South Africa can conquer the digital divide

South Africa has been leaping over literal and physical divides for generations. Among the many useful inventions that hail from our shores are the CAT or CT scan, the dolos and Pratley Putty. In 1995, a South African public-private partnership invented the globally renowned Shark Shield, which now repels sharks near surfers, swimmers and kayakers the world over.

There’s no reason for this pioneering spirit and these unique innovations to falter when facing the digital divide. But we need to remain focused on the practical realities of this often nebulous divide if we’re to keep pace with the progression of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

The digital divide is simply the gap between people who have access to affordable, reliable internet services — plus the skills and gadgets needed to take advantage of that access — and those who don’t. This gap is huge in South Africa and has prevented millions of us from accessing a range of digital opportunities and allowing our human capital to compete globally. 

It looks like the right building blocks are now finally being put in place to enable us to grasp these opportunities with both hands. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa finalised the long-awaited spectrum auction in March, and mobile network operators invested R14.4-billion to acquire new radio frequency spectrum allocations. The release of additional spectrum is expected to allow increased mobile coverage, improved services and lower prices for consumers. This will be especially valuable in rural areas, where network coverage has been limited for decades.

The spectrum release is certainly a key, discernable stepping stone towards conquering the digital divide. But there are three focus groups that are central to any effective strategy to bridge the digital divide in the longer term: quality interventions through hardware and upskilling must be prioritised in our schools (and the youth in general); among women (especially rural women); and in our SMMEs.

Some South African innovators are already using digitalisation thinking and skills to live the adage “each one, teach one” to solve human problems, with human solutions. 

In some of our schools, the Eduze Clox device, an innovative product of a SAtion partner, Eduze, is having a remarkable impact capaciting rural schools and teachers with access to the technology they need to overcome intermittent connectivity and power issues. The Clox — or “cloud in a box” — is a plug-and-play offline classroom platform. Acting as an external hard drive with built-in wi-fi, it can distribute the latest accredited educational videos, e-books, podcasts and pre-recorded lessons on a TV. 

One of the features that the Clox boasts is that a 30-minute video lesson can be downloaded in two minutes, without using any data, and without requiring teachers or learners to have any technical skills to use it. Not only does it change the teaching and learning dynamic in a classroom, but any pupil who had to miss school can catch up on recorded lessons and content without having to spend a cent. 

Secondly, an honest reality check of women’s access to digital technology and science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills is needed. According to data from the World Wide Web Foundation, a recent study by the World Economic Forum on gender inequality found that men are 52% more likely to have access to the internet than women in the world’s least developed countries. And in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s especially dire: only 28% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa are making use of the internet.

Bridging this enormous gap will require improved access to internet devices, widespread education of digital basics, and training for women specifically. We can take some lessons from another local NPO, GirlCode, which is on a mission to empower 10-million women and girls with tech skills by 2030, because this gap isn’t just bad for women, it’s bad for business and our inclusive economic growth aspirations. 

To date, GirlCode has provided 62 000 beneficiaries with access to the resources and materials they need to become coders. Their online coding classes focus on tech skills that are in demand, using or donating equipment to schools and girls’ homes. The skills include Python for Data Analysis, Amazon Web Services Cloud Practitioners, Java Developer and general web development. By making these courses available online, or in-person over weekends, entirely free of charge, GirlCode is powerfully bridging South Africa’s digital gender gap.

Lastly, if we are to continue giving everyone a realistic opportunity to participate in the 4IR, we must continue to make tried and tested digital solutions available to SMMEs and entrepreneurs in need. There are several free tools and platforms that already exist, which are able to offer real solutions to everyday business problems — our SMMEs must be encouraged and supported to take advantage of these, or conceptualise and build these solutions themselves.  SAtion’s SMME Business Hub is one such free resource. 

Working with government, labour, academics, and business, digital and economic experts, as South Africa’s dedicated digitalisation engine, SAtion, we know that we have some of the answers and certainly the will to make the leap. But we must work together to ensure that we collectively source the right answers and take this leap together.  Our collective futures simply cannot afford for anyone to be left behind, and we invite all businesses and institutions to join SAtion in achieving this goal.

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Dimakatso Matshoga
Dimakatso Matshoga is the chief operations officer at SAtion, an NPO and partnership between government and business enablers with the aim of digitalising South Africa for inclusive economic growth

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