By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha
Harare, Zimbabwe – The digital divide is something that has been talked about extensively since the early days of the internet, and as Zimbabwe undergoes a technology boom it is an important issue that we seriously need to revisit. It begs the question whether the Net is not increasingly a tool of the elite that is leaving behind a whole population in the knowledge economy.
While ICT has long been acknowledge as an enormous engine of development, many people in Zimbabwe are simply excluded from this space not by choice but by circumstances.
The death of distance which is supposed to be influenced by ICTs is still a figment of the imagination in rural areas even though the mobile phone is slowly encroaching. Access to basic telecommunications infrastructures is fundamental to begin untangling the digital divide as well as the problem of the information underclass.
In essence, the digital divide refers to the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas at different socio-economic levels with regard both to their opportunities to access information and communications technologies (ICT’s) and to their use of the Internet for a wide variety of activities. Simply put, the “digital divide” refers to the fact that certain parts of the population have substantially better opportunities to benefit from the new economy than other parts of the population.
In Zimbabwe, the phenomenon of the Net is largely urban based. This excludes 70 percent of the population which resides in the country’s rural areas. Morever, approximately 80 percent of Zimbabwean are unemployed and cannot afford internet services even within urban settings.
Many of these people make up the information underclass. The non-connected households face a variety of problems including little education, poverty, lack of access to safe water, poor access to opportunities and diseases among others. Far worse than the economic divide is the fact that technology remains so complicated that many people couldn’t use a computer even if they got one for free.
The technology gap in Zimbabwe, as in many African countries, is simply a reflection of a lack of infrastructure investments by both government and private players. Many rural areas lack the nessary infrastructure available in urban and more populated areas. The reality of under-wired communities is resulting in disparities within the country where one part of the population is highly enlightened and the other highly ignorant of technological developments and the potential impact that they have on lives and livelihoods.
To complicate matters, many online platforms, including the ones that are being built by Zimbabwe tend to be in the English language only. It is rare to encounter online website in local languages which effectively excludes a huge chunk of the population from finding the Internet useful to their daily lives and livelihoods. In fact, this scenario raises a critical issue – much attention is given to issue of hardware and interconnectivity which is clearly lacking in some parts of the country. But, equally important to the discussion of issue on the digital divide is the issue of use of indigenous languages, literacy, and people trained and capable of utilising ICT and developing appropriate software.
Having said that, any programme to reduce the digital divide, must start include a component of poverty alleviation since poverty is by far the greatest impediment to connections with and utilization of ICTS. In addition, political stability, macroeconomic governance, transparency and accountability of national and local administrations, physical infrastructure, and basic literacy are required to close the digital divide.
According to experts, the “digital divide” is based on insufficient infrastructure, high cost of access, inappropriate or weak policy regimes, inefficiencies in the provision of telecommunication networks and services, lack of locally created content, and uneven ability to derive economic and social benefits from information-intensive activities.
To reduce the digital divide requires a “systems” approach broadly addressing all of these issues without, of course, sacrificing the need to effectively respond to poverty-related issues. The importance of policy and regulatory reform cannot be overemphasized. In shaping policy, government needs to be aware of the economic activity that may result from eelctronic commerce which can help to address some of the underlying poverty issues.
In rural areas, there is a need to improve connectivity, increase access and lower costs, through use of multiple competing technologies, public and community access points. The development of locally relevant content is also a critical factor in getting more people to get online.