How tech may widen economic disparities

mobile phone
Technological innovation has spread to many remote areas. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

As technology rapidly takes centre stage in virtually all human activities, concern is rising over the widening digital divide in Kenya. A new report says if not addressed, this expanding digital discrepancy will have far-reaching implications on efforts to bridge glaring economic inequalities.

While acknowledging that digital technology is a potent vehicle of social inclusion, the World Bank report asserts that it can also cut both ways, and be a channel for deepening exclusion.

“The proportion of individuals who have access to the Internet in each African country is highly correlated with the country’s income level,” says the World Bank report dubbed Inclusion Matters in Africa.

The survey establishes that social inclusion or exclusion of some regions in Kenya goes back to the colonial era and the early years of independence. Apparently, and as demonstrated by the report, digital exclusion follows the patterns of economic marginalisation.

Such economic, social and digital disparities are stark in ten counties including Garissa, Isiolo, Lamu, Mandera, Marsabit, Samburu, Tana River, Turkana, Wajir and West Pokot.


The ten counties — which remain below the national average of living standards indicators — are largely left out of recent economic progress and advances in technologies that have the potential to transform lives.

While some areas in Kenya, especially cities and urban centres, have embraced technologies that vastly improve communication, provide crucial content, and innovations that foster their capacity to boost residents’ livelihoods and hence their standard of living, some areas such as the north and northern eastern are struggling with basic infrastructure.

For decades, the north and northeastern regions have remained underserved by infrastructure and government services.

As the British colonial focused on the Kenya-Uganda railway, the north and northeast, then known as the Northern Frontier District, were cut from economic development.

This region was also considered a buffer zone against hostile neighbouring countries. The colonialists hence channeled their energies and efforts on agriculture-rich regions, ignoring these regions looked upon as barren patch of land.

“Regions that were seen not to have anything to extract were just left behind and this is seen across the continent,” said Ali Hersi, the country director for Safeworld Somalia, an NGO working to preach peace and address sources of conflicts in the neighbouring country.

Unfortunately, he says soon after independence, the regimes that took power continued with the same model of ignoring “underdeveloped/underserved regions”. This has spilled into the current situation where technology is painfully slow in penetrating the region.

Expert say the country should take deliberate steps to appreciate each regions’ contribution to the economy and maximise it to address social exclusion. This can be done through a multi-pronged approach, comprising laying the necessary infrastructure for technology to take root in such regions.

The exclusion in the digital realm is in stark contrast to the fact that Kenya is one of the top countries in Africa whose population is tech-savvy.

M-Pesa, for instance, is appreciated globally as an innovation that has changed lives not only in Kenya, but across Africa and the world.

The question now is how can Kenya dubbed “The Silicon Savannah”, bridge the digital divide, which has a direct bearing on social inclusion.

The World Bank report notes that digital technology, can leave those who do not have mobile phones or Internet connections further behind in terms of economic and social wellbeing.

There are, however, encouraging signals. The WB report says Africa in many respects, seems to have leapfrogged into the digital economy, although there is great variation across countries.

For example, despite a relatively faster increase in mobile cellular subscriptions in “fragile countries”, the number of mobile cellular subscriptions is still higher in “nonfragile countries”.

Similarly, financial technology (fintech) has also expanded across Africa over the past years with 21 percent of adults on the continent now having a mobile money account, with numbers having doubled since 2014, the highest of any region globally.

As would be expected, the proportion of individuals who have access to the internet in each African country is highly correlated with the country’s income level.

In South Africa, almost 60 percent of the population is online, and the standard of living comparatively higher than most countries in the region.

The report also notes that Africa has seen significant progress toward social inclusion in the past few decades, adding that the continent is moving at a pace faster than seen globally in many areas.

Further, the study says poverty in Africa has declined, human development outcomes have improved, and dynamic social movements are helping to transform communities and bringing attention to stigmatised issues and peoples.

Technological innovation, the report adds, has spread to many remote areas, and new policies and programs across the continent have highlighted the importance of social inclusion.