KAMPALA – With our future as a country and the world, in general, a bit uncertain and with both history and a number of experts projecting that COVID-19 will not be wiped out soon, at least not until the vaccine is discovered and commissioned, the internet is yet to be recognized as a basic necessity in Africa albeit at the first level of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs
It is about time that everyone, including Government, Development Partners, Businesses, and Individuals rethink strategies that will enable everyone to carry out their day to day operations both during and after COVID-19 aided by technology and more specifically the internet. According to Forbes, COVID-19 has pushed internet usage up to 70% globally as people go online for different reasons, work, shopping, business, education, health, social reasons among others.
In Uganda, during the lockdown period instituted by the Government to fight the spread of the novel Coronavirus, there has been a sharp increase in residential internet users. Bandwidth utilization in the home user segment has more than doubled with approximately 150% increase as organizations have continued to embrace the concept of working from home, and e-learning has come to the fore. This has been made possible through the increased use of various online collaboration applications and tools.
Against this backdrop, it is safe to say that coronavirus is exerting both extraordinary stresses but also creating immense opportunities for our societies to move everything virtual, including education, jobs, social dates, and business conferences. This goes from office-based communication, government information dissemination, education, business to customer communications as well as social communication among so many other areas. This would be through adopting the use of office and education platforms, online shopping tools, social media, and call conferencing, etcetera!
For our country, while this is considered to be the appropriate go-to solution for government, institutions, schools, businesses, the reality is that around 50% of all Ugandans, especially those in rural areas do not have access to the internet. This is because only 23 million people were estimated to be internet users by the third quarter of 2019, according to an Uganda Communications Commission report.
With the recent surge in numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases to about 457 confirmed cases in Uganda, most of which are from the border districts of the country, the government’s prompted decision was to further hold back business-as-usual for these areas. This in turn means the continued impact on businesses and individuals in both rural and urban areas of Uganda in terms of connecting with their audiences, customers, family, and friends. The measure in other words creates an ultimate need for a quick, versatile, and affordable means of keeping in constant touch.
Undeniably, the good news is that Telecoms and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Uganda have put in place various measures to ensure that people have functional connectivity and access to the internet, but, this is mainly in urban Uganda — what about the rural communities? This is a long stretch that all ISPs, policymakers as well as government through Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) and Ministry of ICT & National Guidance have to work together on to change the tide for our rural population, otherwise, communities will fall into the crack during this crisis creating an even further divide between social and business classes in the country.
Implementing robust solutions like setting up of regional internet hubs where residents of the rural communities can access the internet at no cost or at a subsidized rate by government, can heavily impact on the population’s ability to access information and can be made possible by extending broadband services to such areas. This can further be achieved through collaboration and partnerships among industry players for maximum value, reduced costs, and economies of scale.
Some references of such interventions include the Roke Telkom-Hello World Hubs that are installed around the country for disadvantaged communities and refugee settlements with 8 hubs and each hub with 8 tablets serving the community. Locals are involved in the setup and construction of the hubs to give them a sense of responsibility to the sites, the hubs allow locals have free access to the internet, education materials, and the world as a whole. The hubs are set up with units for both children and adults in different age groups and are used in well-structured schedules, giving all a chance to use the computers and the internet there.
That said, the key to note is the need to deploy mechanisms to drive awareness among the rural public about the internet, clearly illustrating the need for them to embrace these technologies in order to keep updated, deliver meaningful business, social, health, and environmental value to those around them. Getting people to access to internet infrastructure and educating them on ways they can use it is a sure means of improving their quality of life, community, and health among other benefits.
Therefore, as the fight against coronavirus continues, we should not neglect our rural communities in the advancements made or introduced in the digital space but rather let us find innovative ways to include even the most vulnerable communities in the short and long terms.
This writer, Timothy Musoke, is Chief Technical Officer, Roke Telkom