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It is April 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc all across the World. Millions are getting infected, with deaths in the thousands across the globe. One of the most advocated approaches to combating the virus has been social distancing.
Social distancing is a term that describes the initiative to keep a distance of 1 to 2 meters between individuals, in public settings. At this juncture in the course of the pandemic, it is simply not adequately possible to effectively practice social distancing, with offices and shops operating normally.
In order for social distancing to be effective, governments and businesses have mandated that their employees stay at home, whilst only essential services are to continue operating normally, in what has come to be referred to as a lockdown. The mandate for a lockdown has various implications, which are affecting developing countries differently than developed countries in certain contexts.
Staying home for most developed nations has the option for people to actually work remotely from home by means of technology. This is not to say that everyone in developed nations has that option to do so, and neither is it to say that the option is not available to anyone in developing nations.
For developing nations, which describes the whole of Africa, technological penetration, especially the Internet, is quite low. And working from home is an impossible challenge for most. It is not only a matter of accessing the Internet, but also a matter of a limited number of people having the devices to use for effective remote work.
Remote work, which describes a working style that allows professionals to work outside of a traditional office environment, is based on the concept that work does not need to be done in a specific place, to be executed successfully.
Remote work is a style of work that I am well acquainted with, as I rarely work with clients and collaborators who are in the same physical location as myself. It has also become a goto style of work for most organisations during the Covid-19 pandemic.
During normal periods, before Covid-19 was an issue, organisations were already adopting various ways of leveraging remote work, either as the preferred mode of work, or only partially so.
Some organisations would have their employees come into the office once or twice a week or even three days a week, and the rest of the time they worked remotely. This mixed mode of remote and office work, is termed the Hybrid work model.
The great thing about remote work is that it does not, by comparison to work at the office, demand a lot of resources to get going. All one needs is a computer, mobile phone and a fairly strong Internet connection, aside from any other tools specific and necessary to the trade of the remote worker.
The most important thing when working remotely is communication. People working together need to communicate effectively with each other and collaborate well. There are a lot of software tools to facilitate communication and collaboration remotely, such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Git for software related organisations. What’s more, these tools are either freely available or fairly cheap.
As already mentioned, for remote work to be effective, the basic tools needed are a computer, mobile phone and a fairly strong internet connection. All these are resources that are deficient in most developing nations, and Africa in particular.
According to Internet World Stats, just over half a billion people have access to the Internet, in Africa in 2020. This accounts for roughly 40% of the population. We have to take note that Africa is a continent, and not a country, therefore the statistics vary greatly across countries.
For instance the internet penetration in South Africa stands at 55% of the population, whilst in South Sudan it stands at about 8% of the population in 2020, also according to Internet World Stats.
Internet access is a major hiccup for effective remote work in Africa, with very few having the privilege. The other factor, is the mode by which the majority of people are accessing the Internet in Africa. Most people accessing the Internet in Africa, do so using a mobile device exclusively.
For historical reasons, most Africans skipped the personal computer phase in accessing the Internet, in a process that is called leapfrogging. Since developed countries had access to the Internet earlier in the technological development landscape, before mobile devices came into their own on the Internet, they have had access to the Internet using personal computers, before adopting mobile access.
As much as accessing the Internet on mobile devices is common these days, productivity is not comparable to using a computer for work. It is just not the same, or as effective to work with a mobile device as the primary work device, when doing remote work. It is doable, but not ideal.
Due to the tech deficiencies discussed above for Africa, effective remote work is reserved for a privileged few. Only those with the means, and it’s a small proportion of the population, have the capacity to take up serious remote work during the pandemic.
At the beginning of the lockdown in Botswana, my neighbour came to me so that I can assist him with sending an important file for work. Since he does not have Wifi at home, he needed my assistance. His only Internet access is normally at work, or through mobile data on his phone when out of the office.
This is a theme that is common across Africa. According to Statista, the number of African households with Internet access at home has steadily risen from 3.7% in 2005, to 10% in 2019. Whilst this is a good development for Africa, long term growth of access has not been fast enough to adequately respond to the needs during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Essentially the Tech Deficiency means no working remotely for the majority of Africans during lockdown. This means that business and Government are essentially grinding to a halt during this difficult time, and this will have a huge economic impact for Africa for a long time to come.
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