Rose sits in front of a laptop in central Ghana, and across the globe in China the blue glow of a screen reflects on a child’s face as she begins her English lesson – taught by Rose.
Covid-19 forced millions of classes to go online, but for schools and families without internet access or digital infrastructure, education is a challenge. In low-to-middle-income countries 99% of the student population was impacted and children left without lessons.
Access to education is just one of the digital divides the pandemic has exacerbated. Whereas digitalisation made it relatively easy for the connected, mostly in developed countries, to continue with work, education and communication, those without access were further economically and socially isolated.
The unconnected aren’t a tiny minority – around 46% of the world’s population is offline. But great opportunity exists for companies willing to invest in innovative technology and new business models for underserved communities, with the market value for connecting the world’s four billion lowest-income people estimated at $308bn annually (£233bn).
Rose is among the lucky few in her country – internet penetration in Ghana stands at just 32.5%; for women it is even lower at 20%, according to the Inclusive Internet Index in 2019. When she lost her job as an English teacher due to Covid-19 lockdowns her ability to land a remote-teaching opportunity was only due to having access to high-quality, affordable and stable internet, provided by the for-profit, purpose-driven business BLUETOWN.
BLUETOWN is an internet service provider that connects underserved communities in India, the Middle East, Africa and South America, using solar-powered, off-grid solutions. “Our business model breaks down the key barriers that keep people offline,” says Emil Damholt, impact manager at the company. The inclusive business has a commercially viable business model that benefits low-income communities. It has committed to providing underserved communities with internet access as part of its membership of the United Nations Development Programme’s Business Call to Action (BCtA), a global platform advocating for private-sector solutions for development.
Connectivity and economic development
We are well beyond the days where access to information communication technology (ICT), including the internet was optional – today it is central to many aspects of life, the economy and society.
Low-income markets are vibrant economies with specific needs and demands. For such economies, being connected opens up new markets, allows for the creation of new revenue streams, increased distribution and coverage capacity for business and strengthens local producers and small businesses by reducing risks and supply disruption. “It also facilitates stakeholder engagement and allows for social licence to operate, leverage the entrepreneurial skills of the poor and generate further income opportunities,” explains Luciana Aguiar, head of Business Call to Action.
The internet provides the underpinning platform for the growth of ICTs and for an emerging digital economy so it will be a critical enabler of sustainable development, according to the Internet Society, a global non-profit organisation promoting the development of the internet.
Innovative solutions for the unconnected
For Pavan Kumar, internet access and the ability to charge his phone at the corner shop during electric breakdowns in the Indian town where he lives is vital to his livelihood. “As a tractor driver I need to be in touch with farmers for my business. I also use my phone to check the crop rates on the market,” he says. At home, too, his son uses a smartphone to complete assignments for school.
There are power cuts for hours in villages such as Kumar’s, which also endure unreliable digital services. This is where the inclusive business BuffaloGrid offers solutions. The company, a BCtA member, offers wifi and charging stations for phones in rural areas, including Kumar’s hometown, thus addressing one barrier to connectivity at least – power.
The BuffaloGrid hub is a device powered by solar panels, which has been installed at local shops across rural India. It not only provides charge to phones but also gives access to content and services via a content portal at affordable prices.
“Users don’t need to even have a SIM card to access our digital services,” says Daniel Becerra, CEO and co-founder of BuffaloGrid. As the company grows from providing solar-powered charging stations, such as the one Kumar uses, to hubs that allow for wifi hotspots and content, Becerra hopes to add more quality content for users. “We are partnering with content providers to provide content for our users ranging from entertainment and sports to needs like education and medical messaging.”
Such solutions are needed to tap into underserved markets. But at the same time the digital divide is not just based on affordability and accessibility – though both BuffaloGrid and BLUETOWN address these main issues. A lack of digital skills also limits wider adoption of digital tools.
Tackling information pollution
Here BLUETOWN has put in efforts in a bid to increase usage among the low-income populations it works with. The business trains local operators, such as shopkeepers, who provide BLUETOWN services to customers, to be change agents. These community members can understand the needs of local users and demonstrate how to best use digital technology.
“This helps break down the skills and awareness barriers, helping them access digital content and services, such as e-learning, agricultural training videos and critical health information,” explains Damholt.
Similarly, a lack of digital skills and a market where internet usage is new to many has led to widespread fake news and the need for a more nuanced understanding of the digital world. BuffaloGrid teamed up with WhatsApp recently as part of an information campaign where the hubs at local shops aired videos explaining not everything you see on WhatsApp is real, in efforts to raise awareness of the good and bad that comes with unfiltered access to information.
Access for all
Despite the urgent need to bring ICT services to all across the globe, there is still low growth in internet access for low-income communities; rising just 0.8% in 2018. This should be a warning sign for the global community, says Damholt. “It clearly shows that new models are required if the digital revolution should be for everyone and not perpetuate and even worsen existing inequalities.”
For Becerra the bridge connectivity brings is undeniable. “It’s probably the biggest door-opener you can offer to someone living on $10 a day or less.”