The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the accelerated rate of digital technology adoption around the world heralding a shift to what has become a new normal for day to day life.
However, for millions of people living in Africa without access to the internet or laptops and smartphones, the pandemic has resulted in greater social and economic isolation.
By December 2020, about 634 million people in Africa were internet users representing 47.6 per cent of the continent’s population. This figure is expected to keep growing but there are many factors that entrench the continent’s digital divide with the latest one being the pandemic.
The usual hindrances to Africans seeking to access technology are the high cost and unreliable connectivity due to the lack of a reliable network infrastructure.
Lockdowns and restrictions necessitated by the pandemic have hit Africans hard leading to job losses, food insecurity, entrenched poverty and also major setbacks in education especially for the majority poor who lack the technology allowing schooling from home.
One organisation that is committed to driving digital inclusion in Africa and globally is media and telecommunications software and services provider, Amdocs. The company employs 26,000 people around the world and creates opportunities for 70,000 more through its operations and supply chain.
Its initiatives in Kenya and Mexico have assisted hundreds of thousands of people during the pandemic. Currently in the planning phase, the company is currently working on another digital inclusion project in South Africa.
Amdocs, Customer Business Executive VP George Fraser says the company’s overriding social impact strategy is to provide digital solutions that address world problems. “As a company that creates digital journeys for our customers, we have the skills and capabilities to pay it forward to the communities that need us the most. The past year has resulted in just about everything going remote, and our ability to accelerate digital inclusion has become our number one focus.”
One of its key projects – conducted in conjunction with Safaricom Foundation – was to provide internet access to children in Kenya.
“The initiative is a perfect example of how employee engagement and social impact can meet,” explains Fraser.
“Every year, we conduct an organisational health survey, which is open to all employees. In 2020, we incentivised employees to take part by promising internet access to one child in Kenya for every survey completed. The response was astonishing. Employees received the initiative really well and there was a significant increase in the number of surveys completed last year,” notes Fraser.
Amdocs employees reported that the initiative made them feel more connected and engaged with the company and its initiatives. It made them feel proud to work for an organisation that was making a tangible impact in other peoples’ lives.
Another highly successful project was the creation of an app to connect food insecure people in Mexico to businesses with excess food. The app is currently helping more than 400,000 people access food. The project is entirely volunteer-run – in collaboration with local authorities – and is Amdocs’ most impactful initiative to date.
In addition, the company runs digital skills training aimed at specific target populations, whether it is showing the elderly how to use communication platforms to connect with their loved ones or teaching women and children basic – or more advanced digital skills – to increase their digital literacy or enhance their employability.
Amdocs is currently running an internal competition for its employees to get ideas on how to take digital inclusion forward and help solve problems the world is facing.
“We are also looking for two projects in Africa to support this year – they need to be legitimate organisations, such as universities or NGOs that can demonstrate viable solutions to social challenges. Our role will be to bring the technological expertise to the mix,” notes Fraser.
He says Amdocs’ role does not stop with its own programmes. “We also help other organisations to find ways to address social issues in their respective countries and regions, for example, we assisted an Australian company in its drive to provide free data to students.”
Digital inclusion is so high on the agenda at Amdocs that shareholders are updated on progress in this area – alongside business and financial results.
“Our company’s purpose is ‘enriching lives and progressing society’. This is not just our CSR purpose. We are profoundly aware of the inequality that the digital divide creates; the massive gap between the privileged and underprivileged; and the inequality in their access to education and other services.
“That’s why we are committed to providing life-changing help to people who need it the most, for example, giving children access to the internet or device when they cannot go to school. This could mean the difference between losing a year at school, maybe even giving up, or advancing to the next year and progressing in life,” concludes Fraser.
Digital opportunities across Africa are broad and deep despite setbacks from Covid-19.
The pandemic is expected to delay economic growth over the next five years both in Africa as well as the rest of the world. But the resilience of Africa’s Internet economy, coupled with private consumption, strong developer talent, public and private investment, investments in digital infrastructure, and new government policies and regulations will continue to drive growth.
The growing number of Internet-based companies are introducing avenues for significant economic growth that will help create jobs, reduce poverty, and contribute to overcoming Africa’s future development challenges.
To tap into this, the World Bank Group Digital Economy for Africa (DE4A) flagship initiative supports the digital transformation strategy for Africa prepared by the African Union (AU). The DE4A initiative recognizes that the digital economy can help accelerate the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
On its part, Africa should think big on digital development.
At the current, incremental pace of economic and social advancement, too many of Africa’s young people will be denied the opportunity to live up to their potential.
Digital technologies offer a chance to disrupt this trajectory – unlocking new pathways for rapid economic growth, innovation, job creation and access to services – which would have been unimaginable only a decade ago.
To wholly get everyone on board, there is also a need to address the growing digital divide to ensure that no one is left behind.