great example of the way that the international community can work with people in Africa to effect positive social and economic change. M-PESA started as a Vodafone idea developed in partnership with the UK Government’s Department for International Development in 2006. A year before its launch, 62% of the population in Kenya had access to some form of banking, and mobile penetration was just 16%. By 2019, that ‘banked’ population of Kenya had increased by 21% - 80% of whom were using mobile financial services.
Photo by Amani Nation on Unsplash – Nairobi, Kenya.
M-PESA, which is now owned and operated by Safaricom and Vodacom, is widely considered the most successful financial platform in Africa. The platform is making a huge difference to the lives and livelihoods of people in seven African countries at the time of writing.
We cannot address Africa’s challenges overnight, but international partnerships and long-term commitments to invest in the continent can help us build a better, digital future for African nations, the positive impacts of which will reach far beyond the continent.
Africa Day in 2021 is a celebration of cultural diversity and heritage, but also of the potential for a better and more prosperous future. Let us hope that in years to come, Africa Day can be a celebration of global collaboration with African nations and a stronger, inclusive and growing digital societies.
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