“Is it possible that everyone can be connected to the Internet?” I wondered.
During the session themed “A positive outlook: Leaving No One Offline’ at the Stockholm Internet Forum, my thoughts wandered to Fudencia, a 70 something year-old widow in my village. She is taking care of her five grand children. Unfortunately, Fudencia cannot read and write, because as a girl born in a village in Kabale in the 1940s education is not an opportunity she was afforded. That can only mean that her only livelihood is her small piece of land that she mostly tills for food.
Recently, Fudencia purchased a phone. This simple phone enables her to stay in touch with her son that is working in another town, and now, it is also her bank as she uses it for mobile money transactions.
In 2000 when Celtel that has since metamorphosed into Airtel was selling their phones at 1 million Uganda shillings per handset, never would have Fudencia imagined that she would one day own a phone. Although she still doesn’t have electricity at her house, she takes her phone to the town centre to charge or requests a friend that has electricity at their house to charge it for her. Her phone is now part of her. It has made her life easier because she doesn’t have to queue at the bank or borrow a minute from someone with a phone to make a call.
Imagine the opportunities the Internet would open for Fudencia if she had access.
Although she knows the planting seasons in her village, lately, climate change is frustrating her, the Internet would enable to get information about weather patterns in her area. She would research about the right pesticides to use to control pests from damaging her crops, or herbicides to control weeds that invade her garden. She would learn about better soil management and in turn increase her yields. She would learn from the Internet how to add value to her produce and current market prices so that she is not ripped off by the middle man. Obviously, through her social media pages, she would market her sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes. Her grandchildren would be able to access the same quality education on their computers the same as a child in a Kampala school or a school in England that they can only dream of now. She would double-check the medicine that she receives from her local health centre to ensure whether this medicine is still used in the world. She among other things would use the internet to question leaders about where the money she pays in taxes goes. Before elections, she would get information about candidates’ history, their plans, and as a result, would make informed choices of the people that she is going to vote into office.
For Fudencia and other 30 Million plus Ugandans, the barriers to accessing the internet right now seem massive, the cost of the internet is high. For example 150 MBS on all networks costs about UDS $1 yet 34.6% of the population is living on $1.90 per day, a third of Uganda’s population cannot read and write and the content that is available online is mostly in written text in foreign languages.
Regardless the barriers, connecting all people is certainly not impossible. Some deliberate steps can be taken. Governments can harness the Internet as a driver for sustainable development. Stakeholders – government, Internet service providers with combined effort can make connecting all a reality. Individual players and governments can explore building community telcos. Local content creators have to work hard to create local content in audio, text and visual for those that can read and those that cannot. App developers can help build technologies that will enable the people living with disabilities to access these technologies.
While countries in the developed world have gone towards the Internet of things and Artificial Intelligence; self-driving cars, self painting machines, talking refrigerators and washing machines. We from the developing countries cannot afford to despair, combined effort will help us get everyone online as it is a gateway to greater opportunities.