• 50% of Zimbabweans have access to the internet
  • Pandemic emphasized the importance of the internet
  • Collaboration with multi-stakeholder to accelerate internet connectivity

Harare - According to a cabinet minister, just 50% of Zimbabweans have access to the internet, which worsens and maintains existing economic and social exclusion. Even though internet usage has been rising and is now just over 60% nationwide, ICTs Minister Jenfan Muswere stated that access is still extremely difficult for many Zimbabweans. According to the POTRAZ Second Quarter Report of 2022, Zimbabwe had a 61.3% internet penetration rate. Despite having a high level of broadband coverage, the country nonetheless has a sizable unconnected population nearly half of the population is still not online.

Since it had a penetration rate of 0.78% in 2000, Africa has shown a steady rise in its use of the internet. Although 28.7% of Africa now has access to the internet, there are still significant regional differences in both internet access and usage. The biggest proportion of individuals without access to the internet is found in sub-Saharan Africa, according to 2019 research from the International Telecommunications Union, or ITU.

According to ITU data, 42% of all men worldwide are still without an internet connection, compared to 52% of all women worldwide. According to ITU data, the digital gender gap has been closing in Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States while widening in Africa. Over 71% of people live offline in the African region, compared to 17.5% in Europe, which has the lowest percentage. Internet usage is highest in Europe (82.5%), while it is lowest in Africa (28.2%).

From our personal experiences, having been born and brought up in the everyday realities of Zimbabwe, we used to think that access to the internet was not an important right. While it has been declared a human right by the UN General Assembly 2016 Resolution and inventor of the web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and despite having the privilege of witnessing some of its benefits, we did not believe that it was as important as the right to life or livelihood. When people are poor and hungry, they are not thinking about connecting with the rest of the world.

The pandemic has, however, made clear the indispensable yet undeniable role that the internet plays in our lives. Due to these factors, we now understand and agree that if a sizable portion of the population lacks access to the internet, there will not be equality or equity. Much was said during the Banks and Banking survey for 2022 about how banks need to work on financial inclusion, but the truth is that all of these efforts are futile if the government does not set up suitable infrastructure to make internet access available to the country's rural population. The pandemic, the most awakening development in human history, should allow our government to re-evaluate how essential the internet is to our daily lives and how much of a need it is for the nation.

So, should we start talking about giving people smart devices and internet access or must we solve poverty and health gaps in the country? These kinds of questions simultaneously hold contradictory beliefs. They are paradoxically leaving us with more questions than answers.

Well, this is not a debate about what should precede sustainable and equitable internet provision. It is a contribution to an ongoing conversation and research on the need for internet access as a basic human right. The government in collaboration with other multi-stakeholder groups should provide internet connectivity just like the right to food, education, and health. The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) provides for the right to development, an individual and a group right. Article 22 of the charter provides that, “All peoples shall have the right to their economic, social and cultural development with due regard to their freedom and identity and in the equal enjoyment of the common heritage of mankind.” In light of this, we can then pin the slow progress of internet access on the government as it continues to fail to put forth structures for further development.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time that the African governments have been criticized for failing to recognize the importance of the internet during pandemics. In Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, businesses and educational institutions were closed for extended periods between 2014 and 2016. The closures halted economic and educational advancement, restricted access to vital services that families relied on, and provided a wide range of additional services. Sadly, some children never went back to school, others lagged in their learning and development, and sexual abuse and exploitation grew. In the same vein, business suffered and economic development decelerated.

The truth is that these African nations could have handled the Ebola outbreak more effectively if they had taken use of the variety of services that internet access offered and then applied those lessons to unanticipated events like the COVID-19 pandemic. With that, we can also expect that the Zimbabwean government will ignore the COVID-19 pandemic's alert and neglect to make plans for more disasters that could harm the nation's socioeconomic development.

Since 2019 a lot of jobs were lost, person-to-person interactions were limited to people living in the same house, schools were closed, and other people could have to work from home. This automatically led to the fact that the only way the world could connect was via the internet. A lot of interesting questions arise for African governments to answer about the indispensability of the internet and the role it plays in attaining socio-economic growth. The COVID-19 lockdown alongside social isolation has influenced technology behaviour in many parts of the world and Zimbabwe is not exempt.

Studies have shown that access to computers at home is increasingly playing a role in debates on the digital divide. Low-income members of the population, who constitute the majority, do not own personal computers. Notwithstanding, the challenges of full connectivity for Zimbabwe go beyond the infrastructure to lack of cost-effectiveness, availability, reliable electricity, and cost of acquisition (mobile phones and internet).

In Zimbabwe, the population with internet access is mostly urban households with the ability to afford private education among other internet services. When schools closed, innovative education solutions were adopted. Every one of those solutions required some sort of internet access to be utilized. Some schools used Google Classroom, others used Zoom, and a few others had teachers resorted to recording their lessons on smartphones and sharing them in parent-teacher WhatsApp groups. This development implied that children without access to smartphones, laptops, or any digital device had no education. Situations like this worsen inequalities, placing children with privileged socio-economic backgrounds at an advantage over their public-school counterparts. 

What needs to be done by the government?

For the government, essential elements of development in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are inclusion, access, and equality. The promotion of development in our country will be further attained when a critical mass of Zimbabweans has equal access to every socio-economic and political right. Thousands of people will remain unconnected unless the following is accelerated and implemented. 

A multi-stakeholder approach is adopted to identify and tackle the very diverse issues that have impeded mass connectivity across the country. The government and other relevant stakeholder groups have an opportunity to accelerate, foster and harness faster connectivity to ensure that no one is locked out of access. 

Continently multinational partnerships among African regional bodies are a prerequisite to attaining the growth of our digital economy. This can help countries innovate around subsidising the cost of access and creating African solutions to our African digital problems.

Build a strategic Sub-Saharan Africa-wide connectivity infrastructure that not only opens up access but also inspires platforms and digital services that connect people to products, services, and information.

In a technologically driven and media-saturated world, every citizen regardless of gender, age, disability, and otherwise need competencies to effectively engage with media and other information providers, including those on the Internet. To address the digital divide, Zimbabwe needs to increase ICT access for learners in schools. UNESCO states that this is an essential precondition for equitable access and inclusive knowledge societies.

Invest in the development of Zimbabwean professionals with the ability to produce software, applications, and tools which incorporate knowledge. How can Zimbabwe start developing technological investment strategies to support a critical mass of citizens in gaining access to the internet? 

These recommendations are not exhaustive but they are a good way to start interventions and conversations around digital access. With such a platform set for the country then a boast in the economy can be achieved by fully utilizing the framework of internet connectivity. Thus the discussion on online shops, schools, and businesses can start. At the moment the honours are with the government to create the environment for a digital Zimbabwe.

In conclusion, we acknowledge that the internet is a fundamental human right. However, the reality is that Zimbabwe is dealing with multiple infrastructural gaps that could exacerbate rather than resolve the problems. These gaps indicate that the disparities in access to the internet harm development in the country. The impact of this disparity, if not curbed, is that Zimbabwe will continue to lag economically in the face of future pandemics without opportunities to equitably compete on the global stage. With multi-stakeholder engagement, rigorous and dedicated efforts, along with baby steps, we might see the country accelerate internet connectivity in astounding ways. 

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