2014 Partners' Forum
30 JUNE - 1 JULY | Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa
Session 3B: Bridging the Digital Divide: Making Mobile and ICTs a Reality for All
The session on ‘Bridging the Digital Divide’ opened with Kathy Calvin, United Nations Foundation, underlining the importance of mobile phones and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). “When it comes to the path from poverty to prosperity, there are no silver bullets, but mobile phones are as close as you can get”, she said.
The speakers in the session stressed that mobiles and ICTs can be enablers in improving access to health services for women and children. Aside from this, when the use of mobiles is encouraged within the health sector, it also contributes to financial inclusion and improving access to education services. Mobiles are critical because programmes such as civil registration and vital statistics, etc. cannot be scaled up through the use of conventional methods.
Mobile phones can be seen everywhere. Globally, we now have 7 billion connections, with four out of five new connections coming from developing countries. This has been largely demand driven. Professor C.O Onyebuchi Chukwu, Minister of Health (Nigeria) highlighted that Nigeria has a penetration rate of nearly 85% and that more than half of individuals and families in the country have access to a mobile. This makes them an important tool in the fight against marginalization.
Despite their potential, barriers continue to persist in bridging access to mobiles and ICTs. Several panellists highlighted that a significant barrier is the cost of delivering services; technology is not the problem, cost is. Other problems highlighted included: network coverage, availability of electricity (charging phones) and regulatory issues. Kathy Calvin stated that we need to “bridge the gap between individuals and communities which have access to communication and those who do not; if we have to reach the last child standing, then we must leverage technology”. Talking about the success of the MAMA programme, she stressed that we need to bridge the gender gap when it comes to access to mobiles and ICTs.
Solutions do exist and key stakeholders are making determined efforts to bridge the digital divide. Gustav Praekelt, Praekelt Foundation noted that “we need to leverage existing behaviours”. Where literacy is an issue, he suggested we rely on voice services, which can be accessed even on basic handsets. Using voice based services is an existing behaviour and every mobile user is familiar with it. Given that the mobile revolution has been largely driven by the private sector, it is no surprise that the sector is also working to eliminate some of the barriers to access. Maya Makanjee, Vodacom, highlighted one such innovation, i.e. the use of solar power in areas where electricity is unreliable. Aya Caldwell, Novartis Foundation said that “we need to think of mobile or ICTs enabled innovations in the context of the existing health system”.
All partners noted that partnerships are critical in creating an enabling environment for increased use of mobiles and ICTs for women’s and children’s health. This includes the private sector which has been successful in several countries in identifying business models around mobile services that yield both profit and achievement of social objectives.
Sharon D’Agostino, Johnson & Johnson, closed the session by stating - “We need to remember that in bridging the digital divide, we can truly be there for every individual who needs us”.