Geographies in Depth

How universal internet access could reboot South Africa 

Students use computers to study at Elswood Secondary School in Cape Town November  7, 2013. Even the metal grills welded into its walls did not deter burglars from ripping out the copper cables that delivered Internet to the students of this tough neighbourhood. But Elswood's pupils were saved by alternative technology - free wireless connection via unused TV spectrum known as white space. It's being provided by a consortium including Google  as part of a wider trial. Elsewhere in the country Microsoft  is operating similar pilots. Both are racing to fine tune a technology that could ultimately bring cheap broadband to the entire continent. Picture taken November 7, 2013. To match Feature AFRICA-INTERNET/ REUTERS/Mike Hutchings  (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: EDUCATION BUSINESS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - RTX157JS

Closing the digital divide is an essential step to helping young South Africans find jobs Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Elsie S. Kanza
Ambassador of the United Republic of Tanzania to the USA and Mexico, Embassy of the United Republic of Tanzania in the USA
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Five years ago, when Christine Ngwenya was 14, her hopes for her future started to take shape. “My dream is to be a scientist because I am so curious about the world — I want to know everything,” she said at the time. “Because I want to be a scientist, maths is very important to me.”

Christine comes from Diepsloot, a densely populated township north of Johannesburg in South Africa. In 2013 she was in Grade 9 in a public school. Her class was big. She was one of 44 students who were averaging well under 20% for maths. Christine was one of the best performers — her average was just over 23%.

Democracy brought the hope of economic transformation to South Africa. But instead of enabling shifts in economic classes, South Africa’s education system is an apartheid legacy that can perpetuate economic divides. Only one in five learners who write matric pass pure mathematics. But Christine bucked the norm because of the internet and a smart, online education initiative. Today she’s in her first year of a Bachelor of Science degree at the Nelson Mandela University, thanks to an e-learning maths initiative run by Olico.

Image: REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

A civic co-operative that wanted to replicate the success forged by Sal Khan, Olico started with Khan Academy content, but subsequently built a maths platform that is now locally relevant and available for free online. Christine encountered the internet for the first time when she engaged the maths programme at a mathematics lab and internet cafe set up by Olico near her home. After three years her maths mark improved by some 40% and she achieved a university entrance.

Christine’s story bears out the data in Digital Divides, a World Bank Development report, that reveals that digital technologies make development more inclusive, efficient, and innovative. The report shows how the benefits of digital technologies filter throughout an economy. The big returns from digital investments are services, growth and jobs. But there’s another important insight. Christine’s success shows that when government, civics and the private sector work together, even the most challenging socio-economic problems can be solved.

This is why, during the World Economic Forum on Africa meeting in Durban in May 2017, the Ministry of Telecommunications and Postal Services and various local, regional and global multi-stakeholders announced a partnership to launch Internet for All - South Africa to connect 22 million unconnected South Africans to the internet by 2020.

This is the fourth country model testing a new methodology to close the digital divide by concurrently addressing infrastructure, affordability, local content, and skills development. Internet for All - Rwanda was the first to be launched in December 2016, followed by Uganda in March 2017 and Argentina in April 2017.

“Everyone should have access to the internet,” Christine told us when we investigated her story this month. A handful of Christine’s 44 peers joined the maths programme. “All of the people who went to the maths lab are now in university,” she reports. “Most of those who didn’t go to the maths lab are now just staying at home. If I didn’t get into university I’d also be doing nothing,” she says. Internet for All can be a game changer because it will democratize education by connecting everyone to the innovations, hacks and solutions that bring meaningful change to socio-economic challenges.

I can relate to this, because I am a product of education experiments thanks to my parent’s quest to give me quality schooling. The journey started at kindergarten, which incorporated elements from Froebel and Montessori. Then came a private academy, a Visa Oshwal Community run primary school, and an Opus Dei Catholic girls high school. Later I attended the African branch of an American university, studied at an EU-funded post-graduate programme through distance learning, as well as at the Center for Development Economics at Williams College.

Experience taught me that a vast array of knowledge can be very powerful — as Malawian William Kamkwamba discovered at the age of 14. Forced to drop out of school for five years during Malawi’s severe drought, after reading library books, William used scrap, blue gum trees and spare parts to create an electricity-producing windmill. He used this turbine to power lights and radios in his family’s home. A graduate of Dartmouth College and former Global Fellow at, William now works with WiderNet to develop an appropriate technology curriculum that allows people to bridge the gap between "knowing" and "doing".

Today, as South Africa commemorates Youth Day and the class of ‘76, who courageously rose up in protest of inferior education, young South Africans should rise up again. With unemployment reaching chronic levels, the young and the brave must ensure that the youth are well heard, represented, and have strong participation in the Internet for All - South Africa initiative.

Forty-eight percent of South Africans between the ages of 15 and 34 are unemployed. The statistics that make up this figure reveal a disturbing trend — an increasing number of young people are giving up on looking for work. South Africa is a young country: two thirds of the population are under 35. The Fourth Industrial Revolution offers South Africa, and Africa — a continent where 70% of the population is under 30 — a real opportunity to use digital technology to leapfrog growth and to emerge as key players in the technology sector.

This opportunity is real. Last year Jumia, a Nigerian based ecosystem of e-commerce offerings, apps, marketplaces and online classifieds, became Africa’s first ‘unicorn’. After receiving funding from Goldman Sachs, MTN, Orange, AXA and Rocket Internet, Jumia, which serves 23 African countries and employs 3000, was valued at over a billion US dollars.

Have you read?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, with its breakthroughs in 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and quantum computing, will reshape humanity. As Klaus Schwab states: “The changes are so profound that, from the perspective of human history, there has never been a time of greater promise or potential peril.”

The peril is almost too terrible to imagine — but we must contemplate it to ensure it is never realised. If this revolution bypasses Africa’s youth, what will remain is a continent at war with itself.

The promise is the realization of the full potential of people like Christine and William, and the creation of many more startups like Jumia. But this promise can only be realized if business, civic society and government work shoulder-to-shoulder, to harness the transformative power of digital and other technologies. We must innovate inclusive and sustainable solutions that benefit all, but especially our youth who need them most.

Join the #internet4all conversation about Internet for All - South Africa on 16 June 2017, and put your issue on the agenda for change.

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