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The Web Untangled: Meaningful Connectivity transforms lives

Web Foundation · March 24, 2022

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Sizanenhle wants to be a scientist when she grows up. Or a lawyer, maybe. She hasn’t decided yet, but knows that both options will involve “lots of homework” between now and then.

Melissa also wants to be a scientist, but her passion is dinosaurs, and while she can’t remember what the word is for a “dinosaur scientist” or even commit to a favourite dinosaur (“they’re all my favourites”), she can tell you where exactly to find out about them so you can choose a favourite for yourself.

When they aren’t planning their future careers, the two girls are working on their business idea — making and selling body lotions and other natural beauty products — and researching ingredients and packaging materials. Sizanenhle has saved page after page of recipes and information on the computer she uses at Timbuktu in the Valley, the skills development space where the girls meet in the afternoons when they return from their separate schools. They plan to sell their products at local markets, or even on the web itself. Melissa gives an overview of what they’ve found in their research. “You can make it cheaply, or more expensive, but then you have to have people to buy it. You need a good name for your business. You need to work hard”.

Their confidence, and independence, in using the web to access information is remarkable when one considers their context. In South Africa, where 50% of the population has basic internet access, only 13% of people are meaningfully connected and are able to use the web regularly and reliably. Little girls in low-income communities are rarely represented in that figure.

Christinah, a facilitator at the school, has seen the difference that regular internet access can make in the lives of young people who, through frequent exposure, become comfortable and capable using the web to pursue opportunities and interests. “There seems to be a belief that kids from certain backgrounds lack curiosity, or intention. But that’s not the case at all. For some kids, their backgrounds are full of deprivation. They have curiosity, but nowhere to put it. The internet becomes an outlet for that, and they can be independent too, which matters when there is no one at home to guide this. The independence is so important”.

This agency and self-sufficiency needs to be supported not with basic access, but with meaningful connectivity: regular access on an appropriate device with sufficient data and a fast connection.

Here we untangle the power of meaningful connectivity to transform lives and communities and unpack the data from the first ever multi-country study of meaningful connectivity.

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Quiz time

Fill in the blank: The existing measure used to calculate whether someone has basic internet access counts any internet use in the last _____.

Meaningful connectivity changes people from consumers of informaton into full participants in our digital world. It can mean the difference between access to education, banking, healthcare—or none of them.

Sonia Jorge, Executive Director, Alliance for Affordable Internet | via A4AI

Meaningful connectivity, in numbers

2 of 3: Globally, while 2 in 3 people are now considered to have basic access, billions lack the quality of access they need to make the most of the internet and for connectivity to transform societies (ITU/A4AI)

1 of 10: Only around 1 of every 10 people across 9 low and middle income countries studied have meaningful connectivity, compared to over 4 of every 10 people with basic access (A4AI)

One third: People with meaningful internet connectivity are around a third more likely to do essential activities online, like take a class or access healthcare (A4AI)

1 of 160: In Rwanda, 1 of every 5 people have basic access, but less than 1 of every 160 Rwandans have meaningful connectivity (A4AI)

267 percent: The rural meaningful connectivity gap in Rwanda is 267 percent — meaning that Rwanda’s digital economy would need to grow another 2.5 times over exclusively in meaningfully connecting rural communities to close the urban/rural digital divide (A4AI)

Read the report | Share the report

Even in these short moments, I have seen kids become more confident, more independent. They are full of ideas. They want to make their lives better, and through the internet they are learning that there is a world to explore and be part of. I just want the door to the world to stay open for them.

Christinah Ngoy, Facilitator, Timbuktu in the Valley | via A4AI

Palesa Ramolefo, a South African activist, explains what meaningful connectivity means to her.

We need to do better. And that’s about closing gaps that exist throughout the world, providing meaningful connectivity to more people, and building the foundtions for inclusive and resilient digital economies throughout the globe.

Teddy Woodhouse, Senior Research Manager, A4AI | via A4AI

The power of meaningful connectivity

As the world grappled with the public health demands of Covid-19 stay at home orders, huge parts of human life moved online. Whereas it was once an optional luxury, internet access became a crucial way to learn, to bank, to access healthcare, and to stay informed.

But the digital divide now is no longer just about who’s online and offline. Billions lack the quality of access they need to make the most of the internet. These stories illustrate the impact meaningful connectivity can have on society, and why it should be the new target for internet access across the globe.

Christinah Ngoy, 22, is a facilitator at Timbuktu in the Valley, a skills development space for children living in some of Johannesburg’s most impoverished inner-city neighbourhoods.

Read Christinah’s story.

Palesa Ramolefo is 25 years old and is an activist working with Amandla.Mobi, a campaigning organisation based in South Africa. She was also one of the campaigners behind the #DataMustFall campaign in South Africa.

Read Palesa’s story.

Melissa and Sizanenhle, both aged 10, attend the aftercare sessions at Timbuktu in the Valley, a skills development project in Johannesburg.

Read their story.

Share their stories

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