The COVID-19 pandemic created an urgency to fast-track digitalization as a critical infrastructure for access to public services, as well as work and social interactions.
Despite this shift, the digital divide between the poor and rich, rural, and urban areas, and men and women has become more evident. Addressing inequalities in digital technologies access is critical to sustaining digital progress and hastening recovery from the pandemic.
While the 2020 Uganda Economic Update by the World Bank[i], the country has made considerable technological progress, the country still lags in several aspects, with a phone penetration rate of 69.2% of the population, below the African average of 84%.
Beyond the broad coverage, the digital divide also manifests in gender and geographical aspects; 46% of female adults accessing mobile phones compared to 58% males; 70% adults in urban areas are likely to own mobile phones compared to 46% of adults in rural areas. Without closing this gap, poor, women, and rural populations will continue to be adversely affected.
The Third National Development Plan (NDP III) 2020/21 – 2024/25 identifies digitalisation to propel the economy for efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery and productivity. The key priority areas in the NDP III include: access to digital infrastructure, affordability, and quality of ICT services, provision of basic to advanced digital skills, supporting innovation and citizen participation, among others. It is thus critical to address the barriers to digitalisation in order to foster development objectives.
Investing in digital infrastructure is key to catering to current and future demand and reducing the digital divide among men, women, and youth. This can take the form of facilitating better access to quality education and providing new opportunities for skills development. Training in digital skills can increase access to content for disadvantaged groups, enabling faster learning and building the potential to innovate.
In addition, encouraging government employees and the public on to adopt wide use of online services can encourage the population (including women and youth) to adapt and use digital tools. This also requires ascertaining the skills required to enhance quality employment and full participation in a digitized economy and implementing policies for their development and use. These may include ICT specialist skills and digital literacy, among others.
Favourable regulatory changes and incentives can promote digitalisation. For example, reducing taxes on digital devices can enable consumers access to affordable devices and motivate manufacturers and businesses to invest in expanding the availability of low-cost digital devices.
As the government prioritizes support to boost innovation capacity, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) should be engaged to play a bigger role in digital transformation. SMEs comprise over 90% of the private sector.
A 2021 study by Economic Policy Research Centre on the effect of the COVID-19 lockdown on SMEs[ii], female-owned businesses were more affected by the covid-19 pandemic than men and urged use of digital technology usage to enable SMEs to deal with the barriers to investing in digital technologies.
[i] Digital Solutions in a Time of Crisis: Uganda Economic Update: Fifteenth Edition (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.
[ii] Mwesigye, F., Odokonyero, T., Barungi, M., & Sunday, N. (2021). A Rapid Assessment of the Effect of the COVID-19 Lockdown on Livelihoods and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises in Uganda.