Reducing the digital divide in East Africa – spotlight on digital literacy and innovation

This post was guest-authored by Emily Heaphy, Connected Society Intern & Geography student at Sheffield University. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the GSMA.

Digital literacy is increasingly on the agenda for governments, international organisations and mobile operators. The subject was front and centre at both this year’s GSMA Mobile360 Africa event in July as well as UNESCO’s International Literacy Day (titled ‘Literacy in a Digital World’) celebrated last month in Paris. The research that the Connected Society team have done suggests that many individuals are held back from using mobile services due to a lack of understanding or confidence and that there is a need for creative innovations in this area.

East Africa has become a hub of digital innovation over the last couple of years, particularly in Kenya and Rwanda. GSMA Connected Society’s Mobile Connectivity Index (MCI) recognises the steady improvement these countries are making to increase inclusion through affordability and infrastructure, however development in basic skills is showing very little growth (see figures below). In 2015, a GSMA survey found that 28% of women and 22% of men in Kenya perceived technical literacy and confidence as a barrier to owning and using a mobile phone. Below are four examples of exciting initiatives addressing this barrier in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT)

Following its development and pilot implementation in India last year, the GSMA Connected Society programme has now also launched MISTT with Tigo Rwanda. MISTT introduces people with little or no Internet skills to the mobile Internet by giving mobile agents access to training and training materials. This initiative has now been demonstrated in a successful pilot study including 300 agents across Rwanda from May to July 2017. We are now working to scale up the project in Rwanda and across the region and will share a Case Study later this year.

Intel She Will Connect   

A similar programme was launched by Intel and partners in 2013, with a specific focus on reducing the digital gender gap. She Will Connect teaches women basic digital skills and demonstrates the benefits of connectivity and technology by providing financial, health and educational information during and after training, for free. The project continues to expand, with caravans and equipment travelling to remote locations in Kenya to provide this service. Learning basic digital skills will encourage both non-users and users to become more involved with the digital world. However, basic digital literacy is only the beginning and teaching more advanced digital skills will have a long-lasting, positive impact on the digital community across East Africa.

I am the Code Initiative

Digital literacy and education are essential to increase digital inclusion, especially for women who face more barriers than men when accessing the Internet or owning a mobile phone. I am the Code is an initiative that brings together governments, businesses and investors to support young women by teaching them how to code and become more digitally literate. Digital Hubs are located across East Africa and can be run in collaboration with schools, libraries and community centres, encouraging women of all ages to become more confident and curious about the digital world.

The Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT)

DOT is an international group that works with youths, governments and organisations to build digital skills of young innovators to create sustainable, digital initiatives. Operating across East Africa, with initiatives including #EdTech, where DOT and educational institutions work to integrate technology into education systems by teaching digital literacy to educators, and providing locally relevant content for students. Programmes such as DOT, which focus on supporting young innovators to create digital initiatives, are essential for digital inclusion as they increase digital literacy amongst the immediate beneficiaries, with the potential to improve awareness of digital across the wider community.

Ultimately, both these different kinds of ‘digital skills’ programmes are needed. Programmes introducing basic digital literacy being critical for helping to bring users into the world of mobile technology. Programmes targeting more advanced digital skills, in turn, encourage creativity and ingenuity to reduce digital literacy barriers and generate local content. International organisations, mobile operators, governments and grass root projects need to encourage individuals to learn digital literacy and skills, but also take it one step further in making them aspire to create a better digital environment for the future.

To explore more digital innovations designed to increase inclusion, please visit the GSMA Connected Society’s Digital Inclusion Innovation Portal.


This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.