COVID-19 Response for Equity Initiative (CORE) Project: Executive Summary

Intersectional inequalities during COVID-19 in Nigeria

This report analyses the extent to which people in Nigeria were able to digitally substitute to mitigate the risk arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns. The report provides evidence of the degree to which people were able to take their work, schooling, and economic activity (such as e-commerce) online in Nigeria during the lockdowns and strict social distancing measures. Undertaking a demand-side analysis of data collected through an extensive phone survey, the  report also investigates the degree to which digital access to government systems enabled access to social grants and COVID-19 relief. From this it suggests how public policies could be optimised for post-pandemic recovery and future policies.

Specifically, this paper reports on the results of a phone survey conducted among 3 024 respondents in Nigeria. The results obtained from the quantitative exercise were complemented by qualitative research which included six focus groups of men and women from urban and rural areas in Nigeria. The survey and focus group discussions sought to understand the degree to which people living in Nigeria were able to use digital substitution for their work, schooling, banking, applying and receiving social relief to mitigate the negative effects of the pandemic and associated lockdowns.

The study finds that Internet access and use increased dramatically in the second year of COVID-19 in Nigeria. Compared to only 39% in the 2018 After Access survey, Internet use in Nigeria accelerated  to 54%. The jump in Internet use is complemented by a surge in smartphone ownership, from 46% in 2017 to 51% in 2021. The results confirm the importance of mobile devices and more specifically smartphones in driving Internet access in Africa, where the majority cannot afford fixed broadband services.

The results also indicate that smartphones were the most-used devices for accessing online content, online school, and work in Nigeria. Of the children who attended their classes online, 68% used smartphones to get access to remote learning, while 78% of workers who worked virtually used smartphones. The majority of Nigerians who used the Internet accessed information from the government and shopped online using their mobile devices.

While there was a lack of parity among men and women, there were also significant differences between  women living in urban and rural areas and between the poor and the rich. The gap further explains the disparities in Internet use and the digital divide across the stated groups.

The survey further shows that despite the large improvement in Internet use, especially among women, there is still a significant gap between men and women. The survey shows that men were more likely to transit into the digital economy than women during the COVID-19. Compared to men, half of the women population in Nigeria did not have access to the Internet during the COVID-19 lockdowns while only 43% of men did not have access. This finding shows that with this kind of digital polarisation, the majority of the Nigerian population were left behind and further exacerbated the inequalities between the rich and the poor and the marginalised and not marginalised societies. 

The findings also indicate that those who worked in low-paying jobs were more likely to lose their jobs than those working as regular workers. On the other hand, those who worked in the informal sector were worst hit as they could not move their activities online.

The findings indicate the lockdown conditions have compounded existing inequality. Those at the bottom of the pyramid and at the intersection of multiple inequalities – the poor, those working in low-paying jobs, those in the informal sector, children living in women-headed households and those living in rural areas – were less likely to be able to digitally substitute their daily activities.

Other significant findings include that 43% of urban dwellers were able to access and follow COVID-19 news and updates, while only 17% in rural areas were able to do so. On the other hand, the majority of low-income earners were unable to digitally substitute their work as compared to those in high-paying jobs. While there seems to be parity in the take-up of online education between males and females, the results indicate that once men and women have access, inequality in frequency of use becomes significant – men being more frequent users.

The study also showed that smartphones were the most-common platform for online schooling, professional development, and remote work during the COVID-19 lockdown. Although the assumptions of online schooling and pre-pandemic practice were that students (and indeed most online workers) required computers, or at least tablets, to participate in online schooling (or work), the study found a high prevalence of smartphone use for these activities.

The findings also highlight that despite supply-side-driven policy interventions in broadband infrastructure, significant demand-side challenges remain. The cost of devices, digital skills and awareness of the Internet all still represent major barriers. There is evidence that the majority of those who do not have access to the Internet cannot afford devices or, once they do gain access, the data services. For the majority of low-income households with access this resulted in intermittent connectivity.

With Nigeria’s late introduction of non-bank-led mobile money in 2021, it is perhaps unsurprising that the use of online payments, more specifically mobile money, was very low in Nigeria during the lockdown periods. Only 26% of the population used mobile money services, with men more likely to use mobile money services than females. The pandemic also prompted youths and artists to use digital platforms to generate income. Men are more likely to monetise digital platforms to complement their finances than their female counterparts. Among those who worked online, 53% were men and 47% were female. 

Suggested citation

Banya, R., Chinembiri, T., Makumbirofa, S., Mothobi, O., Kabinga, M., Yusuf, B. and Gillwald, A. (2022). Digital and intersectional inequality in South Africa: a demand side perspective. CORE policy paper no. 2.

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