Rwanda is among top four African countries that spend what is known as Universal Service and Access Funds (USAFs), a new study by Web Foundation, the Alliance for Affordable Internet and UN Women indicates.
These are communal funds that are established by different countries, which are dedicated to expanding connectivity opportunities to unserved and underserved communities.
They are typically financed through mandatory contributions by mobile network operators and other telecommunications providers.
A majority of African countries have a USAF in place that is collecting funds. At least 37 African countries (almost 70 per cent) have a USAF set up, and 62 per cent of these funds are considered active, but the research says that most governments are failing to spend the funds collected.
“In 2016, USAFs across Africa disbursed just 54 per cent of funds collected,” the report says, highlighting Rwanda, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Uganda as the only four countries in Africa that carried zero balance.
This means that the four countries put to good use the communal funds that were mobilised to expand internet connectivity.
The report, ‘Universal Service and Access Funds: An Untapped Resource to Close the Gender Digital Divide’, examines the existence and use of USAFs across Africa, and the extent to which these funds are being put to use to improve internet access and use among women.
Released this week at the 62nd UN Commission on the Status of Women, the study also calls on governments to invest at least 50 per cent of funds collected for expanding connectivity in projects targeting women’s internet access and use.
With an estimated US$408 million collected to expand internet access throughout Africa sitting dormant in public coffers, the report finds that many African governments are failing to take action to connect women and other offline populations, despite the existence of funds earmarked for this purpose.
The report warns that failure to utilise these funds, which are enough to bring 6 million women online, or to provide digital skills training to 16 million women and girls, risks widening global inequality and undermining global development.
“Few countries are focused on improving women’s internet access and use — despite the worsening digital gender gap. Just three of the 37 countries with USAFs have universal access policies guiding the USAF that explicitly aim to connect women and girls through the fund,” reads part of the statement.
Though nearly half the world is online today, close to four billion people remain unconnected. Just 22 per cent of the population in Africa is online, and the continent has the widest gap in internet use between men and women (25 per cent).
Similarly, information about USAF financing, programming, and disbursement is hard to find. Just 23 countries openly publish details on their USAF activities; even when they do publish these details, they can be hard to find and hard to understand, leaving citizens little power to hold the USAF to account, the study discloses.
Analysis in the report shows that in order to reduce the growing global gender gap in internet use, a gap which is widest in Africa, USAFs should boost investments in programmes that aim specifically to tackle obstacles to internet use and access faced by women.
Commenting on the report, Sonia Jorge, the Head of Digital Inclusion Programmes at the Web Foundation, called on governments to make use of available funds, as well as bring more women online
“We can’t reduce global inequality without closing the digital divide and online gender gap. We must act now to stop the online world from entrenching offline inequalities. We call on governments to make effective and timely use of available funds,” she said.
In Rwanda, a USAF operates as the Rwanda Universal Access Fund supporting different projects, and is managed by Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority (RURA).
Ghislain Nkeramugaba, the CEO of Rwanda Information & Communication Technology Association (RICTA), said that the firm benefited from the fund during its initial kick-off.
“The fund has been financing projects that are very important, but for which there are no viable business models like rural projects. RICTA benefitted from it at its start,” he said.