Closing the Digital Gap: Empowering Africa’s Education Transformation

By Emeka Oparah and Mohamed M. Fall

Every year, on June 16th, South Africa commemorates the brave young activists who marched in 1976, demanding better education. Tragically, many of them were shot dead while fighting for their right to learn.

Today, the current generation of children also has reasons to feel anger about the state of their education. They witness the effects of climate change and outdated job markets, which jeopardize their futures. Consequently, young people have taken to the streets, protesting against these issues.

Although we like to believe that development progresses linearly and that access to education is guaranteed, the truth is that progress has been reversed in many ways. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation by causing school closures and widening the digital divide.

Emeka Oparah, Airtel Africa Vice President Corporate Communications & CSR

As we observe the Day of the African Child, celebrated every year on June 16th since 1991, it is crucial to reflect on the theme of “Child rights in a digital environment.” The digital realm can be a powerful tool for resolving the learning crisis across the continent if used strategically. However, it can also become a curse if mismanaged, as it presents both opportunities for knowledge and risks of exploitation.

Sub-Saharan Africa is currently facing an enormous learning crisis, with the lowest levels of foundational literacy and numeracy skills worldwide. Shockingly, only one out of every ten ten-year-olds can read a simple story or solve basic arithmetic problems. As Africans, we must demand better for our children.

One essential way to overcome this learning crisis is by equipping young people with market-relevant skills to enhance their employability. This effort should begin by embracing the digital revolution in classrooms. It is estimated that 90% of future jobs will require digital and analytics skills. Yet, many schools in the region still adhere to a curriculum focused on rote learning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made digital learning an integral part of education worldwide. However, it has also deepened the digital divide, leaving those without access to devices and internet connections at a significant disadvantage. In Africa, around half of the children could not access remote learning during the pandemic, the highest proportion compared to any other region.

Africa also faces high hardware and data costs, even though 63% of households in the region own mobile phones. The use of mobile phones for learning remains limited due to various barriers such as data affordability, lack of digital devices, limited literacy and digital skills, safety concerns, digital privacy, and perceived irrelevance.

It is important to note that a learning crisis quickly escalates into an unemployment crisis. With Africa’s population becoming younger, individuals aged 15-24 now account for 60% of all unemployed Africans. This stark statistic highlights a significant mismatch between the skills gained in the education system and those demanded by the labor market. Most of the unemployed young people haven’t even completed primary school.

Governments in the region must urgently allocate resources to reach the poorest and most marginalized populations. Investments should focus on evidence-based approaches that enhance digital content, teacher and learner capacity, and internet connectivity. On the Day of the African Child, we must commit to closing the digital divide if we are to achieve our education goals.

This raises the question: Which African child are we honoring on this day? On one side, we have children born into conflict-ridden areas where it is too unsafe to open classrooms. On the other side, their peers are born in countries burdened with debt due to necessary emergency responses to the climate crisis. Education serves as their only escape from the cycle of poverty.

To address these challenges, UNICEF and Airtel Africa are working together with key partners to transform digital education for children throughout the continent. This collaboration leverages Airtel Africa’s market reach and innovation capabilities along with UNICEF’s technical expertise in advocating for digital education.

Airtel Africa has committed USD 57 million, including cash and in-kind donations, to support this five-year partnership in 13 countries: Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

In each of these countries, we collaborate with the Ministries of Education to develop models that bridge the digital divide by providing free access to online learning resources.

Our continent boasts some of the world’s most exciting technology hubs in low-income areas. Even in notorious informal settlements, high-speed affordable internet is enabling teenagers to contribute to global AI companies by moonlighting as geotagging data analysts.

This emerging job market relies on two critical elements: affordable wages and fast internet. Let us embrace change, connect our schools, inspire our educators, and upskill our workforce. By doing so, we can ensure our readiness for the future.

About the authors

Emeka Oparah is Airtel Africa Vice President Corporate Communications & CSR, and Mohamed M. Fall is UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa.

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