Africa data deficit… continent in the dark about the digital divide

Digital concerns underpin many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Gender equality, good health, quality education, industry innovation, smart and sustainable cities: these all require strong information and communications technology systems to become a reality.

For all of this to happen, developing countries will have to overcome the “digital divide”. This refers to the gap between those who are connected – first to voice and now to Internet services – and those who aren’t.

But there’s a problem. We simply don’t have the data in developing countries, and in global statistics, to know what the status quo is or whether the digital divide is being closed. So, we don’t know if information and communications technologies are contributing to the achievement of the SDG targets.

There is some supply side data provided by operators and collected by regulators. This is fed into the UN statistical system. It’s then used as the basis of multiple digital indices that now exist. But this has many limitations for policy or planning in developing and emerging economies.

For example, it can’t be used to measure several basic indicators – like gender, age and income levels – in the predominantly prepaid mobile markets of the Global South.

The After-Access Survey, which was run across 16 countries in the Global South in 2017, fills some of these data gaps. The survey tells us who has access to and uses mobile phones for what purposes. It also reveals data about Internet users and non-users, and the reasons that people aren’t online – usually, because Internet enabled devices are too expensive.

All this allows us to compare digital indicators from a range of countries and to see patterns among countries. It shows us that in large populations like Nigeria, India and Bangladesh, irrespective of their distribution of wealth its a struggle to get people connected.

It enables better comparisons on outcomes between countries with similar size economies. We can also compare ICT policy outcomes in the countries that were surveyed.

Key findings

As the world moves from simple voice services and devices to more complex Internet-based services, the issues of digital inequality become more complex than just connectivity. More comprehensive indicators and data modelling is required to understand issues of inclusion and exclusion, and what factors are driving them.

The After-Access survey provides the only representative insights into who is on the Web, what they do, who is not and what prevents them from getting online. These were some of the key findings:

In the seven African countries surveyed, individuals have an average of two SIM cards (which are captured in the supply side data as two subscribers). There are two likely reasons for this. The first is that it allows people to get a signal when there is not one for their primary provider. Secondly, they have another SIM to make cheaper calls to speak to people on other networks, or if it’s a data card, to get a promotional package, such as a “free” social networking time with a new card.

By Alison Gillwald,

University of Cape Town