18 marzo 2021

Identifying connectivity challenges to advance the Sustainable Development Goals: a focus on Africa

 Scenari internazionali


The article reflects the personal views of the author and does not necessarily reflect those of the organizations to which the author is affiliated.


COVID-19 highlighted the importance of digitization and accelerated the path toward digital transformation by bringing massive changes in how we work, we learn and how we do business - changes made possible by the internet and digital infrastructure. All the same, it also increased the digital divide and magnified challenges and gaps. According to the International Telecommunication Union – the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies – around 4 billion people remain unable to fully participate in the digital age (ITU, 2020).


A recent debate promoted by the president of the European Parliament within the framework of Ideas for a new world, “Internet access, a new human right”, focused on the strategic importance of internet connectivity to empower citizens and communities by including them in the global economy. The importance of Information and Communication technologies (ICTs) is so crucial to progress that has been embedded in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, where the role of ICTs is fully reflected in Paragraph 15 of Agenda 2030: “the spread of information and communication technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies”.


The private sector, international organisations and financing institutions have all launched programmes and put digitalization on top of their policy agendas. Digital transformation is one of the five key trends outlined in the European Commission and the European External Action Service vision about the Africa-EU partnership “Towards a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa”.


In 2020, Africa achieved 21% growth in 4G rollout (ITU, 2020). As Africa grows more connected, millions will have access to information and opportunities that were once beyond their reach. Digital services can increase access to e-commerce platforms and digital finance solutions for banking, insurance, or payment services, including remittances. Remittances flow mechanisms have seen interesting developments in the past few years, an example being M-PESA Kenya, an electronic mobile money service (Graham, 2009). A new report published by Google and the International Finance Corporation estimates that Africa's Internet economy has the potential to reach 5.2% of the continent's gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025, contributing nearly $180 billion to the overall economy. However, Internet access rates in Africa see only 14 countries out of 54 reaching the average global values near 50%, e.g. Nigeria, Kenya, Senegal, and South Africa (Internet World Stats, 2021).


We can identify three main barriers that exacerbate the digital divide: unstable geopolitical settings, difficulties in financing the expansion of digital infrastructure due to political, geographical and regulatory constraints and lack of digital literacy and skills.


Mitigating the risks of Internet shutdown

As Internet’s growth succeeded in permeating all aspects of the economy and society, so has the role of Internet service providers (ISPs). The ISP industry has undergone rapid advancements thanks to increasing investments in digital infrastructure, but they are also the connectivity services most likely to be affected by political instability, civil unrest, and natural disasters.


Mitigating the risks associated to the lack of connectivity involves the understanding of technical aspects but also the geopolitical and social settings of a given context. In the last few years, particularly since the Arab Spring in 2011, network disruptions and large-scale network shutdowns have become a widespread tool of information control (Ridzak, 2018). This is becoming increasingly common in some African countries, where governments have shut down connectivity or ordered local ISPs to restrict access to social media platforms and dedicated digital communication tools. ISP links are particularly vulnerable to unstable political scenarios, but they can also be affected by natural disasters. In March 2019, Cyclone Idai caused significant damages to Mozambique’s digital infrastructure and highlighted deeper gaps. Investing in alternative sources of connectivity for emergency preparedness and investing in long-lasting recovery and building resilient digital infrastructure should be facilitated.


Satellite connectivity is a valid back-up connectivity. Africa Mobile Networks (AMN) has planned to use capacity from geostationary (GEO) satellites to build and operate 5,000 mobile network base stations to serve rural communities in Sub-Saharan Africa that currently lack service (ITU and UNESCO 2019, p. 38). But the advantages offered by satellite connection come at a higher cost. In Sub-Saharan African countries, VSAT connection can cost 5 times more than a local ISP connection per month.


More distributed and more numerous Internet exchange points, along with increased diversity of Internet connectivity, will make it more complicated to have widespread connectivity outages. Although competition between operators is bringing down prices, lack of ICT infrastructure does not always provide affordable access to the Internet.


Expanding resilient infrastructure networks

As former Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Obama administration Alec Ross noted, broadband digital networks are the infrastructure of the 21st century just like ports, rail and highways were the infrastructure of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.


A report published last year by the Broadband Commission claims that around US$100 billion is needed to achieve universal access to broadband connectivity in Africa by 2030 (ITU and UNESCO 2019, p. 16).  Significant investments have been made in recent years to build backbone infrastructure and roll out 3G and 4G networks, allowing millions of Africans to digitally connect for the first time. The African Development Bank has pledged US$55 billion for its Connect Africa initiative, and the World Bank has invested over a billion dollars in broadband infrastructure projects such as the Central African fibre backbone network and the Eastern Africa Submarine Cable System (EASSy). Last year, Facebook partnered with Main One in Nigeria and with Airtel in Uganda to build respectively a 750-kilometer terrestrial open-access fiber optic internet infrastructure and an 800-kilometer fiber connection.


Despite the major advances in internet access, substantial gaps remain between urban and rural access within countries (Handfort, 2019). In Africa, only 28% of households in urban areas have access to the Internet at home, but that is still 4.5 times as high as the percentage in rural areas, which stands at 6.3% (ITU, 2020). Many of the unconnected also live in refugee camps. According to a study conducted by Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, the locations in which refugees live frequently lack digital networks and infrastructure, or the connectivity there is too expensive (Latonero et al., 2018).


Lack of developed infrastructure is also directly linked to Africa’s electricity shortages (Blimpo and Cosgrove-Davies, 2019). One in three Africans does not have access to electricity, often resorting to using kerosene or spending hours in darkness (Kojima and Trimble, 2016). Africa's electricity shortages are the result of a lack of international investment to build solid infrastructures and poor regulatory frameworks. There are still significant differences between African countries, cumbersome permit procedures and weak tax assessment rules.


Usability interventions to advance digital literacy through targeted training programs

Access to broadband is crucial but not sufficient to bridge the digital divide gap. Digital literacy is one of the fundamental building blocks to harness the potential of digital technologies. Education and e-Learning can facilitate digital literacy development across all sectors of the economy, through the provision of digital skills to those entering or already engaged in the job market. ITU and UNICEF have come together through a partnership to sponsor a project called GIGA with the goal to connect every school to the Internet by 2030. UN agencies are collaborating with governments and local service providers to supply not only educational materials but also equipment such as computers and laptops.


It is fundamental to promote inclusive initiatives to provide the right tools to everyone with a focus on the most vulnerable: disabled people, rural communities and women, for whom ICT plays an important role to strengthen their self-sufficiency (Buskens and Webb, 2009). According to a study from GSMA, women are 20% less likely than men to use the Internet. It is also worth noting that however, over the past three years the mobile internet gender gap has narrowed by 27%, bringing an additional 236 million women online (Rowntree and Shanahan, 2020, p. 8).



Widespread lockdowns have worsened the already difficult situation that especially sub-Saharan economies face, but digital technologies represent a necessary opportunity to connect people with each other, enabling access to key information related to health, education, e-agriculture, financial services related. Internet access and digital financial inclusion are vital as many Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) rely on them, from ending poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), to deliver universal health coverage (SDG 3) and sustainable infrastructure (SDG 9). It is important to increasingly engage governments, the private sector and development actors to set an ambitious and inclusive vision to accelerate connectivity in Africa through public-private partnerships (AU-EU Digital Economy Task Force, 2019).


The benefits of digital economy can be harnessed only through strengthening cooperation between the technical and political community, balancing innovation and technical knowledge of ICTs with the political intention of using those tools for a technology for good approach.


Crediti immagine: Pixabay License, libera per usi commerciali




AU-EU Digital Economy Task Force (2019), New Africa-Europe Digital Economy Partnership, Accelerating the Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/new-africa-europe-digital-economy-partnership-report-eu-au-digital-economy-task-force


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Kojima, M., Trimble, C. (2016), Making Power Affordable for Africa and Viable for Its Utilities. World Bank, Washington, DC.


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