Last month, we commemorated national Human Rights Day in South Africa, writes George Barrett, country director: South Africa at the British Council.

It gives pause to reflect on the long, hard-fought struggle for freedom and constitutional rights won 30 years ago. These include the right to quality education and access to information; both of which increasingly necessitate access to and the ability to engage safely in a global, increasingly digitalised economy.

Yet, most of the global internet use (60%) remains concentrated in the Global North, deepening the digital divide, including across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where only one in five people are online.

This digital divide – the gap between those who have access to and can effectively use technology, digital tools and platforms, and access digital literacy training, and those who do not – has the potential to exacerbate existing and historically rooted socio-economic inequalities.

Inequalities that are experienced differently by people, depending upon their race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and amongst others, age. With seventy percent of the population under the age of thirty, it is imperative that SSA’s young people have the skills, knowledge, and capabilities to participate in the digital economy actively and meaningfully.

Digital Literacy and Learning Pathways

Critical to their capacity to do so is access to quality (digital) education. This requires strengthening the digital literacy capabilities and skills of educators to equip learners with the relevant knowledge and skills needed to pursue employment, entrepreneurship and income-generating opportunities.

It also means putting in place training and resources to effectively integrate technology into classrooms, exposing learners as early as possible to digital tools and platforms. Our “Skills for Inclusive Digital Participation” programme, for example, helps to embed digital literacy skills development into national curriculums, with a specific focus on empowering women, youth, and people with disabilities.

These types of interventions are needed to ensure young people benefit from the vast wealth of knowledge, learning, and opportunities available through digital platforms and most importantly, can do so safely, with appropriate safeguarding measures in place.

Digital literacy can be daunting though, including for our educators, who – without prior exposure – are suddenly expected to integrate technology into their teaching methods and impart digital skills to learners.

Many educators need training, resources, and support to build their confidence and capabilities to effectively integrate digital teaching and learning into the classroom; while schools need the resources and staff trained to be able to maintain and update machines, so they don’t end up redundant, gathering dust in a classroom cupboard.

As artificial intelligence (AI) enters our classrooms, grappling with its potential as a tool in enhancing quality learning outcomes while mitigating its possible challenges will be vital.

In SSA, where hundreds of languages are spoken, AI tools could support trans-languaging teaching and learning but it is a daunting new digital realm, and access to it, or the lack thereof, could further entrench the divide.

Bridging the digital divide also means creating 21st century-relevant, digitally-enabled learning pathways and curricula for learners. Inclusive participation is also dependent on appropriate, implementable, and clear policy frameworks which create the necessary enabling environment and rubric for developing digital learning and teaching across all levels of the curricula in SSA.

Through our partnership with the Department for Basic Education in South Africa, we are convening relevant stakeholders to develop much-needed policy guidelines for digital teaching and learning. We must also be alive to the critical role the technical and vocational (TVET) education sector plays in developing and empowering young people for safe and meaningful participation in the digital economy.

Affordability, Infrastructure and Connectivity

However, none of the benefits of the access points touched on so far can be effectively realised if the quality infrastructure and connectivity needed are missing. Rwanda and Kenya, amongst others, have made significant investments to enhance access to critical IT infrastructure, particularly in rural areas.

Often though, there remains a widespread lack of access to quality network coverage, a stable electricity supply, quality infrastructure penetration, and reliable, constant, and fast connectivity, which continue to inhibit development.

The affordability of data across SSA is a further factor driving the digital divide. When compared to average income levels, the cost of data and devices is prohibitively high for many people.

In fact, SSA has some of the world’s most expensive mobile data prices, according to the Worldwide Mobile Data Pricing report, which measured mobile data costs from June – September last year among 237 countries. According to the report, SSA has five out of the 10 most expensive countries for mobile data across the globe, with Zimbabwe being the most expensive in both the region and the world ($43.75 for 1GB of data), followed by Saint Helena ($40.13), South Sudan ($23.70), the Central African Republic ($10.90) and Zambia ($8.01).

The Unevenly Shared Benefits of Access

This uneven access takes on many dimensions including geographical but also intersectional; with learners in well-funded schools, often located in urban areas, benefiting from greater access to devices and (faster, more stable) internet connectivity.

While learners attending less affluent and less well-resourced schools, often also located in (historically) marginalised communities, are being left behind. Girls, women and people with disabilities and marginalised backgrounds are also disproportionately excluded.
For those with access, the advantages are exponential: learners can benefit from a vast and growing array of diverse online learning platforms, access to educational databases, and creative and collaborative peer-to-peer communication platforms. This exposure can foster cross-cultural connections, shared learning for mutual problem-solving and benefit, and innovation, opening a whole new world of educational and employment opportunities.

These opportunities, in turn, often see returns that benefit families, neighbourhoods and communities as they help ignite and facilitate youth-led social enterprises that address local problems.

Working Towards Greater Digital Inclusion

Just as there is no one panacea to these challenges, no one actor alone will overcome them. Together, in partnership and through collaboration across civil society, government, development partners and the private sector we can help to bridge the digital divide.

We must start with young people as our guiding stars because the potential for real transformation comes when safe, positive exposure to digital technologies is introduced early on in a young person’s educational journey.

Through our in-country and global partnerships, the British Council is co-creating impactful interventions that facilitate greater access to quality digital learning and training opportunities for young people in multiple sectors across SSA.

These include basic, higher, and further education and training, in the development of English language skills and qualifications, as well as in facilitating digital empowerment for people in the creative economies from cultural producers, to emerging animators and artists.

We also leverage the strength of our global convening power to bring together key stakeholders and partners from across the world, to share learning and innovations for peer-to-peer support. With a view to enabling enhanced learning outcomes in schools, British Council’s recent Schools Now! 2024 Conference – hosted for the first time in SSA, in South Africa – was attended in person and online by over 1000 school leaders, demonstrating how digital platforms can enable cross cultural and learning and collaboration, sharing best practices and insights in international education.

Bridging the Digital Educational and Employment Divide

Digital empowerment through quality education and skills development helps to better position young people for employment or entrepreneurship in today’s – and tomorrow’s – digital economy. Recognising the importance of digital transformation in unlocking SSA’s potential and tackling youth unemployment, our Going Global Partnerships, Innovation for African Universities (IAU) programme, was developed to strengthen the entrepreneurial and innovation capacity of Higher education Institutions in SSA.

With a strong focus in phase one on digital skills, digital literacy and technopreneurship, the IAU partnerships created digital infrastructure and technologies to optimise entrepreneurship ecosystems designed to equip young people with digital skills for enhanced employability and enterprise development.

By working together, governments, educational institutions, the private sector, civil society, and organisations like the British Council, can create solutions that make technology accessible and engagement with it meaningful and safe in order to empower young people and bridge the digital divide so that no one is left behind.