/ 27 June 2024

Hamstrung by lack of connectivity

Cellphones the front line for gender equality
In the Research ICT Africa After Access 2018 survey of 10 African countries, including South Africa, non-users said that the price of smart devices was at primary reason for people not being connected. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

As the sun sets over Zimbabwe’s Matobo Hills, boys throw stones to chase baboons away. Their goal isn’t to enjoy the view of dusk but to search for a mobile network without interference from wild animals.

Silozwe, a village less than 50km from the southern city of Bulawayo, the country’s second-largest, sits in a connectivity black hole.

To an outsider, the daily stream of villagers clambering up the hill might look like a pilgrimage to a rain-making ceremony but it’s a communal trek to make phone calls, send messages and check social media.

“Grown up as I am, it’s hard for me to get up the hill, and sometimes I still fail to connect,” said Sakhile Sibindi, 60, a grandmother who walks 5km to reach the spot from her home.

Rural connectivity issues are not unique to Zimbabwe.

About a third of the world’s population, or 2.6 billion people, do not have internet access, according to the UN, which has a target to get everyone online by 2030.

“The internet is an essential tool to access information, employment opportunities and education. 

“People without meaningful access may be left behind,” the UN’s International Telecommunication Union said in a report last year.

In sub-Saharan Africa, about one in four people use cellphones to get online — but 15% of the population live in areas with no coverage, according to GSMA, a telecom industry group.

The Matobo Hills, a Unesco World Heritage site famed for its distinctive boulders, provide some relief to Silozwe’s residents. 

But it has some clear drawbacks, such as nosy fellow connectivity hunters eavesdropping on phone calls, said Sibindi.

“If you get the connection, you don’t have privacy,” she said after stopping there on her way back from a routine health check. 

“Sensitive family issues end up being known by the whole village.”

“If someone gets sick at night, you cannot come here to make a phone call. If it’s death, you will stay with a corpse in your house because you cannot reach out for help,” said Sibindi.

Some local residents have found ingenious workarounds.

Cellphones attached to sticks in yards or strapped on tree branches in a desperate search for network coverage are a common sight.

Anna Tiyo, a 42-year-old whose husband works in South Africa, used an old metal barrel to set up a makeshift network station under a fortuitously discovered, well-connected tree.

“One day, I got tired of walking in the sun across the field, so I sat here under this tree, watching some videos on my smartphone,” she said. 

“WhatsApp messages started coming in, and that’s how I found this network spot,” she said.

Others ask bus drivers and shopkeepers to deliver written or oral messages for them.

Living in an offline area can be costly for those trying to do business, in a country with high poverty and unemployment rates.

Bukhosibethu Moyo, a 29-year-old building contractor, said coverage gaps cost him clients and money, as he can’t take calls or mobile payments.

“Most of my clients say they fail to reach me for several days,” he said. “They end up hiring people from the city who are readily available online.”

Cellphone penetration is over 97% in Zimbabwe, and there are more than 14.5 million active subscriptions in a country of 16 million people, according to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe.

The government has acknowledged that connectivity is problematic in rural areas. It has promised investments and recently launched a programme to equip rural schools with computers.

“We now have a state-of-the-art optic fibre network, a National ICT policy, and a Smart Zimbabwe Master Plan,” communication minister Tatenda Mavetera wrote on X in March.

“These initiatives will transform Zimbabwe into a digital powerhouse, boost our economy, improve our lives and connect us to the world.”

But progress has been slow, leaving many villagers feeling neglected.

“We are part of this country and deserve access to the same opportunities as those in urban areas,” said Tiyo.

The country’s ministry of communication did not reply to a request for comment. — Zinyange Auntony AFP