COVID-19 Compounds Historical Disparities and Extends the Digital Divide

Due to the spread of the novel Corona virus in 2020, several countries in Africa including South Africa, Botswana, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Zambia implemented partial or complete lockdowns. While a relative elite in these countries moved seamlessly online, digitally substituting their banking services, food provision, schooling and office work, the vast majority of the continent have been left stranded creating an economic survival crisis on top of the health crisis. This policy brief outlines how current policies, which are meant to curb the spread of the virus, such as the “work from home” policy, are more likely to extend the existing digital divide, further perpetuating social inequalities that already divide countries and communities in Africa.

  • Low levels of smart phone and Internet penetration left most Africans stranded during COVID-19 pandemic-related lockdowns, compounding existing inequalities. Only a relative elite in these countries have moved seamlessly online digitally substituting their access to banking, food provision, schooling, work or social grants.
  • With less than 10% of the informal sector owning a smart phone or having access to the Internet, it has been unable to serve as the usual buffer to exogenous shocks during the hard lockdowns in many countries, with the rupture of informal value and labour supply chains.
  • There has been massive intensification of use for those connected, with Internet traffic in many countries more than doubling. This was mainly due to an increase in video-conferencing services like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype and video streaming for entertainment, such as Netflix.
  • This has driven unprecedented demand for data that has benefitted both mobile and fixed network providers with both MTN and Vodacom having delivered strong results despite socio- and macroeconomic challenges caused by the pandemic and mandatory price reduction imposed by the Competition Commission.
  • Although these price reductions in South Africa have reduced the prices of the incumbent operators, the cheapest price for 1GB has not been reduced. Temporary spectrum granted to dominant operators was used to provide more bandwidth to those already online and pilot 5G services, with little attention to bringing those offline, online.

Suggested citation

Mothobi, O., & Gillwald, A. (2021). COVID-19 compounds historical disparities and extends the digital divide (Policy Brief No. 5; RIA African Mobile Pricing (RAMP) Index). Research ICT Africa.