The digital divide is growing rapidly between the thriving information and communication technology sector of the developed world and that of countries such as South Africa where it is still at a very early stage of development. The Digital Partnership established its South African arm in 2002 to address this situation. There is now a network of regional resource and learning centres, as well as the more local e-learning centres. These are offering the deprived communities in South Africa an opportunity to benefit from active participation in the knowledge economy and information society.
The Digital Divide
The use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has recently grown relatively rapidly in most urban areas in Africa. Five years ago, few countries in Africa had local internet access; now it is available in every capital city. However, the so-called ‘digital divide’ is still at its most extreme in Africa, where the use of ICTs is still at a very early stage of development compared to elsewhere. In 2001, only one in 160 people in Africa used the internet, and sub-Saharan Africa remains at the bottom of the list of developing regions in terms of internet use. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas of Africa, which suffer from common barriers to ICTs, such as irregular electricity supply and a lack of infrastructure. The general business climate in Africa has encouraged the kind of surge in the use of ICTs that has been witnessed in other regions such as South-east Asia. Investment in ICTs in Africa has suffered from small markets divided by arbitrary borders, non-transparent and time-consuming procedures, limited opportunities (largely due to monopoly control of markets), scarce local capital, currency instability, and inflation.
The use of the internet is a useful indicator of the availability of ICTs, because it requires the integration of many individual components (such as computer hardware and telecommunications infrastructure) with the skills to use them. The number of internet users and the amount of international bandwidth they use are still growing across Africa. However, the average total cost of using dial-up internet for 20 hours a month in Africa is about US$60 per month. According the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 20 hours of internet use in the USA would cost US$22 per month, while across the European Union the cost would be US$39 per month. These countries have significantly higher per capita incomes than in Africa – in fact, at least ten times the income. US$60 a month is higher than the average African monthly salary. This limits individual use of the internet, creating demand for public access facilities in order to spread the cost of a single account among all the customers, who would not otherwise be able to afford internet access.
ICTs and Development
ICTs form versatile tools for transforming economies very rapidly. They provide avenues for innovation and creativity, which result in the development of intellectual property, a valuable asset in today’s economy. The examples of India and China demonstrate the capability of ICTs to transform a national economy. But these benefits accrue only to those who take these tools, master them, and use them to create new or better goods and services. They do not necessarily aid development if people merely buy and use them, adding yet another expensive item to Africa’s growing shopping expenditure. African entrepreneurs can use ICT tools to create processes and applications, which both expand intellectual scope and improve quality of life by enhancing productivity and earning power. People can use ICTs for innovation, for creating new products that bring greater value-added returns.
To tap into ICTs as a resource for innovation and development it is important to recognise their role in education. ICTs can help raise the quality of education in African schools by increasing the range and scope of information accessible to them, while having ICT skills equips school leavers with the tools to function effectively in today’s information society. The widespread availability of ICT skills in the population of any country is an essential ingredient to the development of a knowledge-based society that can compete within today’s global information economy. Education in ICT skills is, therefore, a vital ingredient of the development of African nations. Thus, with increasing demand for public access facilities, it is necessary to provide public education in ICTs. It is precisely this that the Digital Partnership and the Vodafone Foundation, in collaboration with NICRO (National Institute for Crime prevention and Reintegration of Offenders), is attempting to achieve in South Africa.
Bridging the Divide
“Our first task is to close the digital gap that already exists between the developed and ourselves. We must also focus on such matters as affordability, the promotion of local content and local participation in the control and use of information and communication facilities.”
Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa
The Digital Partnership is “an international partnership facilitating innovation and affordable access to technology, training and the internet for learning, enterprise and development in developing and emerging market economies through a sustainable private/public partnership model”. The Digital Partnership in South Africa (known as ‘S21’) was formed in June 2002 as a public-private partnership representing the South African Government, private sector sponsors and the Digital Partnership/IBLF. According to the Digital Partnership, bridging the digital divide requires the delivery of four key components:
- Access to affordable equipment and appropriate software;
- Telecommunications links with internet connections;
- Technical assistance, training and education; and
- Access to relevant content.
Therefore, training in ICT skills for the purposes of education and enterprise lies at the heart of Digital Partnership South Africa. In order for technology and the internet to be used effectively, “educators and social enterprises must know how to apply technology to facilitate access to and use of information and communication for economic and social development” (Digital Partnership SA). Schools, students and educators, as well as community enterprises, can use reconditioned technology and the internet for learning and personal development. The Digital Partnership has established a model of delivery through public-private partnership that integrates affordable access to hardware, software, training and content.
Resource and Learning Centres
The key components of this educational work are the e-learning centres and resource and learning centres. The Digital Partnership has strived to establish e-learning centres at a local level in schools and social enterprise settings in disadvantaged communities of South Africa. Each e-learning centre is equipped with at least 30 re-built PCs with internet connectivity through a networked environment. E-learning centres offer a number of training programmes, from basic IT skills to network administrator training.
Further training programmes are delivered at a regional scale at resource and learning centres. The resource and learning centres offer training support from companies such as Microsoft, Intel and Cisco Systems. Supported by the Vodafone Foundation, the resource and learning centres represent a national initiative that provides the focus for training of principals, teachers, network administrators, trouble-shooters and project managers engaged in the digital partnership throughout South Africa. Currently, there are eight regional digital partnership resource and learning centres in Community Centres of Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Western Cape, North West Province, Free State, Kwa Zulu Natal, Eastern Cape and Northern Cape.
Resource and learning centres offer the following benefits:
- Enhanced specialised equipment to enable teachers and educators to learn ITC skills and about advanced technology.
- Support for teachers to attend the training at resources centres for six weeks a year.
- Industry-approved education programmes for teachers, principals, ICT assistants, network administrators and parent orientation to ICT.
- Specialised and dedicated staff to deliver and co-ordinate training.
Training programmes offered by resource and learning centres
- Basic and intermediate ICT skills training: Microsoft provides two courses, introduction to the computer and computer troubleshooting. Cisco will be providing a networking administration course.
- Intel ‘Teach to the Future’: Intel will be training Master Teachers, who go on to teach others, in this programme. The programme has run successfully in other countries and has been approved by the government’s Education Department. It involves a 60-hour course that trains an educator how to deliver curriculum using a computer. Schoolnet will conduct the courses. As an incentive, Digital Partnership will provide a laptop computer loaded with Microsoft software for every teacher who completes the requirements of the course. Partner community projects will have their Master Teachers trained by the Intel program.
- Principals’ e-course: This provides an introduction to technology in education.
- Parents’ e-course: This provides an introduction to the internet and the use of computers for education.
- ICT assistants’ course: This provides technical troubleshooting training to selected staff members.
The resource and learning centres are located in strategic educational and social enterprise settings. The selected hosts are required to demonstrate the following criteria:
- Commitment to providing space and time for training programmes;
- A room specifically designed and equipped for this purpose;
- A documented business plans, including a financial plan to meet the cost of electricity, telecommunications and associated running costs;
- Dedicated staff; and
- Commitment to providing affordable access to ICTs and the internet for learning and development to disadvantaged communities in South Africa.
Crossing the Bridge
The education and training initiative presents marginalised groups in South Africa with opportunities that may otherwise have been missed. It provides South Africa’s youth with basic functional skills necessary to participate actively in the knowledge economy and information society. It gives great opportunities to those who develop ICT knowledge, not only to further their education but also to seek better jobs or establish entrepreneurial ventures in the ICT sector. Indeed, Africa’s class of IT entrepreneurs are young, driven, flexible, undeterred by setbacks, and quite often seeking a higher social purpose. A network of entrepreneurial-driven, IT-facilitated, and socially beneficial application of communications systems has emerged in South Africa. New and used information technologies are proving to be an effective tool not only for development, but also for productive profiteering as well.
Jensen, M. (2003). “The current status of information and communications technology in Africa”, in Okpaku, J. O. [Ed.] Information and Communications Technologies for African Development: An Assessment of Progress and the Challenges Ahead. New York: United Nations ICT Taskforce. Pp 55-78.
Digital Partnership www.digitalpartnership.org
Vodafone Group Foundation www.vodafonefoundation.org
Donor and Funding Organisations
Department for International Development (DFID) www.dfid.gov.uk
Digital Divide Network
ITDG Technical Briefs answers.practicalaction.org
United Nations Information and Communications Technologies Task Force
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