Q&A  | 

Nnenna Nwakanma

“50% of the global population online means 50% is still offline”

Tags: 'Digital gap' 'Inequality' 'universal access'


Nnenna Nwakanma is a specialist in open data, free software and e-government. She is currently Acting Policy Director of the World Wide Web Foundation, where she has worked since 2013 to promote open data, open government and the open web across Africa. Nnenna has driven forward several projects on this continent (Africa Data Consensus, Africa Open Data Network, Africa Open Data Conference and African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms) and has represented the Foundation in a number of international forums, including the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. In 2016, she headed TechMousso, the Foundation’s first gender data project, which brought together the data and tech communities with women’s rights organisations to tackle gender challenges in Côte d’Ivoire.

Throughout her career, Nnenna has worked closely with many civil society organisations, such as the African Development Bank and the Digital Solidarity Fund, and has been involved in different phases of the UN’s African Information Society Initiative. She has over 15 years of experience working with the UN in areas such as information society, gender and digital equality. In 2018 Nnenna was chosen by Apolitical as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in the area of digital government.

Where do you see the biggest problem areas when it comes to the digital divide, in terms of location as well as demographics?

Demographics follow what the world is now. Decreases in Europe and North America and can mean increases in Asia and Africa. So, in terms of demographics, the biggest countries from Asia and Africa are the next markets of the digital world.

However, I still think that most of the technologies we use are still being developed by middle aged white males from Silicon Valley and northern Europe. And this will keep widening the social divide.

If you have the person who is designing the technology-based in San Francisco, who drives a smart car, who hangs out in certain places, male, middle-aged…he has his perspectives in life. And these middle-aged white men are developing technology for rural African women. This person has never used a pitch toilet before, has always had hot water in the bathroom, or has always had a coffee machine. He does not know how to gather or what it is to trek two kilometres just to fetch water to drink. So he does not understand the daily dynamics of the women in Niger or in Côte d’Ivoire, or in Ghana. In that way, I am afraid that current technology trends only show that we are deepening the divide. In fact, even inside countries, we still have big digital divides between men and women. Between young people and old people, between those who are physically able and those who are physically challenged. So we must be very careful, otherwise, we are deepening the divide. I haven’t seen us as a world engaged in policies and design to be inclusive in our technology design.

Given the rapid pace of digitalisation we experience today, how do you see the digital divide evolving for those who are at different ends of the spectrum?

The cost of cell phones, for example. There was a time when we said, “Soon, cell phones will be sold for 20 dollars!” and this hasn’t happened. We still have cell phones which are being launched costing a thousand dollars. You are creating apps for smartphones alone, and we have to keep in mind that only 50% of the world’s population is online. From the global population, what is the percentage that will be able to afford 800 USD cell phones, with all the capacities that we have?

What is happening is that we are rolling out products for the same people that we know and we are forgetting those at the end of the spectrum.

We are forgetting those who don’t have access to the Internet, we are forgetting 50% who live in rural areas, who may not even have electricity. So, as much as we are happy about electric cars, how about those who haven’t even seen electricity? We need to ask ourselves these questions: Are we being responsible? Is our technology taking into consideration human rights? Is our technology favourable to women and to old people, and to people who are physically challenged? Are we respectful of data privacy? Are we doing good or are we doing harm with technology? Those are the principles that Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web Foundation have put together in the Contract for the Web.

Once access is provided, what is the biggest challenge low-income groups face?

It is very easy to think: “Oh, now that you have an Internet connection, you are fine”. The general systems in life still apply. If you live in a rural area in Côte d’Ivoire and you produce coffee and cocoa and you use your cellphone to find out the price of coffee and cocoa, but you don’t have the power to change it, so what? It is still the same thing. You may be able to know the budget of the country, but you don’t have any power to affect it and you can’t ask questions. We work in something called data empowerment: we don’t just want people to be consumers, we want them to use connectivity to empower themselves, to ask questions and get answers. Of what use is it, if you are given the opportunity to speak, but then they leave you in a room alone and they ask you to speak, but nobody is listening to you?

The opportunity to connect becomes meaningful when it extends your well being, your rights, your benefits, and gives you power to do things. We do not just want to connect for the sake of connecting; we want meaningful participation, we want accountability, we want our rights to be protected and promoted, we don’t want to be abused online.

Of what use is it, if a woman finally gets online and then she shares a photo and the next thing you see is that people are saying: “Your lipstick is too loud”, “Your dress is not beautiful”, and then the first time she puts food online, all they do is criticize her? She will just withdraw. Many women don’t use their internet connection, because they don’t have money to connect. But when they do have it, they don’t use it because they are afraid of people attacking them online, because of violence. So a woman gets online and complains about something, and then, men just come and attack her and they withdraw. Those who get online have better opportunities, meaningful opportunities for themselves.

Inequalities deepen when technology solutions are not easily modified for local contexts. How can we make the internet more inclusive?

First of all, I come back to REACT. Every government needs to understand that connecting to the internet is a right for all citizens. Their work toward implementing that policy is very important.

Then, we need to educate people: those who are creating solutions, women, and everyone to know about the dangers and opportunities of the Internet. This is very important because everybody has a part to play, whether you are government or civil society, whether you are an individual user, whether you are a private organisation, you work together on it.

The other thing is to drop the price. “One for two” is a simple policy principle: one GB of data should not cost 2% of your average income. Did you know that some people need to pay up to 10% of their average income to get one GB of data? There is something else that is very important: the cost of devices. We don’t normally talk about it, but tax on devices means that even buying a phone becomes a problem. When phones cost 200-300 USD, and someone has to save three months of income to buy a phone, that is not right.

We need to talk about laws: technology alone doesn’t solve any problem, but humans, we do solve problems. If I go online to buy something, I pay for it, and they don’t deliver. What happens? Where do I go? How should I solve my problem? We need laws that give us a safe framework for e-commerce, for cybersecurity, for protection of personal data.

There is the data about you that is used to target ads at you. Once you start checking out baby materials, the algorithms take it for granted that you are pregnant, and then they start sending you advertisements on baby materials. And they would do that for the next nine months because the algorithm has found a pregnant woman. It is very important that your data is respected and that if you go online on a website and put your data, they are not going to take that data and sell it to another company that will sell it to another company, etc. We need an internet that is secure, we need to feel secure online. If we begin an Internet of fear, whether from data being misused or from governments pursuing us, there is going to be a problem.



We also need to talk about internet shutdowns. Countries of some governments still shut down the Internet. And someone like me, who lives in West Africa and works with people from all over the world, wouldn’t have a job if you shut down the Internet. If you shut down the internet, banks can’t do their job, we can’t buy tickets or sell online. A lot of us go to school online, so when the Internet shuts down, that comes to a standstill. Governments are trying to find reasons to shut down the internet, and every time this happens, it shows how we are not well managed. We have a campaign called #keepiton. You have to keep the internet on because a lot of things depend on the internet.

Existing gender inequality translates into the digital space. What are the most significant barriers to increasing adoption of ICTs among women?

That’s something I am passionate about. I am not a developer, I was trained in international relations, in law, in linguistics and in history. So I am a development person, I am not a technological person. But you know what? That is one of the things that women need to hear: you don’t need to know how to code to make a career in technology. We used to tell women that they needed to be an engineer, a coder or a programmer to have a career in technology. It is a lie. We need policy people, illustrators, make-up artists, stylists, marketers. We need people who can speak well, translators, linguists… all of these people have a place in technology. So if you are a woman listening to me now, saying: “I don’t know how to code, I am not a geek”, but you are yourself, we need you. I need you to be able to speak, to lead, to test what technologies have done. I need you to translate, to teach children, even if all you know is how to do spreadsheets and documents, someone else can benefit from it.

Every woman has a space in technology.

Do you know the first thing I did when I got online? I checked football clubs, because I am a football fan. So, there are many things you can do and bring to technology: you can share your story, connect with other women, speak to them, sell, there are so many things you can do. We need more women in technology.

In what ways could increasing digital inclusion among women help in a broader social, political, and economic sense on a global scale?

When I say “My name is Nnenna and I come from the Internet,” it is because people have helped me. One woman helps to encourage other women, so we need women in technology so others can look up to them. I work for the World Wide Web Foundation and most of my work is done online. So, there are livelihoods to be made by going online. My sister has created a business and most of the work she does is online. There is money to be made online. When we talk about the richest people in the world, where are the women? Have you noticed that the richest companies now are technology companies? How much of it comes to women? Not much. So we need women to get into these positions and grab some money for themselves. We don’t want to keep seeing only men like Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma or Mark Zuckerberg. Where are the women in the technology industry?

We need women to make their own money, and to empower other women. There are quite a number of women who are working in the technology industry and they don’t have access to finances, because in the place where financial decisions are made, there are no women either.

Nobody can carry your message better than yourself. Nobody can talk about women better than women. We need women on boards and in finance committees, we need women in investment, and to be on juries. So when a woman is speaking, other women will understand. We need women to train other women to be able to do better themselves. But please, ladies, we need to educate ourselves. We need to get the skills needed to be at the place of decisions. The worst thing that can happen to us as women is that finally, they put you in that position and then you disappoint or don’t accomplish anything. So please, get the expertise needed and train yourself so that once the opportunity comes, you see it and make the best of it. I trust in myself and in every other woman because once you put your mind to something, you can do it. So do it.