Kenya’s Digital Deserts
In the sprawling landscape of the digital age, where information flows ceaselessly, there exist hidden terrains known as data deserts. These barren pockets lack the nourishing streams of data that fuel progress and innovation.1 Often coinciding with these desolate expanses is the digital divide, a vast gulf that separates those who bask in the glow of digital opportunity from those left in the shadows.2 The impact of this divide is particularly pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa, where vulnerable and minority communities grapple with limited access to the digital world. Drawing from a CIPIT report on data deserts highlighting the dire situation in Kenya, this blog post embarks on a journey through the sands of data deserts, delves into the implications of the digital divide, and charts a course towards a more inclusive digital oasis.
Sub-Saharan Africa is grappling with a digital divide that underscores the vast rift between those who have digital access and those who do not. Statistics from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) indicate that only around 28% of the African population had internet access as of 20203. This divide is especially pronounced within marginalised communities, hindering their ability to harness the transformative power of digital technologies. A critical facet of the digital divide is the emergence of data deserts—areas devoid of reliable and high-quality data. A study conducted by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) reveals that in 2021, more than half of the global population lacked internet access, with vulnerable communities disproportionately affected4. These data deserts result from limited internet infrastructure, hindering access to education, healthcare, economic opportunities, and social connections. Communities stranded in data deserts are left bereft of the tools needed to harness the potential of the digital age. Economic opportunities, educational enrichment, and access to essential services all remain elusive, underscoring that addressing data deserts isn’t solely about connectivity—it’s about dismantling barriers that hinder marginalised communities from flourishing in the digital era.
The digital divide has cast a profound shadow over the education sector, leaving an indelible impact. The emergence of the pandemic prompted a surge in online learning worldwide; however, the stark reality remains that within Sub-Saharan Africa, a staggering 89% of students do not possess a personal home computer, while an even more concerning 82% lack access to the internet.5 This glaring disparity places vulnerable communities at a distinct disadvantage, exacerbating the already-existing educational disparities. As a result, the crucial acquisition of essential digital skills, which has become integral in the modern learning landscape, remains out of reach for many in these underserved regions.
Economically, the digital divide deepens existing fault lines and translates to missed opportunities for vulnerable and minority communities. According to the African Development Bank Group, despite the region’s impressive mobile phone penetration rates, the potential of digital technologies to drive economic growth remains largely untapped6. In urban slums and rural areas alike, limited access to the digital economy obstructs access to online job platforms, remote work opportunities, and financial services, further entrenching economic inequality.7
Healthcare, an arena where digital advancements have revolutionised access, is deeply impacted by the divide. Telemedicine and online health resources offer invaluable support, yet marginalised communities lack access to these crucial services. A blog by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) underscores that the absence of digital connectivity in remote areas leaves vulnerable groups disconnected from critical health insights and resources, contributing to unequal health outcomes.8
The digital divide also has social implications, fostering isolation and limiting civic participation.9 Research conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation highlights significant gender disparities in the realm of digital empowerment. Within urban poor regions across ten cities, the study indicates that women face a 50% lower likelihood of being online compared to men, and their likelihood of utilising the internet for economic and political empowerment is reduced by 30-50%.10 These disparities stem from various underlying factors, including prohibitive costs, limited digital proficiency, a dearth of content that resonates with and empowers women, as well as obstacles impeding women’s ability to communicate freely and privately online. Consequently, this division obstructs women’s entry to crucial services, information, and active engagement in civic matters, thereby perpetuating gender inequalities within society.
To address these pressing issues, it is essential to examine the communities most affected by the digital divide and data deserts in Kenya. Rural areas, home to pastoralist and agricultural communities like the Borana, Gabra, Maasai, Pokot, Rendille, Samburu, Somali and Turkana are grappling with limited or no internet connectivity.11 At the start of 2023, 29.3 percent of Kenya’s population lived in urban centres, while 70.7 percent lived in rural areas.12 This statistic shows that a majority of the Kenyan population lives in rural areas and therefore have a higher likelihood of being set back in internet access and connectivity which unfortunately enables the digital divide to grow further. This leads to data deserts in many rural areas in Kenya thus hindering access to online education, healthcare services, and economic prospects.
Indigenous communities, including the Sengwer and El Molo, confront unique challenges due to their remote locations. Urban slum dwellers and low-income urban communities are equally affected, with limited access to the digital economy exacerbating their struggles. Vulnerable groups like persons with disabilities, older adults, and linguistic minorities face additional barriers in accessing the digital world, perpetuating exclusion and inequality.
Addressing the digital divide and data deserts necessitates a multifaceted approach informed by successful global initiatives. Countries like India, Singapore, and Australia offer valuable lessons. India’s “Digital India” initiative demonstrates the potential of transforming society through holistic digital empowerment.13 Singapore’s “Infocomm Media Development Authority” focuses on targeted interventions, such as empowering senior citizens with digital skills through the “Silver Infocomm Initiative.”14 Australia’s “Digital Inclusion Blueprint” provides a roadmap for promoting inclusivity through affordable access and digital skills training.15
Building upon these insights, actionable recommendations emerge to bridge the divide and counter data deserts. Governments, in collaboration with private entities and NGOs, should prioritise investing in broadband infrastructure to expand reliable internet access. To make connectivity a reality for marginalised communities, affordable internet access schemes and community-based initiatives should be established. Tailored digital literacy programs are vital, empowering vulnerable groups with skills to navigate the digital world effectively and safely. Inclusive design principles should guide the creation of digital platforms, ensuring accessibility for all users, including those with disabilities. Crafting local content in diverse languages serves to reflect cultural richness and relevance, thereby enhancing the accessibility of digital resources.
To this end, Kenya has established its digital blueprint, the National Digital Master Plan (2022-2032).16 The Kenya National Digital Master Plan 2022-2032 represents a progressive step forward from its predecessor, the Master Plan 2014-2017. Rooted in earlier national ICT policies, the 2014-2017 plan introduced a conceptual model categorising ICT elements into foundations and pillars. However, it faced implementation challenges due to resource constraints and institutional reform delays. The new master plan aligns with Kenya Vision 2030, building upon previous initiatives and emphasising the transition to a digital economy. It is structured around four pillars: Digital Infrastructure, Digital Government Service, Product and Data Management, Digital Skills, and Digital Innovation, Enterprise, and Digital Business. Additionally, it introduces foundational themes, including Policy, Legal, and Regulatory Framework, and Research and Development, as well as cross-cutting themes like Information Security and Cyber Management, and Emerging Technologies. The plan provides a comprehensive framework, situational analysis, objectives, and strategies for each pillar and theme, along with considerations for financing, stakeholder engagement, monitoring, and governance, with the ICT Authority as the primary implementing agency.
Kenya’s ambitious National Digital Master Plan envisions a digital transformation on a grand scale. It aspires to connect 6 million households to the internet, bridging the digital divide that has long persisted. Additionally, the plan aims to link 40,000 schools, 13,000 health centres, and 20,000 government offices, establishing a vast network of connectivity that enhances access to education, healthcare, and public services. With 25,000 hotspots and 24,000 rural businesses benefiting from this digital infrastructure, even remote areas will witness economic growth. It is inclusive as it also caters for marginalised communities. The plan also fosters a thriving tech industry with 2 software industries and 10,000 trained software engineers, facilitating innovation. With 100,000 km of fibre infrastructure and high-speed broadband, the foundation for digital progress is laid. Furthermore, initiatives like Konza City, Kenya’s Silicon Valley, paperless government offices, and robust cloud services signify a leap into a tech-forward future. This transformation extends to improved teaching and learning, government services online, and active citizen participation in economic development. With enhanced policies for the ICT sector and a commitment to ‘zero’ the digital divide, Kenya strives to create smart villages, cities, and public spaces. Notably, the plan aims to boost the film industry and media while ensuring the full protection of data. Ultimately, Kenya aims to be a global centre for innovation, cementing its position as a digital trailblazer in the region. To this end, the Ministry of Education established Digischool to provide interactive, relevant digital content based on a competency-based curriculum.17The Digischool website provides a breakdown of schools by county, including details such as the total number of schools, those with installations pending, the percentage already installed, as well as the number of learner devices, teacher devices, routers, and projectors.18
In conclusion, the digital divide and data deserts pose significant challenges, but they are not insurmountable. With strategic interventions and cross-sector collaborations, we can pave the way for a more inclusive and equitable digital future. By leveraging successful global initiatives, tailoring solutions to the unique needs of each community, and investing in infrastructure, affordability, and digital literacy, we can transcend the divide and empower vulnerable communities across Kenya and Sub-Saharan Africa. In this pursuit, the promise of a truly inclusive digital society becomes attainable—one where every individual can thrive, regardless of their background or circumstances.
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1 Neumann, N., Tucker, C., Kaplan, L., Mislove, A. and Sapiezynski, P., 2022. Data Deserts and Black Boxes: The Impact of Socio-Economic Status on Consumer Profiling. Mimeo, MIT.
2 Fuchs, C. and Horak, E., 2008. Africa and the digital divide. Telematics and informatics, 25(2), pp.99-116.
3 International Telecommunication Union, ‘Measuring digital development:
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4 Alliance for Affordable Internet, ‘Affordability Report 2021: A New Strategy For Universal Access’, https://a4ai.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/A4AI_2021_AR_AW.pdf accessed 31 August 2023.
5 UNESCO, 2020. ‘Startling digital divides in distance learning emerge,’ https://en.unesco.org/news/startling-digital-divides-distancelearning-emerge accessed 31 August 2023.
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7 Mignamissi, D., 2021. Digital divide and financial development in Africa. Telecommunications Policy, 45(9), p.102199.
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9 Wilson, K.R., Wallin, J.S. and Reiser, C., 2003. Social stratification and the digital divide. Social Science Computer Review, 21(2), pp.133-143.
10 World Wide Web Foundation, ‘Input to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): Bridging the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective’ https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Women/WRGS/GenderDigital/WWW_Foundation.pdf accessed 31 August 2023.
11 Agrawal, A., Khan, R.A. and Ansari, M.T.J., 2022. Empowering Indian citizens through the secure e-governance: The digital India initiative context. In Emerging Technologies in Data Mining and Information Security: Proceedings of IEMIS 2022, Volume 3 (pp. 3-11). Singapore: Springer Nature Singapore.
12 Seow, P., Looi, C.K., How, M.L., Wadhwa, B. and Wu, L.K., 2019. Educational policy and implementation of computational thinking and programming: Case study of Singapore. Computational thinking education, pp.345-361.
13 Thomas, J., Barraket, J., Parkinson, S., Wilson, C., Holcombe-James, I., Kennedy, J., Mannell, K. and Brydon, A., 2021. Australian digital inclusion index: 2021. RMIT, Swinburne University of Technology, and Telstra: Melbourne, Australia.
14 Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs, ‘The Kenya National Digital Master Plan 2022-2032’ https://cms.icta.go.ke/sites/default/files/2022-04/Kenya%20Digital%20Masterplan%202022-2032%20Online%20Version.pdf accessed 01 September 2023.
15 Life Africa Trust, ‘Accounting for pastoralists,’ http://www.pastoralpeoples.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Accounting4pastoralists-KE.pdf accessed 20 September 2023.
16 Data Reportal, ‘Digital 2023: Kenya,’ https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2023-kenya accessed 31 August 2023.
18 DLP COUNTY SUMMARY, https://www.digischool.go.ke/dlp_summary/county_summary accessed 20 September 2023.