Though Internet access is expanding rapidly in Zimbabwe its impact is limited by lack of local content presented in formats that are useful to and easily digestible by Zimbabwean Internet users. It is imperative that Zimbabwe’s Internet space needs a jump-start of locally relevant content. Question is how could that work? And the best place to start is with Zimbabweans themselves.
The high premium that Zimbabweans place on social connectedness as evidenced by extended family and community networks can provide insight on how to build a content ecosystem that promotes rapid uptake and effective use of the Internet.
A key aspect of social relationships is that they contain information potential or the capability to provide members with information in the utility maximization process. The information that is exchanged through social relationships is a form of capital that facilitates engagement. Social capital fosters reciprocity, coordination, communication, and collaboration.
Social capital can provide a theoretical framework to build a content ecosystem that will facilitate the utility of the Internet in Zimbabwe. A localized understanding of the nature of knowledge and meaning creation is critical to prototyping a content ecosystem that encourages online engagement and connectedness. Elements that fuel offline connections and communities can be successfully harnessed and replicated in an online environment.
Over the past decade, Internet connectivity has undergone a rapid expansion in Zimbabwe but the utility of the medium is limited mainly due to a lack of locally relevant content that is key to building online engagement.
In 2004, there were 400,000 Internet users in Zimbabwe, while in 2015 nearly 5,2 million people or 40 per cent of the population are said to have some kind of access to the Internet, mainly via mobile phones. A combination of factors including growth in mobile telephony, the introduction of 3G, 4G and EDGE technology, connection to transatlantic cables, and the installation of a fiber optic network among others have seen a rise in Internet connectivity.
Despite the rise of Internet connectivity, the quantity and quality of information relevant to Zimbabwean Internet users is minimal thus diminishing the impact of the Internet on people’s lives and livelihoods. Though policymakers express enthusiasm for the Internet as a tool that can facilitate development, the current trajectory of the Internet in Zimbabwe falls short in ameliorating high levels of information poverty.
Apart from the lack of locally relevant content, the Internet is still largely an elitist, urban phenomenon. Access in rural areas lags behind due to infrastructural challenges but a technological solution alone will not resolve the paucity of local content.
Simply putting information on the Internet will not result in an automatic use of the medium. What is required at policy and practice levels is seeing information as something that is situated within people’s worldviews. A citizen-and service centered approach, beginning with a needs analysis: what are the needs, who for, how to produce solutions, where the services must be delivered and how they can be accessed can be a starting point for real digital inclusion in Zimbabwe.
It has been projected that, if built on the right foundations, the internet could contribute as much as $300 billion a year to Africa’s GDP by 2025 transforming sectors as diverse as agriculture, retail, and health care.
One of the key foundations to make the Internet contribute to socio-economic growth in Zimbabwe is content. Content drives the Internet; it is a form of currency. Information that is packaged and presented as content facilitates exchange, engagement and connectedness.
The definition of the term currency is anything that is used as a medium of exchange. Content acts as that catalyst because it brokers an exchange between people with similar interests and goals.
Content refers to documents, data, applications, e-services, images, audio and video files, personal Web pages that facilitate user engagement on the Internet.
The lack of locally relevant content is an impediment to the growth and usefulness of the Internet in Zimbabwe. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) acknowledges that developmental plans for local content at national levels are required. Such plans for developing local content will cover all areas that use ICTs: agriculture, health, education, culture, commerce and public administration (ITU 2013).