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Literacy in Africa: The internet is closing the gap

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“Let us remember: One book, one pen, one child and one teacher can change the world.” – Malala Yousafzai

When it comes to literacy in Africa, in my opinion, there are three facts to consider. First, increased literacy in youths and adults has the power to change our continent as has been identified – as a goal – by the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is directly connected to our capacity to solve our own problems from healthcare to the economy, promote sustainable development, build human capital, and productive societies.

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Second, literacy is not yet equitable, inclusive, and freely accessible to all, due to a number of infrastructural and policy challenges. As such the continent lags behind, at roughly 70%, according to the African Union, compared to the rest of the world in literacy rates, which is at 90%.

Third, access to technology and the internet is critical to closing the gap between increased literacy rates and the challenges in the way. The continent’s young population, Who has shown a relentless digital savviness, is ready. Over the last few years, at Google, we have matched the can-do spirit and aggressive uptake of the internet by Africa’s young people, with the opportunity to maximize this resource, to accelerate learning and literacy. Our goal is not just to help people read and write. We are committed to building information literacy, media literacy, digital literacy as well. It is increasingly clear that in today’s world, the ability to read and write is a means and not an end. Being able to think and analyse critically, parse and evaluate information, access and create media, develop effective communication skills, being creative and solutions-minded; all form part of literacy. And so, the results are in. From the young student to the middle-aged entrepreneur, the internet is the not-so-secret, key ingredient to accomplished learning, self-development. The solution is quite literally in their hands.

The barriers to literacy are being undone, steadily, surely. Permit me to share the story of William, Tochukwu, and Amanda, three young children under the ages of 12 in Nigeria. All three are enrolled in schools, already on the path to learning and gaining the necessary skills to make a life for themselves and contribute to society. But they all experience reading challenges. Their school contexts have proven insufficient in providing the tools they need to overcome these challenges. In William’s case, his parents changed his school four times. The desired improvement did not materialise. During the lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, his mother discovered Read-Along by Google, a verbal and visual reading app for children that employs speech recognition technology and is designed to make reading interactive and entertaining. Through using Read-Along, William’s ability to read increased significantly. So did Tochukwu and Amanda’s. It turned out to be the educational supplement and intervention they needed to overcome reading challenges. So far, children in Sub-Saharan Africa have correctly read more than 10 million words since the app launch was launched in 2019.

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This tool has proven particularly helpful as global school closures further widen the gaps in education on the continent. According to the UN, prior to the pandemic, sub-Saharan Africa had 47% of the world out of school children. The gap further widened to disheartening proportions due to COVID-19. Currently, 90% of children are out of school globally, due to the closures. We have also set our sights on preparing Africans for the future of work via our Grow with Google programs including Digital Skills for Africa and CS First and our developer scholarships. This is in line with our commitment to training 10 million Africans on digital skills. So far, we have trained over 5million people with 60% of them reporting impact on jobs, growing their careers, and growing their businesses, across diverse sectors. Beyond reading and writing, building skills for the future of work, young Africans are also able to learn on a day to day basis through apps available on the Play Store and products like YouTube and Youtube Kids. Africans can now learn new languages, participate in mind sharpening challenges, upgrade and expand competence, in photography, graphic design, coding; learn how to manage programs; gain confidence in decision-making; and other skills that serve them in their daily life and advancement.

It must be pointed out that alongside the aforementioned benefits that the internet and access to technology providers, it also helps address the social and cultural challenges associated with traditional learning methods.

Currently, there are gender disparities in literacy rates with women lagging behind. Further, there are also disparities between literacy rates amongst adults and youths. Technology has proven to be an enabler in providing solutions that reverse these statistics. With more people unhindered, partaking in learning and skills development, the literacy rate further improves for all, and the odds for transformation increase. Google is resolute in its partnership with the stakeholders on the continent, working towards the goal of a more empowered, more literate Africa. The goal is well within our collective grasp. Once upon a time, to achieve it, you did need a book, a pen, one child, one teacher, to learn, to change the world. These days, the internet has joined those ranks. And we are very proud to be a part of it all.

Aderemi-Makinde, head brand & reputation, Sub Saharan Africa, Google.

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