We live in an era where people can order food from their couches, conduct banking with facial recognition and even experience Machu Picchu through a VR headset. Such intimacy with technology has become even more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic, as social distancing measures have coerced changes to daily life. However, although many developed countries reap the benefits of technology, developing countries are often left behind. The digital divide is exacerbated by factors such as lack of access to financial resources, a poorly skilled population, and changing global demands.
At Tambourine Innovation Ventures (TIV), we are committed to closing the technology gap between developed and developing countries through projects promoting poverty alleviation, sustainable growth and technological innovation. Our company’s mission has been largely inspired by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, in particular, SDG 10: Reducing Inequalities. For example, whereas developed countries spend more on R&D expenditure, with GDP allocations of 4.81% in South Korea, 3.33% in Sweden and 2.83% in the US, developing countries, such as Colombia (0.24%) and Armenia (0.19%) spend nearly 10-fold less, and in the most dire cases, 100-fold less, such as war-torn Iraq (0.043%)1. This is concerning, as R&D not only correlates with the economic health of a country, but also impacts the physical health, as evidenced by the trickle down effects of technology and human capital on a nation’s COVID-19 response. For example, digital technology has been essential to developing effective monitoring, communication and even treatments towards combatting COVID-19 (Figure 12 ).
Technological divides also impact social spheres. According to the World Economic Forum, more than 40% of skills required for the workforce of the future will change by 2022 and 65 % of children will work in a job that does not exist yet.3 COVID-19 has demonstrated a preview of job transformation, as the lockdowns affected 2.7 billion workers4 worldwide, with the hardest hit populations being those in informal employment and vocational occupations5. In contrast, companies with more skilled workforces, particularly in software engineering and IT, pivoted to remote work quite rapidly from the onset.6 7
Accordingly, one of TIV’s major efforts has been a collaborative study with the African Development Bank, Research ICT Africa and the Technopolis Group on unlocking the Potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa, which evaluates the role of digital innovation towards improving Africa’s future. For African countries to benefit from the spillover of internally produced or externally conferred technological increases, factors including elevated education levels, literacy rates and the necessary ICT infrastructure must be in place.8 Africa’s digital malnutrition in these domains has been evidenced through the implicit stress-test imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, as of 2019, it was estimated that Africans had 43% access to electricity as compared to the global rate of 87%.9 Worse still, a large barrier to technological advancement is the high cost of internet access. For example, according to A4AI, the average cost for just 1GB of data is 7.12% of an average African’s monthly salary,10 elevating to as high as 20% of an earner’s wages.11
The aforementioned disparities have been the driving force for much of our work at TIV. As we delve further into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is important that we support innovation in developing countries to keep pace with the technological demands of the digital era, or risk leaving them behind.
1World Bank (2018). Science & Technology Data: Research and Development Expenditure (%) of GDP. World Bank. https://data.worldbank.org/topic/science-and-technology
2Whitelaw, S., Mamas, M. Topol, E. & Van Spall, H. (2020). Applications of digital technology in COVID-19 pandemic planning and response. The Lancet. 2(8). E435-E440. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landig/article/PIIS2589-7500(20)30142-4/fulltext (Figure 1)
3World Economic Forum. (2018). The Future of Jobs Report. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-future-of-jobs-report-2018
481% of the world’s workforce
5International Labour Organization (2020). ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work: Updated estimates and analysis. International Labour Organization. https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_740877.pdf
6Baig, A., Hall, B., Jenkins, P., Lamarre, E. & McCarthy, B. (2020). The COVID-19 recovery will be digital: A plan for the first 90 days. McKinsey Digital. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/the-covid-19-recovery-will-be-digital-a-plan-for-the-first-90-days
7Elmasry, T., Benni, E., Patel, J. et al. (2016). Digital Middle East: Transforming the region in a leading digital economy. Digital McKinsey. https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/middle%20east%20and%20africa/digital%20middle%20east%20transforming%20the%20region%20into%20a%20leading%20digital%20economy/digital-middle-east-final-updated.ashx
8Falvey, R., Foster, N. & Greenaway, D. (2005). Relative Backwardness or Absorptive Capacity: How Does Knowledge Spill Over Across Borders? The University of Nottingham Series. Research Papers: Globalisation, Productivity and Technology. https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/gep/documents/papers/2005/05-07.pdf
9Patel, N. (2019). Figure of the week: Electricity access in Africa. Brookings: Africa in Focus. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2019/03/29/figure-of-the-week-electricity-access-in-africa/
10Alliance for Affordable Internet. (2019). 2019 Affordability Report. A4AI: Alliance for Affordable Internet. https://a4ai.org/affordability-report/report/2019/
11For example, the average price of internet in USD per 1GB is $27.41 in Malawi as compared to $0.09 in India — a difference of 30,000%. See https://www.visualcapitalist.com/cost-of-mobile-data-worldwide/