The digital gender gap in Africa, where only 1 in 3 women have internet access compared to 50% of men, is a significant barrier to achieving equality and driving economic growth in the region. This glaring disparity highlights the urgent need for concerted efforts to bridge the digital divide and ensure that women have equal opportunities to harness the power of the internet.
The Internet Gender Gap in Africa
Access to the internet has become increasingly crucial in today’s interconnected world, enabling individuals to access information, educational resources, job opportunities, and essential services. However, with a substantial gender gap in internet access, African women are disproportionately disadvantaged, hindering their ability to fully participate in the digital economy and society.
Although women make up nearly half of the global population, there is a significant disparity in internet access between men and women.
According to Itu, in 2022, only 34% of women in Africa used the internet, while the figure stands at 45% for men. This gender gap is particularly pronounced in lower-income countries, where only 21% of women are online compared to 32% of men. Unfortunately, this figure has remained stagnant since 2019.
The ownership of mobile phones serves as a reliable indicator of internet use, given that mobile phones are the most prevalent means of accessing the internet. In Africa, women have a 30 percent lower likelihood of owning a smartphone compared to men.
Based on the GSMA report, by the close of 2021, 84 percent of women in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) possessed a mobile phone, while 89 percent of men had one, resulting in a gender gap of seven percent. Although there is a general belief that mobile ownership is widespread, over 372 million women in LMICs remain without a phone, which is significantly higher than the 239 million men in the same category.
Barriers to Women’s Mobile Phone Ownership
Across the surveyed countries, GSMA reported that the main obstacles to mobile phone ownership for women have remained largely unchanged since 2019. These barriers include affordability, literacy and digital skills, and safety and security concerns.
The cost of handsets is a significant hurdle for women in various regions, particularly in Africa where it is the primary barrier. In Kenya, 54 percent of women who don’t own a phone cited affordability as the main reason. In Africa as a whole, low levels of basic literacy contribute to the lack of mobile phone ownership.
In certain countries, family disapproval is a significant factor that prevents women from progressing in their mobile internet usage. Lack of family approval ranks among the top three barriers to mobile phone ownership for women in Nigeria.
Impediments to Women’s Mobile Internet Use
GSMA reported that female mobile users in surveyed countries consider literacy and digital skills as the primary obstacle to adopting mobile internet, even among those who are already aware of its existence. This barrier encompasses several sub-barriers, including challenges with functional literacy and mobile-related digital skills.
Among these sub-barriers, difficulties with reading and writing are the most prominent concern for both genders, followed by not knowing how to access the internet on a mobile device or lacking sufficient time to learn. Female respondents in Egypt and Nigeria in particular, express significant concerns about difficulties with reading and writing.
In Kenya, the cost of a handset is reported as the primary barrier to mobile internet adoption by 39 percent of female mobile users who are aware of its existence but have not used it. Similarly, in Nigeria, this barrier is cited as the top concern by 28 percent of female respondents.
According to Fortune, lack of internet access poses a barrier to women’s entrepreneurship and restricts society from benefiting from their skills and creativity.
For instance, the internet played a crucial role in enabling Fafape Ama Etsa Foe to establish E90 Ghana, a sustainable farm in Accra that utilizes sawdust to cultivate mushrooms. Ms. Foe emphasizes that the internet has facilitated her research on mushroom farming techniques, challenges, and opportunities, and enables her to reach a wider customer base and manage costs efficiently. She explained:
“I stay connected with all my regular clients on WhatsApp and Telegram, where I take their orders and ensure smooth supply without delays. These digital tools have helped me reduce postharvest losses, which used to account for as much as 25% of our annual revenue.”
Ms. Foe believes that improving digital connectivity will foster entrepreneurship among women in Africa by providing broader access to information and financial opportunities.
Whispa Health in Nigeria offers an app that primarily serves women and young individuals, providing access to information about sexual and reproductive health, appointment bookings with healthcare providers, and the purchase of contraceptives, STI tests, and other health products.
This progress will not only benefit their families, communities, and society at large but also contribute to overall economic growth.
The World Bank estimates that a 10% increase in broadband penetration in low- and middle-income economies leads to a 1.4% rise in real per capita GDP. Additionally, the U.N. Women’s Gender Snapshot 2022 report reveals that women’s exclusion from the digital economy has resulted in a $1 trillion GDP loss for low- and middle-income countries over the past decade, with potential costs reaching $1.5 trillion by 2025 if the gender gap persists.
Key Steps to Bridge the Digital Gender Gap in Africa
Closing the digital gender divide in Africa is essential to tackle global challenges like climate change, pandemic surveillance, and democratic setbacks. This will empower millions of women and girls, granting them access to knowledge, education, and healthcare. In addition to driving economic development while fostering resilient communities and strengthening democratic values.
The data presented serves as a compelling call to action, emphasizing the need for addressing the gender gap, which requires collaboration and commitment from all stakeholders.
Mobile operators can offer affordable smartphones tailored to women’s needs, along with flexible payment options and cost-effective data packages. Internet providers should expand network coverage, particularly in underserved areas, and collaborate on digital literacy programs targeting women. Policymakers and regulators need to promote competition, reduce taxes, and invest in digital infrastructure for better affordability and accessibility. The development community should fund and support digital skills training programs and prioritize gender-inclusive initiatives to overcome barriers faced by women in accessing the internet.
By working together and implementing these recommendations, stakeholders can contribute to bridging the digital gender gap in Africa and empowering women with better internet access and opportunities.
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