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Africa Covid-19

How the internet is making stay-at-home difficult for Africans

Closing schools and working from home has become a global response to stop the spread of COVID-19. However, lack of access to the internet as well as high data costs have made this transition rather difficult in Africa.

Across the African continent, most governments have implemented a lockdown on their citizens to mitigate and ultimately halt the spread of COVID-19. So far, South Africa has been the worst hit country by the virus with about 1,749 cases as of Tuesday (07.04.2020). 

Read more: French doctor apologizes for 'Africa' coronavirus test idea

As a result, the government under President Cyril Ramaphosa issued a 21-day lockdown on March 27 which included the closure of schools around the country. In an effort to keep education going, teachers have turned to the internet as a channel for teaching content.

Everton Stream lives in Stellenbosch, a town about 50 kilometers east of Cape Town. His daughters are 7 and 11, they both go to school and in order to keep up with the curriculum, their teacher has been sending out homework by email.

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However, downloading the homework requires internet and that isn't always easy to come by. The data offered by service providers on mobile phones is often expensive, very slow and expires before the kids have finished the work, he says. In addition, they have to finish homework every day which leads to an accumulation of data costs.

The slow mobile connection means "we have to go to places with some internet" and since "most of the internet places are closed now, it's a real challenge," says Stream. As print shops are shut as well, his kids are having to copy down the exercises from the phone first before finishing them, which adds extra writing practice and is good for them, he concludes.

Internet access linked to income inequality

In South Africa about 53% of the population makes use of the internet, which is relatively good given that only one third of the whole sub-Saharan region has access to the internet, says Chenai Chair, a research manager at the Web Foundation. She highlights that access disparities are linked to income disparities in rural as well as urban areas.

"The least connected people are usually in the poor regions and mainly marginalized communities, which are usually women and younger people and those living and rural and remote areas," Chair says. In urban areas these disparities occur when living in areas which "might not have fiber rule outs so they're only relying on mobile networks," she adds.

At the same time, she questions whether mobile service providers have the capacity to ensure the good delivery of bandwidth now that many people are forced to access the internet from home due to the lockdown. She argues that "the crisis is highlighting that we need alternative connection platforms" such as community networks like the Zenzeleni Community Networks in Mankosi in the Eastern Cape.

There is also a need for policies targeting the affordability of internet, she argues. 

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Return of the radio

In Kenya, both schools and universities were closed in mid-March by the government after new cases of COVID-19 emerged. The closure has left many students as well as teachers without access to the internet and teaching material. This has been a huge problem because this means they cannot "move to a fully online system," says Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political analyst based in Nairobi.

Only about 12% of Kenyans have a computer in their homes and 70% of those with access to the internet do so through their phones. While there has been a sharp increase in the use of smartphones, it is "certainly not enough for the entire country to switch into internet only teaching," she says.

In addition, most people who log into the internet only buy small data bundles und use them on data light platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. In contrast, academic websites are considered "data-rich, data-heavy websites" and "most people are not going to be able to do that," she argues. 

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The lack of internet access has forced people to turn to a more traditional media – the radio. Households are more likely to have such in their homes and therefore have access to the increased academic content that has been provided through them. Nanjala Nyabola proposes to enhance the use of traditional media, such as radio but also newspapers, with the use of, for example, WhatsApp.

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Nyabola thinks a teacher or lecturer could be holding a lesson through the radio and listeners would be able to send in their questions over WhatsApp. For schools, this is easier to implement because they have a standardized curriculum. This is not the same for academic institutions and so she proposes that universities and libraries could lend basic laptops to students in a concerted effort.

"There are places in Kenya where the national library service delivers through using camels" but there is a general lack of policy coordination on the whole on the side of the government. "We have lots of pieces that are moving independently but not enough coordination" to enable more internet access, she says.  

Communication is key

Unlike schools and universities, companies are trying hard not to shut down and instead have moved their activities – where possible – into home-office.

For Kagure Wamunyu, she is used to poor internet connections. She works as Chief Strategist at Kobo360, a logistics company operating across Africa. The company is like Uber, but for trucks. It's an app-based platform that requires connectivity and good internet access. Their work is classified as an essential service: their trucks deliver medicines and food across a vast area. Now keeping their 200 staff connected is not only proving tricky but also costly.

"If you give people 1GB, it's normally enough, because they can use office internet. But right now we're talking about more than doubling the allocation that we're giving. Internet costs have gone up more than double," Wamunyu says. 

Overall, businesses as well as academic institutions are having to adjust to the new stay-at-home policies. For many businesses this has meant extra costs and slower work overall. Schools and universities are also trying to make use of the internet but have not shied away from turning to alternative forms of media to convey academic material.

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Kate Hairsine contributed to this report. 

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