Why Digital Skills are Crucial for Digital Inclusion and How a Truck Can Help

The concept of Digital Citizen was a key theme at this year’s Mobile 360 Africa conference. At the event, I was given the opportunity to explain how Huawei aims to address the digital literacy challenge – a goal that sits at the heart of our sustainability initiatives and mission to bring digital technology to every person, home, and organization.

In this post, I outline our findings and initiatives relating to digital access, skills, and applications.

At most technology conferences in Africa there is always a lot of discussion about how to increase the supply of mobile broadband such as by expanding network coverage. But at GSMA’s recent Mobile 360 Africa conference, the supply of Internet was not the biggest concern. Instead the focus was on the demand for mobile broadband.

What People Really Want

In Kenya, for example, the 3G and 4G network itself covers over 80% of the population, yet less than 50% of the population are using the network. Globally GSMA reports that 10% of the world’s population live in an area without broadband network coverage (known as the “coverage gap”) but that 43% of the world’s population are covered and still not online (known as the “usage gap”). The cost of smartphones is one reason given for this, but Huawei’s recent research with non-broadband users reveal the importance of other so-called demand-side factors as well.

32% of non-broadband users in areas with network coverage state the reason they are not using broadband is that they just not interested, 20% say they do not know how to use a smartphone, and 20% say they do not know how to use the Internet. All rate these factors as more important than the cost of Internet data bundles. In fact even in areas without network coverage, and therefore where no-one is using broadband, these same factors are seen as being bigger hindrances for those non-users getting online than actually providing network coverage or electricity (which is necessary to charge phones). In other words, even if there was network coverage and electricity tomorrow, few people would get online.

This is not just a problem of respondents to questionnaires saying one thing and then in real-life doing something different. When Huawei has built networks in remote areas, providing access to broadband in areas that previously had no network, we have seen this play out on-the-ground too. For example in one location in Kenya, several months after the network was built, only 20% of users used broadband (the other 80% used only voice, SMS and mobile money services).

Different Habits Between Men & Women

Another crucial aspect of this conversation at Mobile 360 Africa was the difference in usage between men and women. Our research also found this: 26% of women non-broadband users said they do not know how to use a smartphone compared to 10% of men, and 21% said they do not know how to use the Internet compared to 8% of men. GSMA’s research also finds that women are 23% less likely than men to use mobile Internet.

Huawei has launched several initiatives to try to address these issues. Our recently released Sustainability Report gives details of our efforts to teach digital skills to residents in areas surrounding the new base stations we built in Kenya, as well as our program with Robi Axiata in Bangladesh that has six digital training buses deployed around the country that has trained 50,000 women since 2017.

At the Mobile 360 Africa conference Huawei, Safaricom and Computers for Schools Kenya (CFSK) discussed these issues in depth at the #BetterFuture Stage. Caroline Mbugua from Safaricom discussed the need for partnerships between telecommunication companies, entrepreneurs, non-profit organisations and government to address this issue. She introduced Safaricom’s Instant Network Initiative with UNHCR providing digital skills training to students in refugee settlements as well as their BLAZE program that provides the BLAZElink platform with relevant content for youth alongside BLAZE training Summits. This leverages Safaricom’s marketing reach to engage young people in a way that appeals to them.

Joseph Oliech from CFSK addressed the lack of clear policy and strategy from the government on digital skills. Though CFSK has successfully provided computers and training to tens of thousands of teachers and young people across the country, clearer policy and the resources to implement it would make a big difference.

Joseph also explained the necessity of reaching the remotest corners of the country to provide digital skills to those who need it most. The Digitruck program that CFSK operates in Kenya as the local partner of the international organization, Close the Gap, is designed to do this.

The Digitruck, like the aforementioned buses in Bangladesh, has 20 laptops and an Internet connection. Two trainers accompany the DigiTruck to remote areas to train young people on digital skills. Close the Gap, CFSK and Huawei will be launching another DigiTruck later this year in Kenya.

This new DigiTruck will work closely together with various partners from government, United Nations, and Safaricom; enhancing their existing programs and enhancing their reach to remote areas. This will make it more likely for the DigiTruck to have real impact and be sustainable. In addition to helping young people get digital skills which the current Digitruck focuses on, this one will also leverage on Safaricom’s extensive mobile broadband network coverage that Huawei has helped build to help youth go online to find jobs or do online work as part of the government’s Ajira initiative.

Just as important is that the DigiTruck will also train teachers in digital skills and how to teach digital skills to their students, as part of the government’s DigiSchool initiative (that has provided all primary schools with tablet computers). Through working with other partners, the DigiTruck will also spread messages around sustainable management of e-waste as well as how to be safe online.

DigiTruck is a part of Huawei’s global TECH4ALL initiative, which aims to reach 500 million people over 5 years through the provision of digital skills, applications, connectivity.

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