By Vymala Thuron
The digitalisation of our lives and work was a key and accelerating trend long before COVID-19 began to change our world in 2020. However, as connectivity became a lifeline for both individuals and businesses during lockdown periods, the pandemic has pushed forward the adoption of technology much faster and wider than we could have ever dreamed of. The internet witnessed an unexpected increase in its usage by a greater number of people and for a broader range of applications from healthcare information, to education, and e-commerce. Yet, even though digital technology is now considered to be an indispensable tool, many continue to be left behind from gaining access to the online world.
In the post-pandemic era, the digital realm is becoming the new face of inequality, discrimination, and socio-economic marginality. It is also deeply gendered, mirroring the systematic exclusion of women from access to critical infrastructure. Africa is no exception to this trend and many factors are increasing the digital gap already faced by the continent’s women. Therein lies the fundamental importance of encouraging digital skills training and the need to develop capacities and internet infrastructure locally within African communities, which we know will facilitate a qualitative leap in the standard of living of rural women.
AFCHIX is mobilising efforts to achieve these goals, continuously adopting a local and tailored results-based approach, by establishing partnerships to create a positive impact that contributes to bridging the multiple gaps that are hindering digital adoption and transformation.
In close partnership with USAID’s WomenConnect Challenge, a global call for solutions to improve women’s participation in everyday life by meaningfully changing the ways women access and use technology, AFCHIX provides local solutions to bridge the gender digital divide. Our Community Networks (CNs) in Kenya, Senegal, Namibia, and Morocco offer an alternative solution to internet access in rural communities. “We provide a sustainable, low-cost approach to expanding internet connectivity to rural, remote, and underserved areas of Africa,” says AFCHIX founder, Dorcas Muthoni. “The partnership with USAID emphasised the need to change social norms and challenge harmful cultural perceptions, generate economic opportunities, cultivate women’s confidence, and develop community support.
“Providing women with digital skills has positive ripple effects that extend beyond and stretch across communities as women pay it forward in many different ways like mentoring others, educating children, and driving business,” Muthoni continues. As an organisation founded by and for African women, AFCHIX knows firsthand that Access – Cost – Skills – Poverty – Safety – are the tangible factors that are contributing to the gender digital divide and that we can address. But the intangible factors are more difficult to break. Social norms – which are even often unconsciously perpetuated by women themselves – can play just as big a role in keeping women from benefiting from the opportunities of accessing the internet.
In order to viably close the gender digital divide, we need to fully recognise and understand traditional social perceptions and norms present in communities before bringing in digital solutions. Our CNs are managed by women, thus demonstrating that women can be in charge of the internet and that technology is accessible to everyone in the community. By creating new roles for women, and new social norms, women become more confident and naturally embrace an opportunity that they would otherwise disregard because of societal perceptions and pressure.
In addition, our digital literacy courses are helping build confidence for women to interact with technology, often for the first time, this is the case of Aziza from the Ait-Idzeg CN in Morocco. At first, Aziza only attended the digital literacy courses to serve tea and refreshments to those taking part. She soon became interested in what the other women were learning during the sessions and decided to take the course herself and now aspires to start her own business.
This is AFCHIX’s goal in creating women-led community networks, namely to provide a safe space for girls and women in rural communities to explore using technology and learn new skills. This is crucial in seeking to overcome other barriers that stop women from utilising technology even when it is made available to them. We are not only creating a social network tackling many challenges that prevent women from accessing digital training but also putting it into practice. We allow women to lead technology, not the other way around, empowering them to join the digital world on their own terms and for their own benefit.
One of the most important accomplishments to flow from creating these networks is to show girls and women that everything is possible – they can succeed as a woman in a digital world, in a developing country, and that they can succeed against all odds.