Digital inequality high despite sector growth

ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru (centre) shows pupils of Ortum Boys Boarding Primary School in West Pokot how to use tablets in 2016. [File, Standard]
Though Kenya has made significant leaps in the adoption of mobile technology and is hailed as a hub for financial technology (fintech) and a thriving mobile money ecosystem, there still exist gaps in various segments.

The huge growth has seen mobile money lenders such as Tala and Branch receive billions of shillings in capital injection over the last two years as global investors seek to have a piece of the lucrative market.

At the same time, partnerships by mobile service providers and financial institutions such as Safaricom’s M-Shwari and Fuliza credit facilities have given the banking industry a strong pointer that the smartphone is now central to customer engagement.

A new report indicate that Kenya’s rapid adoption of smartphones and Internet access has not been uniformly distributed across the population.

The study by the Pew Research Center which looked at patterns of access to smartphones, the Internet and social media use across various age sets in several countries including Kenya showed significant disparities were recorded across the socio-economic strata. This is even as developing economies still lagged in terms of the adoption of digital technologies.

In Kenya, smartphone adoption and access to Internet resources such as social media and mobile banking are skewed in favour of the young, well-educated and higher income earners.

Advanced economies

According to the study, 51 per cent of Kenyans aged between 18-34 years owns a smartphone. At the same time, only 27 per cent of those aged between 35 and 49 were found to own one with the number further dropping to 18 per cent among those over the age of 50.

The report notes that though disparities across age are also evident in advanced economies, the gap in developing countries such as Kenya is much wider and increasing in size.

“Over the past five years, smartphone adoption has soared among young adults in emerging economies,” explains the report in part.“Across nine emerging economies surveyed in 2013, around one-in-four adults ages 18 to 34 owned smartphones. By 2018, that share had grown to at least around two-thirds in most countries.”

In Kenya, 25 per cent of young people between the ages of 18 to 34 reported owning a smartphone.

Last year, this number had doubled to 51 per cent. Younger age groups were also found to be more likely to use social media sites such as Facebook than older ones. This creates a “digital gap” between young and older people - compounded by the fact that an increasing number of online users derive much of their news from social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp.

This widens barriers to effective debate on social, political and economic issues between the age-sets reducing the impetus for public civic participation. Besides the significant impact on political discourse, the digital gap between the generations has also been cited as a new source of misunderstanding and conflict in workplaces across many sectors.

Older managers

In the banking sector, the digital gap has been a factor in slowing the adoption of new cybersecurity technology where older managers and directors tend to shun or ignore recommendations from the younger IT workforce.

The report also found that disparities existed across education levels, with 71 per cent of more educated respondents reportedly owning smartphones compared to 24 per cent who reported less education.

This persisted when income levels were taken into account raising concerns about widening income inequalities. “Across all 27 countries surveyed, there is a strong relationship between smartphone ownership and per capita GDP (purchasing power parity ),” reads the study in part.

This means the more connected and educated segments of the population have an advantage over less connected and less educated counterparts.

The gap between the various income segments becomes wider considering the fact that higher-income families have more points of access to the Internet such as home and workplace WiFi. When it comes to gender, 47 per cent of men reported having smartphones compared to 36 per cent of the women surveyed.

Most of the countries surveyed reported relatively minimal gender gaps in the use of social media with some advanced economies like the US, Spain, and Australia having more women on social media than men.

Kenya, however, stood out among developing countries both in the gender disparity in terms of access to smartphones, as well as the use of social media. “Only Kenya, Nigeria, and India are the three countries where smartphone ownership also differs substantially by gender – and there are relatively large gender differences in social media use,” states the report in part.

In these three countries, women are less likely than men to use social media sites.

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