Bridging The Digital Divide to Help Overcome Africa’s Learning Crisis

By Emeka Oparah, Airtel Africa Vice President Corporate Communications & CSR, and Mohamed M. Fall, UNICEF Regional Director For Eastern and Southern Africa

Each year on the 16th of June, we commemorate thousands of young activists in Soweto, South Africa, who marched to protest the quality of their education in 1976. Hundreds of them were shot dead for demanding their right to learn.

Does today’s generation of children have a reason to feel similar anger at the state of their education? Certainly, young people have been taking to the streets to protest futures jeopardised by climate change and antiquated job markets.

We like to think that ‘development’ is linear, and that the right to education is assured as fundamental. But in truth, decades of progress have been reversed, not least by the effect of COVID-19 on school closures, exacerbating the digital divide.

This is an important issue to reflect on as we mark the Day of the African Child, under the theme of ‘Child rights in a digital environment’. Digital technologies can be a panacea to the continental learning crisis, if deployed strategically; or a curse if mismanaged. Mobile phones can be a gateway to knowledge or a trapdoor to abuse.

Sub-Saharan Africa is facing a learning crisis of mammoth proportions, with the lowest levels of foundational literacy and numeracy skills in the world. Only one out of 10 ten-year-olds can read a simple story or solve simple arithmetic problems. Africans, we must demand more for our children.

One key lever for overcoming the learning crisis is improving young people’s employability by providing them with market-relevant skills. This must start by ensuring that classrooms embrace the digital revolution. It is estimated that 90 per cent of future jobs will require digital and analytics skills, but many schools in the region still follow a curriculum focused on rote learning.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital learning has become a fundamental aspect of education worldwide. However, it has also deepened the digital divide leaving those without access to devices to access relevant digital content and internet connections, at an even greater disadvantage. In addition to the challenges of poverty, climate change, and emergencies, around half of children in Africa could not access remote learning during the pandemic, the highest share of any region.

Hardware and data costs in Africa are also among the highest in the world. Despite 63 per cent of households in the region owning mobile phones, their use for learning remains low. During the pandemic many could not participate in online learning due to barriers such as affordability of data, lack of digital devices, limited literacy and digital skills, safety, digital privacy concerns and lack of perceived relevance.

Of course, any learning crisis rapidly escalates into an unemployment crisis. As a result of the population getting younger, people aged 15-24 now account for 60 per cent of all unemployed Africans. This demonstrates significant mismatch between skills gained in the education system and those needed by the labour market. Most of these unemployed young people have not completed primary school.

Governments in the region urgently need to target resources to reach the poorest and most marginalized through investments in evidence-based approaches, focusing on digital content, capacity of teachers and learners and connectivity to the internet. On the Day of the African Child, we must commit to closing the digital divide, if we are to meet our education goals.

Indeed, which African child are we immortalising on this day? On one side of the fence, we have children born in conflict, where it is too unsafe to open classrooms. Their peers are born on the frontlines of the climate crisis, in countries saddled with debt from loans taken to pay for necessary emergency responses. Education is the only route out of these cycles of poverty.

To help address this, UNICEF and Airtel Africa are working with key partners to help transform digital education for children across the continent. The shared-value partnership relies on Airtel Africa’s market reach and innovation capabilities coupled with UNICEF’s technical expertise to champion digital education. Airtel Africa has committed $57 million, including cash and in-kind donations, to support the five-year partnership across 13 countries, including Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. In each of these countries we are working with Ministry of Education to create models for overcoming the digital divide by providing free access to online learning resources.

Our continent has some of the world’s most exciting technology hubs in low-income areas, where high speed affordable internet even in notorious informal settlements is allowing teenagers to moonlight geotagging data for global AI companies. This emerging job market relies on two things: affordable wages and fast internet. Let us embrace change, connect our schools, enthuse our teaching professionals, and upskill our workforce. We can be future-fit.

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