Technology has a runaway effect, writes Natasha Reuben, Head of Transformation, Dell Technologies South Africa. Through devices and broadband, people can find services, resources and opportunities – and those who have access to it get further ahead.
However, there are still billions of people who are being left behind due to a lack of availability and cost of devices. This is the paradox of the digital divide, and it affects communities, societies and economies globally, including here in South Africa.
The world’s leading international institutions are sounding the alarm. The World Trade Organisation believes levelling the playing field should be a strategic focus for everyone who participates in the digital economy, because when such considerable amounts of human potential are left untapped, nobody wins. At the same time, the United Nations affirms that social inequality will be exacerbated unless people all over the world are empowered with digital literacy.
Here at Dell Technologies, as part of our Progress Made Real plan to drive societal change by the year 2030, we have set an ambitious goal to impact the lives of 1 billion people with our technology by advancing health, education and economic opportunity initiatives. But it’s critical to understand the issues that create and compound digital inequalities, and how we can work together to promote greater digital inclusion worldwide.
The global digital economy needs strengthening
At a glance, digital inclusion is improving; 2019 proved to be a turning point, with over half the world having internet access. However, because the internet has become indispensable to our way of life, that still leaves a staggering 3.7 billion people without internet access. And these digital deserts aren’t uncommon: underserved and unserved communities are even in developed countries like the U.S. Regardless of where in the world you are, if there are rural or low-income communities, there’s likely a lack of reliable digital connectivity.
It comes as no surprise that this disproportionately affects developing nations, where only 47% of people are connected, compared to 87% of people in the developed world. In the least developed nations, that number is only 19%. In South Africa – a region where the lines between the developed and developing worlds are often blurred, as modern metropolises stand side by side with poorer neighbourhoods and rural villages – 56.3% of the population has access to the internet according to Statista. This share is projected to grow to 62.3 percent in 2025. But this access isn’t evenly distributed.
Across the world, including throughout South Africa, one of the leading barriers is the cost of both devices and connectivity. Without it, organisations can’t reach those they serve, and those individuals can’t reach organisations. IDC predicts that the global economy will reach “digital supremacy” by 2023, in which more than half of the global GDP will be driven by digitally-enabled enterprises – with dire implications for those that can’t compete.
Digital technology is also critical to staying connected and productive in times of upheaval or crisis. During the COVID-19 pandemic, global internet usage went up 70%, the use of mobile apps doubled, and streaming services have seen massive gains – and organisations with robust online operations and reliable internet access could continue to grow and thrive.
Meanwhile, other organisations—including small businesses and critical in-person services—suffered from their lack of digital adaptability. One of the most prevalent and essential in-person services is the education system, and while school has moved online for some, UNICEF calculates that 154 million children have lost access to their learning resources.
According to the World Economic Forum, the digital divide is widened between higher and lower demographic groups by the fact that data in South Africa is of the most expensive in the world. An example of this is, on 30 March 2020 Africa Teen Geeks (ATG) launched the STEM Digital Lockdown school in partnership with the Department of Basic Education.
It has reached over 500,000 learners across the country through the MsZora platform – an artificial-intelligence based educational platform offering free live classes by qualified teachers and is available to all South Africans. However South Africa has over 12 million learners in its basic education system and only 500,000 children were able to access these classes, a prime example of inequality and access to internet between the haves and have nots.
Not just access to internet, but access to skills
Digital access is an especially big concern when it comes to education, because there are two key ways in which its impacts are immediately felt. First, there are “hard inequalities” – for example, a lack of infrastructure, internet connection, communication technologies, devices and other tangible assets that limit students’ ability to learn.
Secondly, there are resulting “soft inequalities” – including the lack of knowledge, skills and opportunities that prevent youth from fully participating in the digital economy and building better futures. It’s not just digital devices and connectivity that are necessary; it’s the digital training and literacy that empowers individuals to take full advantage of these tools. We need to look beyond internet access if we want to enable digital inclusion.
Delivering greater digital education opportunities is a driving focus at Dell Technologies, which has invested more than $70 million globally in STEM initiatives over the last five years. We’ve established strategic partnerships with nearly 60 non-profits that have impacted the lives of 2.6 million students in our most recently reported grant cycle, many of which serve communities across South Africa.
Christel House South Africa is a non-profit, no-fee school that offers top quality, technology-enabled education to underprivileged children in Cape Town, South Africa. The programme is complemented by professional health care, nutritious meals, psychosocial counselling, family assistance and college and careers planning and support.
The mission of this organisation is to break the cycle of poverty and to and build self-sufficient, contributing members of society. The use of and access to technology is a critical component of Christel House’s education model to ensure that its students are equipped with modern skillsets that will see them succeed in the future workplace.
One example of Dell Technologies helping to deliver digital access and education is through Solar Learning Labs. Globally, 17,000 students have learned digital, entrepreneurship and career development skills, with repurposed shipping containers transformed into technologically enhanced classrooms.
The Solar Learning Lab installed at Zithulele village, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa has created a unique space for learning, and the opportunity for students to gain 21st-century skills. The project is managed by ComputerAid who work to bridge the skills-gap in the ICT job market, with local partner Sihamba Sonke managing the day-to-day running of the lab.
The Solar Learning Lab program aims to enhance the educational achievement and life chances of school children and ultimately reduce the rate of youth unemployment.
A global push for digital inclusion
Global upheavals can widen digital gaps, as we’ve seen in the case of COVID-19—but sometimes, it takes a disruption to result in a call to action. In South Africa the Department of Basic Education is currently developing the Coding & Robotics curriculum to close the digital skills gap between what skills are available and what the industry will be looking for.
What can businesses and non-governmental organisations do to bring more people into the digital economy? At Dell Technologies, we believe that one of the most meaningful and effective ways is by empowering innovators and non-profits to make a direct difference in people’s everyday lives, and we concentrate our efforts on driving education, healthcare and economic opportunity.
Along with the educational initiatives discussed above, Dell Technologies has impacted 60 million lives with investments in innovation and emerging healthcare solutions, such as telehealth in rural areas and partnerships to help take precision medicine mainstream. And with education key to providing the skills needed for the global workforce, programs like the Solar Learning Labs increase economic opportunities for students and the communities they live in.
By 2030, we want to have used our tools and expertise to help 1,000 non-profit partners digitally transform to better serve their communities. All of this takes a team effort, which is why we launched our global Tech Pro Bono Consulting program open to all Dell Technologies team members, as well as select customers and partners. Our workshops aim to develop a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by non-profit organisations and leverage the skills of our volunteers to develop solutions to help them better support those they serve.
By bringing internet connectivity to more and more areas, “digital highways” are delivering information to more people. We are focused on providing the skills, training and technology to help this highway move both ways. Let’s continue to create a world where digital technology enables human potential.