At the end of the 20th Century, mobile technology in Africa was still a new, unknown product. As a result, only about one percent of the population owned mobile phones. As the years went by, this changed as the continent embraced the technology which saw it referred to as the mobile phone continent. According to the Digital 2019 report, as of the start of 2019, mobile subscriptions in the continent had grown to 80 percent, meaning out of a population of 1.3 billion people, one billion are now mobile users.
Compared to most of the other continents, mobile phones have grown at a faster rate in Africa. The product that was once an object of luxury and privilege has turned into a basic necessity for Africa. Mobile technology has filled most of the social gap that was present as communication improved and become more convenient. What is more, thanks to mobile phones and access to the Internet, new ideas and innovations have come up, especially from youth who have grown up with these devices.
Mobile phones have boosted businesses as well, making it easier for them to complete transactions faster, even in areas with poor infrastructure. This technology also introduced mobile banking, which led to increased financial inclusion in the continent. Additionally, it helped Africa leapfrog the age of plastic cards and move closer to catching up with the developed market in terms of technological advancement.
Despite the doors that mobile phones have opened for Africa, not all genders have felt the same effect. Even though the number of users in Africa has grown, when compared to other continents, it still lags with over 250 million people not owning a phone and over 800 million not being Internet users. A majority of these people belong to marginalised groups, for example, those living in remote areas. According to the Mobile Gender Gap report 2019, this unconnected group is predominantly female. The report states that women in low- and middle-income countries are ten percent less likely than men to own a mobile.
For this reason, according to the report, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the gender gap in terms of mobile ownership and mobile Internet use stands at 15 percent and 41 percent respectively. The region comes second to only South Asia where the number stands at 28 percent and 58 percent respectively. In Africa, this inequality has failed to die down as the products meant to be used to further inclusion and development are now becoming tools of exclusion. In fact, according to Mats Granryd, GSMA Director General, even though mobile connectivity has grown fast, it has not done so equally.
Women still make up a majority of those who are offline. Affordability has been one of the barriers behind it as most women in the continent remain unemployed. As a result, it is difficult for women to be able to afford the price of mobile devices even though there has been an introduction of low-cost devices in the market. Apart from the price, tariff costs, data costs, and transaction fees also hinder women from owning a phone.
According to the mobile gender gap report, in Kenya, 45 percent of women identified affordability as the largest barrier to owning a phone. Usually, this is the case in most rural areas where there is only one phone for the family due to the additional costs that come with it. Additionally, most of the time, the phone is with the man leaving the women with limited time using the phone. As a result, most of them only use a small range of mobile services and thus do not interact much with the internet as they lack digital skills.
This is one of the other barriers leading to the mobile gender gap. Women in rural areas are the most affected as they have low levels of literacy or are illiterate. This is due to the limited network coverage in these remote areas. According to the mobile economy 2019 by GSMA, only about a third of rural populations in the Sub-Saharan African region is covered by 3G networks. As a result, most women have no way to acquire digital skills. Also, they end up missing out on participating in digital societies and helping create more digital content.
Out of a continent of 1.3 billion people, one billion are now covered
As the mobile gender gap presents Sub-Saharan Africa with a huge issue that threatens to leave women behind as societies and economies digitize, it also presents those in the region with an opportunity to add move revenue to the mobile industry thus growing economies. According to the mobile gender gap report, if the gap in low and middle-income countries was to be eliminated by 2023, this would provide an estimated additional Sh14.46 trillion ($140 billion) in revenue to the mobile industry over the next five years. It would help the Sub-Saharan African region to increase its economic growth and ensure all genders get an equal opportunity with the emerging technologies.
To close the gap, there is a need for support not only from the government but from the private sector and global institutions as well. For instance, the government can assist by reducing taxes to the mobile industry and developing infrastructure that helps reduce the cost of mobile devices. Mobile operators also have a part to play. So far, they have come up with solutions such as introducing paying for a device on instalments.
On the other hand, the government and the private sector can partner to improve the telecommunication infrastructure in the region. Doing so will result in more women being connected thus reducing the mobile gender gap and empowering them. Technology is crucial to all, for the region to develop and grow, everyone needs to get on the digital bandwagon.