We are in the digital revolution but the renaissance has not been equally distributed worldwide. We in Africa find ourselves cut off and in the dark when it comes to the technological leaps the internet has brought the world over. I believe the future of Africa is online. The Internet is a huge, unquestionable force for economic growth and social change. We need the Internet to aid our development, take the reins and tell our own story, educate ourselves and create our own unique products and services.
The connectivity situation has improved tremendously but barriers still remain one of the biggest being cost. The greatest barrier to extending internet use in Ghana, and indeed in most African countries, is the cost of data. In Ghana one gigabyte of data on mobile networks – the only means of accessing the internet for most – is about Ghc 15-20 (depending on the network). This means that for millions of people in the country data is a luxury.
According to the Dalberg Report, countries that wish to reap the Internet’s potential for social and economic gains must continue to invest in infrastructure and the broader ecosystem for innovation. Two key pillars provide the basis for a well-functioning Internet economy: “core infrastructure” and “conditions for usage.” Core infrastructure includes aspects of the enabling environment – both physical infrastructure and characteristics of the business environment, such as mobile and Internet coverage, electricity, availability of skills, education levels, and perceptions of corruption. Conditions for usage include those that influence access, awareness, availability and attractiveness. They include a range of drivers, from the cost of devices and price of packages to factors affecting citizen awareness, such as education levels, usage and relevance of services.
Sponsoring Internet access is one of the ways of providing the basis for a well-functioning Internet economy. Enabling free access to websites and apps and giving data rewards improve conditions of usage. Sponsorship of Mobile Data is particularly relevant to Africa because Internet access on the continent is predominantly mobile.
One of the factors which will drive the rise of Africa is education. The importance of education in present times cannot be understated as it forms an integral part of our lives. Advancement in technology is only possible through education.
If Internet access in Africa is mainly mobile, can it expand education’s reach and quality in Africa? According to the mobile industry trade body GSMA, there will be as many as 700m smartphones in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. But a handset alone may not get you online, explains GSMA’s head of mobile, Yasmina McCarty. Is sponsoring Internet access a way to eradicate barriers to free education?
In an article on bbc.com, Steve Vosloo, a mobile learning specialist with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) concludes that the future of education in Africa is mobile.
According to Vosloo, education systems are under stress.
It is a problem felt in many parts of the world, but in Africa, the strain is even more acute.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 10m children drop out of primary school every year. Even those fortunate enough to complete primary school often leave with literacy and numeracy skills far below expected levels.
In addition, there is a major shortage of trained and motivated teachers. Throw in one of the highest concentrations of illiterate adults in the world, and you begin to understand the scale of the problem.
In the last decade many African countries have, against these significant odds, made solid progress in improving their education levels. However, the challenges are often too large. The “usual” tried and tested methods of delivering education are not enough.
Yet there is a potential solution.
While education struggles to cope, mobile communication has grown exponentially. Africa is today the fastest growing and second largest mobile phone market in the world. While in some countries – including Ghana, Botswana, Gabon and Namibia – there are more mobile subscriptions than inhabitants, according to a report by BBC in 2014, Africa still had the lowest mobile penetration of any market . There is plenty more growth to come. 68% of Africa’s population, estimated to be about 1,13 billion, now has mobile phones according to a report in the Guardian in 2015. This means that for the first time in the history of the continent, its people are more connected.
These connections offer an opportunity for education. Already, we are starting to see the beginnings of change. An increasing number of initiatives – some large-scale, some small – are using mobile technologies to distribute educational materials, support reading, and enable peer-to-peer learning and remote tutoring through social networking services. Mobiles are streamlining education administration and improving communication between schools, teachers and parents. The list goes on. Mobile learning, either alone or in combination with existing education approaches, is supporting and extending education in ways not possible before.
Steve also shares that for millions of Africans, much of their daily reading and writing happens on mobile phones in the form of SMS and instant message (IM) chats. Mobiles are also increasingly being used to access long-form reading material – not only 160-character text bites. For example, projects such as Yoza Cellphone Stories, which offers downloads of stories and novels, has shown impressive uptake amongst young African readers who enjoy mobile novels or ‘m-novels’. On Yoza, users not only read stories but comment and vote on them. In its first 18 months, Yoza had 470,000 complete reads of its stories and poems, as well as 47,000 user comments.
Since 2010, the non-profit organization Worldreader has provided school children in a number of developing countries with access to digital books through donated Kindle e-readers. Recently, it has begun to publish the books via a mobile phone-based e-reader. The Worldreader app and its library of stories is already on 3.9 million handsets, with active readers in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana, to name a few.
In many countries, mobiles are the only channel for effectively distributing reading material, given the high cost of books and their distribution, especially to rural areas. Reading on a mobile device is different to reading in print. Mobile devices offer interactivity, the ability for readers to comment on content, the ability to connect with other readers and to publicly ask questions and receive support. Mobile devices can be used to deliver appropriate and personalized content, in ways that print books cannot. Of course, print books have their strengths – such as not having batteries that need to be recharged. A complementary approach that draws on the strengths of each – print and mobile books – is ideal.
Government’s role in zero-rating educational content
‘Zero-rating educational content’ is one way this is potentially possible. In some cases, governments are considering providing incentives of various sorts for Internet providers to do this sort of thing – or removing related disincentives. In some extreme cases, they could even compel them to do so. It can be possible that monies sitting in so-called ‘universal service funds’ could be used to subsidize such practices.
Companies should be compelled to assist the drive to making Internet access possible as part of their corporate social responsibility efforts by sponsoring data to educative sites. Microsoft Math is also zero-rated by some providers in East and Southern Africa.
Econet Zero, for example, offers free access to world-class education content on dozens of web sites for all Econet broadband users in Zimbabwe. Econet Zero provides free access to more than 50 websites, including local universities, early education, MOOCS and other online courses, recorded lectures from leading institutions, test prep resources, ebook archives, math tools, language sites, music education, how-to guides, research and encyclopedia sites, and even random knowledge and trivia.
Eneza is a mobile education platform in Africa with local content. They started with SMS and have released web and Smartphone versions. Eneza connects learners with the people and resources they need to reach their full potential. Eneza’s mission is to make 50 million kids across rural Africa smarter. Today, they are the fastest growing mobile education application in Africa. Eneza’s educational content is aligned to the local context, and the company uses one of the most common forms of technology in Africa, the mobile phone. Eneza’s mobile platform educates out-of-school girls and provides those who are attending school the ability to ask a live teacher questions that they were afraid to ask in class. Via this mobile platform Eneza promotes delayed pregnancy, increased academic performance, and greater economic opportunities for girls in rural Africa.
The Internet via mobile has been explored in solving societal problems in Agriculture, Healthcare, and Finance etc. The Internet holds the key to Africa’s future; this is why we need to connect the unconnected. We are in a digital age and risk extinction if we cannot adapt! Sponsored Data is an opportunity to do this; our world would end without sponsored data.