Towards an Accessible and Affordable Internet in Africa: Key Challenges Ahead

By Paul Kimumwe |

Over the last few years, Africa has experienced exponential growth in internet access spurred by mobile internet, which stood at 28% penetration  in 2020. However, internet access and affordability are still a major challenge for the majority of Africans, especially the rural poor, women, and persons with disabilities.

According to the State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2021, Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest coverage gap (those living in areas without mobile broadband coverage) at 19%, which is more than three times the global average. While internet access has become more affordable, particularly through mobile phones, costs are still high and unaffordable to many in the region, who remain offline.

A new brief by CIPESA explores some of the retrogressive measures that undermine citizens’ rights to access a reliable and affordable internet in Lesotho, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Some of these measures include digital taxation that has led to increases in internet costs, registration and licensing of online users that imposes high licensing fees and tough penalties, network disruptions including internet shutdowns that lead to inaccessibility of the internet, and the failure to provide enabling infrastructure that exacerbates the digital divide.

Many governments have been eager to increase their tax base, particularly from the telecommunications sector and over-the-top (OTT) services, which they claim are eating into the revenues of licensed operators. Several other governments have slapped taxes on mobile phone handsets and other devices. These costs are passed on to consumers, thereby raising the cost of owning and using a mobile phone and accessing the internet.

In addition, the lack of an enabling infrastructure, including lack of access to reliable electricity, has been a major hurdle to broadband adoption in many African countries. It is  estimated that 45% of Africans live farther than 10 kilometres from the network infrastructure essential for online education, finance and healthcare services.

Network disruptions including internet shutdowns, internet throttling and social media blockages have recently become endemic in several African countries, and present yet another hurdle. Governments have sometimes shut down or restricted access to the internet or to social media platforms in an attempt to limit or control conversations online and prevent mobilisation for potential pro-democracy protests. The disruptions have mostly been initiated around election times, public protests, and during national exams.

Various countries have also adopted the registration and licensing of online users on whom they impose high licensing fees and tough penalties. This has forced many online users to abandon their platforms due to the high costs and threats of prosecution. Many of those who are online routinely practice self-censorship for fear of attracting reprisals.

The lack of internet access requires immediate counter action by several countries especially given the overbearing effects of digital exclusion caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Countries with better access to online platforms for business and education are reaping faster economic rebounds compared to unconnected economies. The internet plays a vital role in the realisation of human development and facilitates the enjoyment of several human rights and freedoms, including the right to freedom of expression and information, the right to education, the right to assembly and association.

According to the brief, African governments need to recognise and nurture the true potential of the internet in driving inclusive economic growth and development, as well as digital transformation, especially in the post-Covid pandemic era. This calls for robust investments in internet infrastructure, digital literacy and refraining from taking actions that undermine the transformative potential of digital technologies.

See the full brief here.

CIPESA Working On Advancing Digital Inclusion for Persons With Disabilities in Africa

By Staff Writer |

Persons with disabilities have unique needs and have for long been disadvantaged, yet the more some African countries get digitally connected, the deeper the digital divide for this community seems to grow. Despite growth in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) penetration, a large section of persons with disabilities faces digital exclusion due to lack of access and affordability of the requisite ICT tools and equipment, and failure by telecommunication operators to provide information and services in disability-friendly formats.

While millions turned to technology and traditional media for information in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, critical messages about the disease that are disseminated by health authorities, telecom companies, and broadcasters were and still are not reaching persons with visual and hearing impairments.

In turn, the digital exclusion of persons with disabilities worsened with the Covid-19 pandemic yet the Covid-19 crisis rendered technology key to working, learning, political participation and the enjoyment of other rights. Yet few organisations, within and outside the digital rights movement, are pushing for greater ICT accessibility.

These gaps in access to information gaps are growing despite the International Disability Alliance (IDA) issuing key recommendations towards a disability-inclusive Covid-19 response, including the requirement that persons with disabilities must receive information about infection mitigating tips, public restriction plans, and the services offered, in a diversity of accessible formats with use of accessible technologies.

The Collaboration for International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), is working to raise the availability of information on ICT and disability in Africa by producing relevant evidence-based research; mainstreaming disability rights issues in conversations about technology access and digital rights; growing the capacity of diverse actors to research on and advocate for meaningful connectivity and digital accessibility, and engaging key actors such telecom companies and regional bodies.

What CIPESA is doing is quite powerful and empowering. The tool is excellent, it needs to be worked on as we’ve given our input in the meeting. Once that is done, reaching out and creating awareness about the tool will be more powerful, engaging such stakeholders such as government and other key stakeholders. Once it is out this is going to be a game-changer because for persons with disabilities, ICT makes the world go round … This has been one of the first meetings on ICT and disabilities, so it is an excellent move. – Erick Ngondi, United Disabled Persons of Kenya

Here are some of our blogs and in-depth research reports on technology and persons with disabilities in Africa.


  1. Why Access to Information on Covid-19 is Crucial to Persons with Disabilities in Africa
  2. Placing ICT Access for Persons with Disabilities at the Centre of Internet Rights Debate in Kenya
  3. CIPESA Submits Comments to Uganda Communications Commission on Improving Access to ICT for Persons With Disabilities
  4. Calling Out the African Union and Telecoms Associations to Prioritize ICT Access for Persons with Disabilities
  5. Vodacom Outshines MTN in Efforts to Serve Persons With Disabilities in South Africa
  6. People With Disabilities Left Out in ICT Jamboree
  7. Governments and Donors Urged to Advance ICT Access for Persons with Disabilities
  8. Telcos in Nigeria and Kenya Should Address Exclusion of Persons With Disabilities
  9. CIPESA Endorses GSMA Principles to Drive Digital Inclusion of Persons With Disabilities
  10. Fighting for plight of persons with disabilities

Research Reports

  1. Assessing the Barriers to Accessing ICT by People with Disability in Tanzania
  2. Assessing the Barriers to Accessing ICT by People with Disability in Uganda
  3. Assessing the Barriers to Accessing ICT by People with Disability in Kenya
  4. Removing Barriers to ICT Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities in  Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda which identified needed actions by government, regulators and communication companies.
  5. Access Denied: How Telecom Operators in Africa Are Failing Persons With Disabilities. CIPESA assessed 10 telecom companies in five countries (Botswana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda). Most of them – despite being long-established operators with a majority market share in their respective countries – were found to have failed to meet their obligations to provide information and services to persons with disabilities, in contravention of the companies’ obligations under national laws and the CRPD.

CIPESA made submission to the AUC, the ATU and EACO, drawing attention to these organisations’ obligation to protect and advance the rights of persons with disabilities in line with the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights; the CRPD; the Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled (the Marrakesh Treaty); the SDGs; and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Africa.

See an in-depth document about our work here.

Watch this insightful discussion on “The Role of the Media in Promoting Digital Rights for  Persons With Disabilities in Africa.

The Disproportionate Exclusion of Persons With Disabilities in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Evelyn Lirri |

For Persons with Disabilities, access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can be an enabler for social and economic inclusion. Yet across Africa, despite the various laws and policies that have been passed and adopted by countries, persons with disabilities continue to lag behind in terms of access and use of digital tools.

Barriers such as low levels of ICT skills, high illiteracy levels, poverty and the high cost of assistive technologies such as screen readers, screen magnification software, text readers, and speech input software, and digital inaccessibility of websites and mobile applications and services are shared across Sub-Saharan Africa. These barriers are often accompanied by limited clarity on what actions are being taken by states and companies to address these gaps.

The digital inclusion of marginalised and vulnerable communities was among the issues discussed at the September 2021 Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica). In a panel discussion titled Technology and Disability, various speakers noted that persons with disabilities continue to face numerous barriers that have prevented them from fully benefiting from the opportunities that technology enables, including access to crucial information and services such as education and health, civic engagement, and employment.

Speaking at the Forum, disability rights activist Clodoaldo Castiano from the Forum of Disabled Persons Organisation in Mozambique noted that despite the country being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), it has not set a specific agenda to enable ICT accessibility. The CRPD requires states to undertake measures which ensure that persons with disabilities have access to ICT, including assistive technologies and resources to realise the right to access.

“Although we have ratified the CRPD, the government has not been able to define a specific legal and policy agenda to address the obligations of the Convention,” said Castiano, adding that ICT accessibility for persons with disabilities also remains largely unregulated. He further added that although Mozambique has a Universal Access Fund, it does not include programmes that benefit persons with disabilities.

Some countries are, however, trying to put more effort into addressing the disability digital divide. Uganda’s State Minister for Disability Affairs, Hellen Grace Asamo, noted that the country has introduced a number of initiatives to support the promotion, inclusion and accessibility of ICT tools for persons with disabilities. In addition to laws such as the Persons with Disabilities Act, 2020 which recognise the rights of persons with disabilities, the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance has drafted the ICT and Disability Policy as an intervention to close gaps in the use of ICT by persons with disabilities.  Furthermore, the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) has made it a requirement for television stations to have sign language interpreters to facilitate access and inclusion of people with hearing impairment.

“In Uganda where we have 16 per cent of people living with a form of disability, it is critical that we have programmes that ensure they are not left out. We have made available access to Braille and we are working to ensure that all government Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) have sign language interpreters,” said the minister.

The discussion also noted that the Covid-19 pandemic had amplified the gaps in digital access for marginalised and vulnerable communities including persons with disabilities. This resonated with a CIPESA report, ‘Access Denied: How telcom operators in Africa are failing persons with disabilities’ which investigated how operators have made minimal efforts in addressing the needs of consumers who are also persons with disabilities.

Across the world, the pandemic forced many activities to go online which disproportionately affected persons with disabilities especially in developing countries where it only served to further alienate them from access to information, public health updates and online civic participation. In countries where data costs are high, the drop in economic activity also  served to further isolate the community from accessing the internet due to prohibitive costs.

Despite progressive legislative efforts in some countries, while a number of laws and policies have been enacted in various African countries to ensure access to services for persons with disabilities, their implementation continues to lag behind. This, coupled with the lack of awareness by persons with disabilities of their rights has made it difficult for them to demand for ICT-friendly and affordable services.

Robert Nkwangu, the Executive Director of the Uganda National Association of the Deaf, spoke to this issue.  “Majority of people with disabilities have not gone to school and many do not know their rights. Similarly, digital rights are not seen to them as a challenge because they don’t know,” he said. “We need to do more capacity building of members to give them a firm ground to demand for what is rightfully theirs.”

To address these challenges, participants at the Forum acknowledged that increased domestic funding by governments for digital innovations that support people with disabilities will be critical.  This echoes recommendations in a CIPESA report which called for the relevant government agencies such as communication regulators and consumer protection units to enforce legislation on accessible communication products and services. The report also called for more vigilance in enforcing implementation of national disability laws, codes of practice, consumer rights regulations, and ICT and disability policies. More vigilance is also needed in monitoring compliance to avoid empty claims when in reality products and services are still inaccessible.

Putting Digital Inclusion Data into Practice

By Prudence Nyamishana |

Trends in global digitalisation have seen strides in the use of technology as an enabler for economic growth, public discourse, service delivery, transparency and accountability, access to education and public health. However, alongside these advancements, there has remained a persistent digital access gap that predominantly affects Sub-Saharan Africa.

Further, it appears that even for those countries in the region with high levels of access to digital technologies, there remain inconsistencies at national level, including in policy formulation and practice, and the business ethics and human rights of mobile network operators, which potentially exacerbate digital exclusion.

According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), global 4G coverage stood at 84% in comparison to 44% in Africa  – the lowest across all regions. 

In 2020, four of Africa’s leading digital companies (Safaricom, Jumia, MTN, and Naspers) were ranked and scored on digital inclusion by the World Benchmarking Alliance (WBA)‘s Digital Inclusion Benchmark. These companies have business footprints in more than numerous countries in Africa.

The Digital Inclusion Benchmark results showed that commitment and contribution towards digital inclusion are highly uneven across industries in the digital sector. Clear and consistent support to improve digital skills is needed, especially for vulnerable and underrepresented groups.

These results echoed similar sentiment in the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) Access Denied report, which showed that several telecom companies in Sub-Saharan Africa have failed to meet their obligations to provide information and services to persons with disabilities.

Both the WBA Benchmark and the CIPESA report call for adjustments to how business should be conducted, with a higher priority placed on the often digitally excluded and underrepresented communities such as women and persons with disabilities.

As such, in June 2021, the WBA and CIPESA hosted a roundtable with stakeholders committed to advancing digital inclusion in the region. Additionally, the roundtable sought to help foster coordinated multi-stakeholder actions on digital inclusion that can help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Watch the Africa RoundTable on Digital Inclusion

Speaking at the roundtable, Andrew Rugege, the Africa regional director for the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), noted that Covid-19 had laid bare the realities that underpin global economics and made it evident that broadband and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) play a critical role in daily lives for the overall growth of national economies.

However, Michael Minges, a WBA Research Analyst, highlighted gaps in current internet access policy and structures that affect national economics and also impact digital inclusion and access. He pointed out the issue of scale, noting that many African countries have not yet built up their internet markets to make them attractive for international investors.

Onica Makwakwa, Head of Africa at the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), highlighted the role that state policies and regulations have to play in enabling digital access. She stated: “We need to have policies and regulations that make this [internet access] universal … It requires intentional actions.”

The shift from data to action was stressed by Lourdes Montenegro, the WBA Lead on Digital Sector Transformation, who noted that the data emerging from research initiatives such as by the WBA and CIPESA triggers thinking on what public policy actions are needed, including by think tanks and governments that need to work towards addressing digital inclusion gaps with evidence-backed data.

Indeed, narratives from the roundtable discussion including the need for more stakeholder collaborations were carried through to the September 2021 CIPESA-hosted Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2021 (FIFAfrica). Digital inclusion was one of the themes at FIFAfrica21, and multiple sessions at the Forum entailed discussion on why digital inclusion should be attained including for the benefit of increased public participation, countering misinformation, fighting online violence against women, supporting progressive online movements, and encouraging online diversity especially from the Global South. Thus, as the data in support of digital inclusion grows, so does the need to put this data into practice in policy formation, business strategy and digital rights advocacy.

Watch the different sessions from the Forum.

Date Extended: Applications Now Open for Round Five of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF)

Call for Proposals |

The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) is accepting proposals for the fifth round of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF).

In this round, ADRF seeks to support initiatives in various thematic areas including but not limited to:

  • Access and affordability
  • Access to Information
  • Cybercrime
  • Data protection and privacy
  • Digital economy
  • Digital Identity (ID)
  • Digital security
  • Diversity and inclusion
  • eGovernance
  • Freedom of expression
  • Hate speech
  • Innovation for democratic participation, transparency and accountability (civic and social tech)
  • Misinformation/Disinformation
  • Network disruptions
  • Strategic litigation
  • Surveillance
  • Technology and Covid-19

Grant amounts range between USD 1,000 and USD 20,000, depending on the need and scope of the proposed intervention. The ADRF strongly encourages cost-sharing. The grant period will not exceed 10 months. It is anticipated that around 15 grants will be awarded in this round.

Launched in April 2019, the ADRF supports organisations and networks to implement activities that advance digital rights in Africa, including advocacy, litigation, research, engagement in policy processes, movement building, digital literacy and digital security skills building. 

To-date, the Fund has awarded USD 418,000 to 33 initiatives across the continent. In the inaugural round of ADRF, initiatives with activities spanning 16 African countries received a total of USD 65,000. The second call for applications saw a total of USD 152,000 awarded to 14 initiatives that are advancing digital rights through various projects in 18 African countries. In its third round, the ADRF awarded USD 138,000 to 11 initiatives responding to the digital rights fallout from the fight against the coronavirus disease (Covid-19). The most recent and fourth round awarded USD 63,000 to eight current or previous grantees to deploy six-months policy advocacy campaigns that further the conversation on internet freedom in Africa. 

Grantees have also received technical and institutional capacity building support to further enhance their digital rights efforts and ensure sustainability. In this regard, CIPESA partnered with the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) for capacity building support in impact communications. CIPESA also partnered with Data4Change on data literacy and advocacy support.

Application Guidelines

Geographical Coverage

ADRF is open to organisations/networks based and/or operational in Africa and with interventions covering any country on the continent.

Size of Grants

Grant size shall range from US$1,000 to US$20,000. Cost sharing is strongly encouraged.

Eligible Activities

The activities that are eligible for funding are those that protect and advance digital rights. These may include but are not limited to research, advocacy, engagement in policy processes, litigation, digital literacy and digital security skills building.


The grant funding shall be for a period not exceeding 10 months.

Eligibility Requirements

  • The Fund is open to organisations and coalitions working to advance digital rights in Africa. This includes but is not limited to human rights defenders, media, activists, think tanks, legal aid groups, and tech hubs. Entities working on women’s rights, or with youths, sexual minorities, refugees, and persons with disabilities are strongly encouraged to apply.
  • The initiatives to be funded will preferably have formal registration in an African country, but in some circumstances organisations and coalitions that do not have formal registration may be considered. Such organisations need to show evidence that they are operational in a particular African country or countries.
  • The activities to be funded must be in/on an African country or countries.

Ineligible Activities

  • The Fund shall not fund any activity that does not directly advance digital rights.
  • The Fund will not support travel to attend conferences or workshops, except in exceptional circumstances where such travel is directly linked to an activity that is eligible.
  • Reimbursements for costs that have already been incurred.
  • The Fund shall not provide scholarships.


The Fund is administered by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). An internal and external panel of experts will make decisions on beneficiaries based on the following criteria:

  • If the proposed intervention fits within the Fund’s digital rights priorities.
  • The relevance to the given context/country.
  • Commitment and experience of the applicant in advancing digital rights.
  • Potential impact of the intervention on digital rights policies or practices.

The deadline for submissions is now Friday June 25, 2021.  The application form can be accessed here.