Source: Mahdi Bafande
In this post, we explore why the digital divide disproportionately affects emerging economies and learn about multiple factors behind this problem while looking at the many levers available to bridge it. Among the many case studies we have chosen 3 specific projects that will help us highlight the key pillars of the problem: internet access, digital literacy, and digital service quality. Also, we find out how digital solutions like WhatsApp Chatbots can contribute to a more inclusive and prosperous world.
What is the Digital Divide and Why Does it Affect Emerging Economies More?
The Digital Divide is the unequal distribution of access to digital technologies and the internet. This phenomenon disproportionately affects people in emerging markets, particularly those in rural areas or living in poverty because of a lack of several resources, from infrastructure to education.
According to a report by the International Telecommunication Union, almost half of the world's population lacks access to the Internet, with the majority of these individuals living in developing markets. This is why, according to World Bank data, only 34% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa has access to the Internet. In North America, for example, 84% of people have internet access.
Such lack of digital access can have serious consequences for people: more difficult access to healthcare, education, and financial services, which can have a significant impact on their quality of life.
But also for businesses and economic growth, such as supply chain inefficiencies, scarce data monitoring, improvement possibilities, slowed communication, and business growth opportunities.
How to Bridge the Digital Divide: Multiple Actions for A Complex Problem
Developing a decade-long plan to overcome a structural societal deficit should be the objective of our society at large. Just like everyone benefits when more people are lifted out of poverty, everyone benefits when the digital family grows more prominent.
To achieve this, a diverse range of actions must cooperate over an extensive period to create a compound effect of new generations bringing digital natives also where there is none at the moment.
Language barriers, access to technology, digital literacy, cost of digital infrastructure, and digital services quality are some of the main areas of intervention that need to be tackled. Let’s see more in detail:
Language Barriers: In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, there are over 2,000 languages spoken. And many in emerging markets do not speak English or other widely used languages, making it difficult to use global digital services. To address this challenge, digital solutions can be developed in local languages. For example, in Kenya, the Ushahidi platform was developed in Swahili, enabling people to report and track incidents of violence in their communities.
Access to Technology: Only 28.7% of individuals in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have access to the Internet, compared to a global average of 53.6%, according to the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) 2021 estimates. How can this be solved? Investments are of course needed.
One example could be the creation of public-private partnerships, inclusive policies, and regulations that promote equal access to technology and digital services, driving investments toward capital-heavy solutions such as infrastructure building.
Cost of Digital Infrastructure: Building and maintaining digital infrastructure can be expensive. One solution could be to leverage existing infrastructure such as community radio stations which can be used to broadcast digital content, reaching people in areas without internet.
Digital Literacy: 3 people out of 4 have a computer in their home, in the developed world. Not quite the same picture as the 1 every 4 Developing Countries. This is what leads to only 17.6% of the population in Africa having basic digital skills, compared to 70.6% in Europe. Digital Services Quality: This is where businesses and solution providers can make a difference. By leveraging existing technologies it is possible to create solutions that adapt to the context they are meant to be used in and the users that will use them.
For example, our WhatsApp Chatbot is a far less data-heavy solution concerning a standard B2B Order Management System or cloud ERP Database, making it perfect for use in areas with low internet speed or partial access, allowing businesses in those areas to still have the benefit of a digital solution.
Case Studies: Experiences from Around the World
Let’s see 3 case studies of projects and actions that have been taken at different levels to reduce the digital divide in 3 areas::
Digital service quality;
The Mobile Innovation Hub (MIH) project in South Africa is a mobile laboratory that travels to underserved areas to provide training and access to digital technology. Through the MIH, people in these areas can learn new skills, access digital services, and connect with others in their community.
M-Pesa is a mobile payment system in Kenya, developed to provide a secure and convenient way for people to transfer money using their mobile phones. Today, it has over 20 million active users and has transformed the way people in Kenya conduct financial transactions and its success has led to the creation of other mobile payment systems in other countries, such as Tigo Pesa in Tanzania and Orange Money in Cote d'Ivoire.
Totohealth, a non-profit organization in Kenya created a WhatsApp chatbot to provide maternal and child health support to low-income families. The chatbot sends weekly messages to pregnant women and mothers with young children, providing them with important information on prenatal and postnatal care. The chatbot also provides a platform for users to ask questions and receive personalized advice.
The potential of digital solutions to address the digital divide in emerging markets, including WhatsApp chatbots, cannot be overstated.
As noted before, there is a significant gap that limits access to services in these countries, a lack of solutions specifically designed to cater to a user base located in areas with low internet speeds or reduced access and this is disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations.
The use of digital solutions, including WhatsApp Chatbots, has been proven to increase access to services, create business opportunities, and promote economic growth in emerging markets.
However, these solutions alone are not enough and won’t be able to offer any benefit, if policymakers, organizations, and other stakeholders don’t work together to ensure that digital solutions are accessible and inclusive and that they reach the populations that need them the most.
With the right approach, we can leverage the power of digital solutions to create a more equitable and prosperous world for all.