Africa has witnessed remarkable growth in the digital landscape, bringing it in line with the rest of the world. The World Bank reports that the percentage of Africans using the internet has risen from 1 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2023, reflecting significant progress in infrastructure and digital skills across the continent. However, it is crucial to address the underlying inequities in digital access, focusing on diversity and inclusion.
While the average growth figures are promising, they obscure the substantial disparities in digital access. For instance, South Africa and the Seychelles boast internet penetration rates of over 70 percent, whereas Eritrea lags behind at just 1 percent. Moreover, a clear digital gender divide persists, disadvantaging women. According to a 2021 study titled “Kenya’s Digital Economy: A People’s Perspective,” only 35 percent of women in the country utilize advanced digital services, compared to 54 percent of men.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that technology access is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Despite Kenya’s regional leadership in broadband connectivity, digital services, and ICT infrastructure, the country’s digital divide exacerbates gender disparities, placing women at a significant disadvantage in achieving last-mile digital transformation.
One primary reason for the persistence of the digital gender divide is the lack of access to hardware. In Kenya, mobile phones are the primary means of accessing digital services. However, a 2019 report by the GSM Association reveals that women are 23 percent less likely to own smartphones than men, resulting in a 39 percent lower likelihood of accessing mobile internet.
This gender gap is further amplified by the disparity in digital skills between men and women. Even at the lowest skill levels, men outnumber women in terms of digital proficiency. This problem permeates the highest levels of the technology profession, where men significantly outnumber women. UNESCO reports that women constitute only 30 percent of all ICT graduates in Kenya.
Given the potential of technology to transform all aspects of life, it is imperative to urgently prioritize and improve women’s inclusion at all levels of the digital landscape. If half of the population is forced to navigate the digital world with one arm tied behind their backs, meaningful transformation cannot be achieved.
To promote diversity and inclusion in the digital realm, it is essential to ensure that the basic building blocks are accessible to everyone. This begins with extending the necessary infrastructure to marginalized communities. Providing network coverage and internet-ready devices are the minimum requirements for bridging the gender gap in digital access. Notably, internet service providers are already working on constructing Kenya’s ICT infrastructure, with the government’s plan to install 100,000 kilometers of fiber optic cable and 25,000 free Wi-Fi hotspots across the country.
The next step should involve reducing the cost of devices, making smartphones and mobile devices more affordable to enable broader access to the internet and other digital tools for women.
Thirdly, it is crucial to enhance digital skills among girls and women to prepare them for active participation in the digital world. At the Africa Development Center, for instance, we are dedicated to fostering the tech ecosystem by expanding the availability, diversity, and technical capacity of the continent’s tech talent pipeline. While initiatives like the recent review of university curricula and upskilling of instructors aim to improve women’s representation in the broader tech sector, specific programs such as DigiGirlz and mentorship initiatives are designed to advance women’s participation in the digital realm. These initiatives are part of our broader efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in Africa’s digital landscape.
Addressing the gender digital divide in Kenya requires a comprehensive three-pronged approach, though not without its challenges. No single organization can entirely address all the criteria. Success requires an ecosystem-wide approach involving all stakeholders in Kenya’s digital transformation agenda. By working together, we can create an inclusive and diverse digital world in Africa that benefits everyone.
Tabbz Maina is the Head of Marketing and Communications at The Microsoft Africa Development Center.