Mobile broadband, cloud computing, and digital technologies have extraordinary power to spur entrepreneurship and change lives by fostering economic growth. Increasing investment in digital infrastructure by 20% can add a full percentage point to a country’s GDP.
That’s why so many governments, companies, and NGOs promote digital initiatives aimed at getting people online. Sadly, few of these efforts succeed. Of the “ICT for development” projects sponsored by the World Bank, about 60% fail to meet their targets. (ICT stands for Information Communications Technology).
But some people are tackling digital inclusion in new ways. This year, Huawei interviewed 150 respondents in 12 countries to find out what gets people online and keeps them there. The winning approaches share several traits in common, giving rise to these five guidelines:
1. Demonstrate value. You have to sell the concept of connectivity and make people want it. Many digital initiatives fail simply because potential beneficiaries don’t understand the value of being online. They may not know that digital tools exist, or see the benefit of using them. One survey found that half of rural Brazilians would not be interested in internet access – even if it were free. To overcome this hurdle, digital programs must provide tangible benefits: for example, the promise of timely information about commodities that allows farmers to command better prices at the market.
2. Charge for your services. Some organizations provide solutions free of charge, especially when targeting the poor. But a user’s willingness to pay, even a little bit, provides a clear indication of value. Digital initiatives require feedback, to ensure that there will be long-term demand for the solutions they provide. Even if users don’t pay full price, they should contribute somehow – either via partial payment, by giving their time, or through some other mechanism that demonstrates commitment and ensures feedback.
3. Be an enabler. Often, people are kept offline by non-technical factors, such as blindness. Voice-based services can provide a connection for the disabled and those with limited education. Together with Qualcomm, developers in Israel developed an “eyes-free smartphone” for the blind. Dubbed Project Ray, it uses a regular Android phone to enable blind people to navigate their phone using simple finger movements and provide feedback with voice prompts and vibration. While pure connectivity is important, projects need to enable people to make use of connections once they become available.
4. Make sure it scales. Most digital inclusion projects fizzle at the pilot stage. Exceptions include Bridge International Academies, a private school in Kenya that provides education for US $6 per pupil each month. Its 400 schools and nurseries teach nearly 120,000 students, and the school aims to teach 10 million children in the next 10 years. To achieve its goal, Bridge has invested in ICT systems that standardize and scale the entire lifecycle of high-quality education delivery – from how schools are built to how teachers are selected and trained, and how lessons are delivered and monitored for improvement.
5. Work through public-private partnerships. These alliances let societies tackle big, long-term goals. For example, Mexico decided to beef up its ICT capabilities after the OECD estimated that inefficiencies in the sector were shaving nearly two percentage points off the country’s GDP each year. Mexico set a goal of tripling its ICT revenue and workforce in the next 10 years. It launched Prosoft 3.0, a plan that gives preferential treatment to companies that invest in ICT. Prosoft is linked to a National Digital Strategy which addresses connectivity, digital skills, interoperability, and the country’s legal framework.
As the gap between rich and poor widens, connecting people to the digital economy has never been more important.
Research shows that better outcomes result when the right frameworks are in place. Huawei’s full report on will be released soon, providing more recommendations.
In the meantime, do you have ideas about how to expand digital inclusion? If so, we’d love to hear them.
Joy Tan is President of Global Media and Communications at Huawei Technologies
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