COVID-19: African Countries Need Internet Access Now

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COVID-19: African Countries Need Internet Access Now

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted barriers to Internet access in Africa. Overcoming these barriers requires more attention to human rights-based approaches and creative collaborations.

More African countries have eased their various COVID-19 regulations. This is in the wake of vaccine production and distribution, which has been bolstered by more awareness about the virus since it was first recorded on the continent in February 2020. However, despite this respite, wearing masks, remote work and hugless contacts will not stop anytime soon. Safe to say the world as we know it, might be our reality for some time.

At the centre of this reality is the fact that life has moved online. In Africa, as much as for the rest of the world, swathes of socio-political and socio-economic life are now digital. However, African countries struggle with this new reality because of factors such as the high cost of internet access, low smartphone adoption rates, digital divides and inadequate broadband infrastructure.

Impacts of factors mitigating against internet access in Africa
Looking first at cost, according to Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), for internet access to be affordable, 1GB of data must not cost more than 2% of average monthly income. In many African countries, however, at least 8.76% of average monthly income is required to purchase 1GB of data.

Moreover, although affordable internet access can be improved by increased adoption of smartphones, in Africa the adoption rate remains below 50%. This is particularly striking in a region that has the world’s youngest population.

The digital divide is a further challenge, taking shape as both a gender digital divide and a rural-urban one. As regards the former, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), women in African countries are 34% less likely than men the internet. Relatedly, Plan International has reported that the internet access gap between women and men in Africa is the widest of all world regions.

Imbalance in access is also at the heart of the rural-urban digital divide, with a survey of 15 countries from the Global South, which included six African countries, reporting a 14% rate of access in rural areas by contrast with 42% in urban areas. This rural-urban digital divide exists in part because urban areas are more likely to be targeted for telecommunications infrastructural development compared to their rural counterparts. This targeting neglects the fact that rural areas precisely because they are remote may have a greater need for connectivity.

Broadband infrastructure, the fourth key factor affecting internet access, is also problematic in Africa. According to the African Union’s Action Document for Policy and Regulation Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA), lack of investment has led to low broadband penetration and, ultimately, to the high cost of internet access in Africa.

Barriers to internet access compound the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic
All of these factors contribute to the various ways African countries suffer more in the course of grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Stated simply, many cannot afford the new reality of life online. The protection and promotion of human rights, guaranteed in international and regional human rights instruments (including the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights) as well as many constitutions, has been affected—with impacts on both substantive political rights (such as the right to access information online) and socio-economic rights (including the rights to education, work and health). And as the inequality gap continues to widen due to the pandemic, women’s rights, children’s rights and many other vulnerable groups are deeply affected.

Some ways to ensure more internet access in Africa
Existing initiatives like PRIDA are working to solve some of the barriers to internet access described above. However there are at least least four further ways in which stakeholders like governments, private sector, civil society, and others can work to ensure greater internet access.

First, regulatory policies at the regional and national level should encourage more competition in the broadband market. This will ensure more investment, market-driven prices and thus more affordable broadband access in the region.

Second, while increases in income levels will improve smartphone adoption in Africa, innovative solutions are needed to drive down the cost of mobile phones in the region. More mobile phone manufacturing plants like those in Egypt, Algeria, South Africa and Rwanda should be incentivised to compete in the global smartphone industry.

Third, in designing public policy during the COVID-19 pandemic for more internet access, more priority should be given to women and girls and to rural areas. If internet access is not to exacerbate inequalities, it must actively work to close the existing gender and rural-urban digital divides.

Fourth, this is the time for African countries to tap into their Universal Service Access Funds (USAFs) to address the challenges posed by inadequate internet access. USAFs are mandatorily funded by mobile telecommunications operators and are provided for by law in at least 37 African countries. They are designed to provide internet access for unserved and underserved communities least likely to be connected. Yet according to a report by A4AI, at least US$408million remains unspent in all the countries that have these funds. The funds should now be deployed to provide more internet access especially where and when they are needed the most.

In promoting these solutions, countries in region with the lowest internet penetration rates need to be prioritised: Africa currently has nine of the 10 countries with the lowest rates in the world.

Barriers to internet access in Africa were not created by the COVID-19 pandemic, however by moving swathes of life online, the pandemic has exacerbated the serious problems caused by such barriers. Stakeholders including governments, the private sector, academia, civil society and others must collaborate to develop a human rights-based approach that caters for the most vulnerable, increases accountability and consolidates developmental gains for African citizens. It is in doing this that the biting impacts of the factors highlighted can be minimised during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

Tomiwa Ilori

Written by Tomiwa Ilori

Tomiwa Ilori is currently a doctoral researcher at the Centre for Human Rights, Faculty of Law, University of Pretoria. He also works as a researcher at the Centre's Expression, Information and Digital Rights Unit.

Cite as: Ilori, Tomiwa. "COVID-19: African Countries Need Internet Access Now", GC Human Rights Preparedness, 18 February 2021,


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