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Coronavirus pandemic underscores Africa's digital divide as schools move online

Pandemic underscores Africa's digital divide
Pandemic underscores Africa's digital divide 03:40

Johannesburg - As coronavirus lockdowns force millions of young people around the world to adapt to online learning, access to the internet has become one of the biggest challenges in the world's poorer communities.

Dimakatso Masipa is in her final year of school in South Africa's Diepsloot township. Orphaned two years ago and living with her brother in one of Johannesburg's poorest townships with no electricity, Masipa is a bright young girl who's overcome incredible odds to get as far as she has.

With her school closed, she has moved to online learning. Her limited social grant now has to cover meals the school provided, so there's not much left to buy data to study. 

"If you don't have electricity, your phone is off and then you won't be able to go to social media and apply or get homework from teachers," she said. 

Dimakatso Masipa is struggling to adapt to online learning, because she doesn't have electricity. CBS News

It's a problem facing millions across the African continent.

"There are approximately 250 million students that are sheltering in place or quarantined or under emergency orders or just can't be in classrooms," said the head of the Open Society Foundation and Former US Ambassador to South Africa Patrick Gaspard.

But there is a silver lining.  Kenya has invested heavily in reliable broadband, ensuring thousands of students can go online in ways that were impossible a decade ago. 

Old technology like radio is also being repurposed for broadcasting lessons in many African countries. That includes Burkina Faso, where just two months ago, children were practicing crawling under their desks during an anti-terrorism drill at school. Now, some are hiding from the coronavirus by staying indoors and learning via radio. 

A boy in Burkina Faso uses a radio to learn amid the coronavirus pandemic.  UNICEF

It's innovative ideas like these that have experts believing the virus could be a watershed moment for the continent that accelerates remote learning.

"You can get it on your mobile phone.  You know someone today in a rural village in Africa has access to more information on this device than someone who was doing a PhD at Oxford 30 years ago," said Fred Swaniker, chairman of the African Leadership Group. "And so there's a lot of possibilities for learning, but we've been stuck in traditional ways and been resisting innovation."

But right now, for young girls like Dimakatso Masipa, a brick and mortar school is still the only way she can access lessons.    
"I want to succeed, I want to have money, I want to have my own place," she said. "I want to live in a place where there's electricity and I want to help other people, too, to get out of here."

Education is the key to realizing that dream — a dream deferred until the lockdown is over. But there's now a concern that schoolchildren on the continent have lost so many weeks of learning that it could result in them losing an entire year of education. 

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