Leonida Odongo shares her vision for expanding global access to technology and how virtual events offer a powerful social change catalyst.
“My ideal world is where there is access to technology for everyone—where we can connect regardless of where we live.”
COVID-19 has turned the world upside down and awoken us to embrace technology. It has also highlighted the barriers many people face in accessing technology. In Kenya, 17 million learners were out of school for six months due to the pandemic.
I’ve organized online trainings for university students and grassroots leaders, focusing on fundraising and resource mobilization. Sadly, many students could not participate due to a range of constraints such as the cost of data bundles, internet connectivity, absence of a network, and lack of electricity.
As virtual learning has become the new normal, more students are interested in these online dialogues and trainings: They can interact with people from different parts of the world, which may not have been possible with physical meetings because of travel barriers. Still, technology access continues to be a challenge.
Implementing e-learning at the University of Nairobi proved difficult. Students reported that they’d returned to their rural homes where there was no electricity, no access to laptops or desktop computers, and no ability to buy data bundles to undertake a two or three hour learning session. For the majority who couldn’t afford home laptops or electricity, any form of continued learning during the pandemic had to wait until Kenya re-opened and learning institutions returned to normal.
For some students, digitalization is a mirage except within their classes or university compound. Many use libraries with access to university WiFi or cyber cafes, which are expensive and
unsustainable. For those who have laptops but no internet connection, tethering the phone to the laptop for a connection is too expensive.
This digital divide among university students prompted students at the University of Nairobi to speak out using the hashtag #UONBoycottOnlineClasses.
One of the students shared these words: “Online classes are for the privileged. As for me, an ordinary student, I can’t handle Corona panic, network problems upcountry, and the struggle to afford the internet.”
Outside of schools, the digital divide places a burden on rural communities and older people. Most smallholder farmers I work with live in rural areas. Some don’t have smartphones. Others don’t have
computers or electricity in their households. Holding virtual meetings on Zoom or Skype is out of the question.
My ideal world is where there is access to technology for everyone—where we can connect regardless of where we live. Nobody is left behind because they don’t have a smartphone or lack electricity to charge their phones. Nobody is left behind because they don’t have data bundles or have to climb a tree or a hill to get an internet connection.
Making electricity cheaper would go a long way in enabling access to technology. Computers and laptops should be treated as necessities—not as luxuries. The government should also make internet access free. In rural areas, there should be designated hotspot areas where the internet is free or accessible.
The Kenyan government could make real its promise of laptops to school pupils. Many children from low-income families missed out on their education during the onset of COVID-19 because they did not have laptops. Once we have addressed digital access, technology can help expose people in Kenya and worldwide to new ideas and solutions.
During COVID-19, I’ve helped Haki Nawiri Afrika organize weekly virtual dialogues. In one dialogue, we talked about how online, women can connect globally, make their voices heard, and create change in different parts of the world. The dialogues are eye-opening to the students and have broadened their world views. When the dialogues involve activists from different continents, we learn from each other and adopt different strategies.
We have to be flexible to adjust to this new normal. To bring tech to the people, governments worldwide need to invest in tech and make it affordable and accessible to the ordinary citizenry. Technology should not be what divides us but what unites us.
This story was published as part of World Pulse's SheTransformsTech Campaign and is included in the #SheTransformsTech final report. Download the report to find out what grassroots women and gender-diverse individuals from 60+ countries say individuals, policymakers, and tech companies must do to make tech equitable for all.