Echoes across the digital divide

RNW Media’s Citizens’ Voice programme uses multi-media content and diverse online channels to engage young people and create alternative civic spaces where they can voice their opinions and engage in constructive dialogue. Internet access is far from universal in most of the countries where Citizens’ Voice is active, and this digital divide can be seen as limiting the effectiveness of an online approach. But just how far-reaching is the impact of this digital divide on RNW Media’s platforms?

Jahou Nyan is a development journalist, and as part of her Masters in Data Driven Design at The University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht she recently completed an internship with the Citizens’ Voice programme. During her time with RNW Media she looked into digital activism in Sub-Saharan Africa and concluded that, despite some stark numerical differences, the reality of the digital divide is more nuanced. Less than half the population across Sub-Saharan Africa currently has access to the internet, and the majority of those who are online are an educated, urban elite. However, digital activists in the region are still able to exert a significant influence on their societies, according to Nyan.

Young and connected
There are a number of reasons for this. First, almost 60% of Africa’s population is below the age of 25 – and young people in the region are more likely to be connected to the internet than not. Sources consulted by Nyan suggest around 80% of young Africans owns a mobile phone, and while not all these phones are able to access the internet, some observers predict that smartphone ownership in Africa will jump from 34% in 2017 to 68% in 2025. Africa has seen a growth of 10,000% in internet penetration over the past 20 years, and the digital divide continues to narrow rapidly as both smartphones and data plans become more available and cheaper.

Sharing phones and access
In the context of Sub-Saharan Africa, smartphone ownership is not a one to one ratio with mobile internet access; sharing phones and/or mobile internet access is common. Sharing goods and services is rooted in an ancient tradition of communal living that persists today, especially in rural communities where the narrative of the digital divide is most entrenched. Sharing takes place both on a commercial level via phone shops, internet cafes and vendors selling temporary access for a nominal sum and between households, friends and neighbours without payment. And in many rural areas with low literacy, professionals such as teachers, nurses, and postal workers also act as cultural intermediaries between the online and offline world.

Another important factor boosting the effectiveness of an online approach is goodwill. Internet users in Africa are more likely to consider social media a positive influence on national politics. Despite fake news, misinformation and the lack of robust privacy laws, by and large social media enjoys a much more positive positioning compared to Western countries.

Seizing opportunities
Working in the digital space in Sub-Saharan Africa is undoubtedly challenging. However, it can also be highly rewarding. Also, as social media continues to shape the new virtual commons, it’s important to seize the opportunity to create constructive conversations that ignite positive change. That is what RNW Media’s Citizens’ Voice programme does – build safe online civic spaces for young people living in countries with no or limited media freedoms.

The Citizens’ Voice platforms are continuously adapting their approach to involve young people better. Benbere in Mali, for instance, adopted a weekly local language video review of their blogs, published on Facebook, a format that helps bridge a digital literacy divide. Meanwhile, Yaga in Burundi is building a strong community on WhatsApp, which has very low data costs.

A growing network of young, connected people in Sub-Saharan Africa need an alternative civic space and the platforms Habari RDC, Yaga Burundi and Benbere provide such a forum with an aspirational approach that encourages constructive dialogue among users.

Please click Echoes across the digital divide to read Jahou Nyan’s full report.