This impact story was written by Tope Ogundipe as part of the 2019 Affordability Report, which was published on October 22. Illustration by Neema Iyer.
Pseudonyms are used for the names of people and most places to protect participants’ identities.
Ruth has worked in Lagos, Nigeria, as a domestic worker since 2017. She does not earn up to the current Federal minimum wage. She cannot afford to spend 2% of her income consistently on data. “I send money home.” She said with an uneasy smile. “Once, when it was very hard, I even had to sell my phone. But at that time, I only knew about Facebook and 2Go. I didn’t know of anything else including WhatsApp or Google.”
In March 2018, the Nigerian Twitter community was awash with the #MakeDataCheaper campaign. Shortly after this, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s 2018 Inclusive Internet Index ranked Nigeria number one in Internet affordability in Africa and 17th globally. Many Nigerians had a difficult time accepting this claim. While the debate goes on, Ruth, a young woman fleeing the crisis in Northern Nigeria and desperate for opportunities still finds that the internet is neither affordable nor available to her in 2019.
In the village where Ruth spent most of her growing years, networks and basic infrastructure to support internet connectivity are not readily available. At the time that Ruth’s family returned to the village in 2006, there had been no electricity in the village. Electrification had begun by the time Ruth left the village in 2012. However, for months at a time, there could be no electricity, especially during the rainy season. As recently as July 2019, a community in Ruth’s home state petitioned the ‘Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related offenses Commission,’ (ICPC) over an abandoned electrification project in their area believed to be part of the federal government’s constituency projects between 2015 and 2019.
Nigeria has a population of nearly 200 million people, half of whom live in rural areas. According to the 2016 World Bank collection of development indicators, compiled from officially recognized sources, the rural population in Nigeria was reported at 51.4%. Thanks to the low cost and long-range of the cellular base stations, some rural areas in Nigeria receive some cell phone coverage. However, this does not always translate into inclusion. According to the publication ‘African Women and ICTs: Investigating Gender, Technology and Empowerment’ gender disparity is very easily observable in the ownership of, access to and use of mobile phones in Northern Nigeria. Interestingly, Ruth’s community was one of the 13 studied in the research which used a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods to reflect on how rural women in Northern Nigeria use cell phones to meet their communication needs. Women who live in Ruth’s community were said to be at a particular disadvantage in the digital world, facing multiple barriers relating to both gender and location. Apart from education and affordability, the challenges of managing a rural household create a heavy daily workload for women and girls, leaving them with hardly any spare time to become familiar with new technologies.
Ruth has had an unfair share of this type of workload from the young age of ten when she became orphaned and began working with households and businesses as a domestic servant. She had initially moved around the country with her family as a little girl while her father worked with the Nigerian Police Force. Her earliest childhood memories were formed in Port Harcourt city. However, in Grade 4, Ruth and her family had to return to the village. Her mother had died years before and her father had become too ill to continue working with the force, eventually losing her father too. Since then, Ruth worked as a domestic worker in homes, desperate to earn money so she could pay her way through school. “My brother stopped school but not me. I worked in the mornings and went to school in the evenings. I paid my own school fees from JSS1 (Grade 7). This was before our village became too dangerous to live in. I had no phone or knowledge of the internet in those days.”
MTN, south-Africa based GSM operator and leader of the Nigerian mobile market, established a base station in Kafachan in 2005, just before Ruth had returned to the village with her family. This led to an explosion in the use of mobile phones but not access that was meaningful for many rural dwellers, especially women or girls. “The phones were very expensive at that time. My father got a feature phone but not anyone else in our family. Again, there was very poor signal coverage in the village and high tariff on calls so getting connected was quite difficult and you can get charged even when you do not succeed in getting connected. Also, not many people are educated in the village so sending text messages was also a problem.” There is improved awareness now and more people can afford phones, but Ruth maintains that signal coverage in the village is very poor. “More people have smartphones in the village and are becoming aware about the internet but not many are using the internet. I hardly go on social media in the village because there is no use buying expensive data for that. Using data drains the battery quickly, and there is hardly any electricity, so I want to conserve battery-life on my phone as much as possible.”
The Nigerian telecommunications market is fully liberalized, highly competitive, and has evolved over time. A wide range of regulatory initiatives have been undertaken to open up the market to private operators to provide products and services across the entire spectrum of ICT market segments but it is doubtful that this alone has translated into internet penetration in the way that we often view it. There is no nationally collected sex-disaggregated ICT data to show patterns of access and use for women and girls. However, research does reveal that the gender gap in ICTs is widening, and we are leaving some of those least likely to adopt, such as Ruth, behind.
Today, Ruth lives in Lagos. She left the village following the violent ethnoreligious crises which took place in her community in the wake of the 2011 presidential elections. Kaduna State has been embroiled in conflict for decades. Ruth was used to living somewhat on the edge. However, in 2011, following the announcement of the result of the presidential election, violent conflict broke out in her community. She was taken to Abuja by a relative where she continued to work as a domestic worker. She worked with three families in Abuja before leaving for Lagos. “In one of the families I worked with, my Madam liked me and gave me a phone. Though I did not have a lot of time to spend on the phone, I would access Facebook through the free mode and connect with my brothers back home and meet new people. It made me forget my sorrows.” Ruth recounts. This was around the time that Facebook Free Basics was launched in Nigeria, and it became the first online experience for many, including Ruth. It was launched in partnership with Airtel so Ruth got a line with them. Since then, she has become more enlightened about the internet. She has gone beyond Facebook to browse other sites on the free basics, especially job and news sites. But she is not satisfied with her experience. “I would prefer unlimited data, even for a day, than to use Facebook Free Basics or buy 1GB for N200 but being limited to a week. That is all I can afford now. But I need more than that to complete my school assignments sometimes. Airtel network can be poor so I also have a MTN line, and MTN also has some cheap data bundles which I can use for urgent schoolwork or to search for other information. I also have a Globacom line but I do not use it often. I use it for free basics sometimes because I can view pictures using the free basics on the Globacom network.”
99% of internet connections in Nigeria are via mobile. There has been no serious fixed-line competition (in voice, data or internet provision) to mobile companies. The fixed sector has been experiencing a persistent downward slide, while the mobile networks have at times been overloaded with voice and internet traﬃc. Consumer pressure on mobile networks often creates significant problems with the quality of service. The vacuum could have been filled through fixed networks but the regulation of the sector has not been eﬀective.
Ruth met a family in Lagos who sent her to a ‘digital readiness school’ where she was introduced to skills like Microsoft productivity tools, graphic design, web development, and digital marketing. The family also supported her during her entrance exams into one of the nation’s foremost Federal College of Technology. Ruth is currently in Year 1 studying Mass Communication. It is a new exciting experience but Ruth still continues to face severe limitations: “I wish I had access to the internet in my school but I do not. If there was a public access point in my school or close to my school, I would go there to study.” Ruth has worked for two homes since she arrived in Lagos. She has her own mobile phone now but there are other limitations related to costs, quality of network, and access to devices (laptop or desktop). It would seem that while the policies of the Nigerian Communications Commission are driving market competition and innovation among the mobile network operators, there have been implications for quality of access as the firms compete on price for market share, an abandonment of universal service obligations, as well as a downward trend in computer and fixed broadband penetration. Ruth did not own her mobile phone until 2015, and she used the computer for the first time in the same year. She asserts that there has been no good connection provided by alternative mobile network operators in the village until now. Ruth has never used fixed bandwidth but accessed public wifi for the first time at digital readiness school in Lagos in 2017.
Ruth now clutches a Techno W2 phone, and once she has a moment to herself, she is on it. “It helps me escape.” She explained with a nervous smile. “What would you do on the internet if you have unlimited access for one day or a week?” we asked. Her smile brightened. “I will use it to search for jobs. I am trying to stop domestic work and do something else. I will search on Google about job interviews and how to answers questions. I will also download music and videos.” she finished with a shy giggle. Although budget smartphones (e.g iTel, Infinix and Tecno) have indeed made it more affordable to ramp onto the internet and internet uptake appears strong in Nigeria, market experiences of the most marginalized, such as those living in conflict zones or domestic workers like Ruth are often uncaptured in market surveys or analysis, as selection probabilities often leave them out. There is a need for a more holistic approach to regulation to encourage deeper penetration and usage of the entire range of ICT services. Policies that will fix the existing gaps in digital inclusion for Nigeria will address more than the market entry in the telecommunications sector. It will focus on solutions including affordable technologies, resolving the infrastructural challenges, and driving community networks.
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