data must fall in Zimbabwedata must fall in Zimbabwe

A Report by ZNCJ.ORG

As of January 2023, social media users in Zimbabwe made up 9.1% of the total internet users. Internet users only increased by 2.1% between 2022 & 2023. For perspective, 10.75 million people DO NOT HAVE INTERNET or 65.2% of the population.

The high cost of data in Zimbabwe is a major barrier to internet access for low-income citizens and underprivileged communities in remote areas. The high cost of data has resulted in low internet penetration among the youth living in poverty, which has had a direct impact on their access to information and participation in democratic conversations. Data must fall for all citizens to have equitable access to the internet.

Youth participation in development programs which are accessible online is a digital right that must be afforded to every Zimbabwean. 

The increase in data tariffs is excluding low income citizens from accessing public information portals such as Judicial Services Commission (JSC) Integrated Electronic Case Management System and the National Social Security Authority (NSSA) online self service portal. These are two access points that must be accessible to every Zimbabwean citizen regardless of their socio-economic status.

The NSSA online portal is only used and accessible to upper-middle-class citizens who can afford data. Underprivileged citizens are burdened with traveling to NSSA offices for administrative services that could be accessed online. But that is not the case. 

The Integrated Electronic Case Management System was developed to ease the work of the courts, police, prisons, and correctional services which will also allow tracking of court cases to avoid clients going to court and following up. 

The Problem

Regrettably, the Zimbabwe Judicial Service Commission (JSC) recently digitized and only 6300 citizens have reportedly registered. 

The digitization of JSC has simplified the way citizens will interact with courts to such a point people from remote areas will not have to travel to provincial capitals to get administrative 0r clerical assistance.

Everyone will use the services of the courts in their lifetime. The digitization of JSC will tremendously cut travel costs and ultimately become a paperless system that will benefit the environment and the economy.

However, the reality is that the cost of data will remain a barrier for low-income citizens to experience digital services. 

It is an outright exclusion that digital innovations and services meant to benefit the public will only be accessible to upper-middle-class citizens and urbanites that benefit from infrastructure such as free Wi-Fi zones. 

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The lack of access to the internet also means that there is poor media coverage of community stories, which further limits the ability of young people to engage with their local communities and participate in decision-making processes. This is a direct violation of digital rights and regressive for democracy.

The recent increase in VAT (Value Added Tax) in Zimbabwe from 14.5 percent to 15 percent has directly affected access to digital resources by the public following the hike in telecommunications tariffs.

The heavy taxation on the ordinary citizen has seen telecommunications service providers increase the transfer of the burden to the consumers.

The major challenge is the infringement on digital rights to access affordable internet-which is a function of democracy.

Due to the increase in tariffs, Internet penetration in Zimbabwe will continue to deplete as more youths are unable to afford data.

To a greater extent, the non-participation of youths due to lack of access to the internet stifles freedom such as expression and free speech. 

The country ends up having a situation where a considerable number of youth from remote and rural areas are excluded from accessing information in real-time. 

For instance, arms of governments are directly issuing media statements on social media where anyone with access to the internet can access the information.

How to increase internet accessibility for low income citizens

Faced with the current situation of high data prices, government digitization programs can be solved through

  • Zero-rating public self service portals
  • Free internet for low-income citizens 
  • Free internet to underprivileged communities without telecoms infrastructure 

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By Richard Matthew Kawazi

Richard Kawazi is a media policy and tech enthusiast, also a multi award winning journalist with a keen interest in Experimental Media Development.