Building Accessible Technology Products In Africa
Africa as the next frontier for technology and innovation
Africa has been christened as the next frontier, and rightfully so, for the adoption of evolving and emerging technologies. Some are calling it leapfrogging, while others terming it as playing “catch up.” All in all, a lot of socioeconomic development happening in the continent can be directly attributed to the application of these evolving and emerging technologies. The current trends in venture capital funding are a clear indication of the enormous bet placed on Africa’s homegrown startups in changing the narrative of the continent’s perception as being consumers of tech and innovation to be creators of globally competitive solutions. One of the most significant stamps of approval came in the first quarter of 2021 when Flutterwave, a fintech company started, domiciled, and almost wholly owned by African entrepreneurs, raised $170 million in Series C funding valuing the company at over $1 billion (Akomolafe-Kalu, 2021). Away from the private sector, Africa is also making big strides in government-led initiatives to facilitate the provision of services to citizens. One such highly successful e-government digital portal is Rwanda’s Irembo (Chakravorti & Chaturvedi, 2019).
All of these advancements have been made possible by an array of efforts and political will in enabling last-mile connectivity of the Internet, availability of affordable devices that can access digital content, and digital literacy programmes to ensure the population can effectively interact with these digital services and products. The COVID-19 pandemic has also been a significant contributing factor in hastening the adoption of digital technologies touching almost every facet of our lives in the 21st century. In developing countries and communities, this could mean access to market price information for farmers, financial services for the previously unbanked, maternal health care for pregnant women who live beyond the reach of doctors or health clinics, and educational material for learners, among many others.
Accessibility beyond Internet connectivity
In their research, Adepoju et al. (2019) posit that “the Internet seems to be the determining factor that guarantees the career, educational and professional opportunities for young people in Rwanda.” However, I argue that there is one often overlooked confounding factor that is a key barrier in leveraging digital technologies for the social and economic development of the African people. The reality of many people is that interacting with digital products and services can be confusing, challenging, and costly (Juma, 2016). Technology and innovation are not always equally accessible to all and for all. This could be due to factors such as disabilities which necessitates a need for special tools and techniques for access to those living with impairments. Therefore, a digital blindspot is created as an unintended consequence when deploying digital services and products in a society where people living with various impairments and disabilities comprise a significant part of the whole population. For example, a severely visually impaired student may experience major challenges while interacting with and trying to access content from a web application that does not adequately provide alternative ways of access other than through visual means. This demonstrates that the accessibility of digital products and services, and their content, goes beyond a person having an internet connection and a device to access the said content. As highlighted by UK’s Government Digital Service, digital accessibility and inclusion “is not about the number of people who simply log-on to the Internet; being able to go online is not an end in itself” (“A checklist for digital inclusion – if we do these things, we’re doing digital inclusion”, 2014).
In building inclusive digital products and services, there are for main categories of disabilities to consider.
- Visual impairment: This consists of not being able to see images, page layout, or charts. It could be severe impairment or blindness.
- Cognitive impairment: When a person has trouble remembering, learning new things, or concentrating, as elaborated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2011)
- Physical disability: When a person is not able to physically use a mouse or keyboard. This could be temporary or permanent.
- Hearing impairment. When a person is not able to hear audio content or alerts.
To put this into perspective, the World Health Organization reports that globally, more than two billion people experience some form of disability (Disability and Development Report, 2018). That is 37.5% of the world’s population. About 1.3 billion people, or 17% of the world’s population, live with some form of blindness or visual impairment. In addition, 466 million people live with deafness or experience hearing loss. A large percentage of them are in the developing regions of Sub-saharan Africa. It is forecasted that these numbers are expected to triple by 2050, as highlighted by Prof. Bourne Rupert et al. (2017). In Kenya, an estimated 224,000 people are blind, while another 750,000 are documented to be visually impaired (Merab, 2016). It is worth noting that impairments and disabilities do not only impend those currently living with and experiencing them in their various forms and intensities. As published by the Royal National Institute of Blind People in their research findings, over 100 people start to lose their sight every day in the UK alone; and 1 in 12 of us will become blind or partially sighted by the time we are 60 (“Sight Loss Data Tool”, 2020).
The prevalence of digital inaccessibility in Africa
To demonstrate how prevalent the issue of digital inaccessibility is, FAMOD, an umbrella organization working to support people with disabilities in Mozambique with the support of a grant from the African Digital Rights Fund, carried out the first data-driven investigation on the state of web accessibility in the country. They assessed and tested ninety (90) key Mozambican websites spanning government, academia, the private sector, and other top key interest websites. The data and findings, which were published in March 2021 on a11y.co.mz, revealed that across the 18,704 web pages from the 90 key websites tested for accessibility issues, a total of 722,053 individual violations were found. In their briefing about the project, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) (2021) highlighted that “Each violation represents a barrier preventing someone with a visual, hearing, physical or cognitive impairment from fully engaging with the web page.”
Leave no one behind
Luckily enough, there are universally accepted guidelines that address some of the concerns plaguing digital and web accessibility. The guidelines referred to as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are published by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international community whose mandate is to work together with various stakeholders to develop Web standards (“Help and FAQ”, n.d.). The guidelines stipulate that one must be guided by four main principles to build inclusive digital products and services (“WCAG 2.1 at a Glance”, 2021). Your digital product or service should be:
- Perceivable: Everything can be perceived in more than one way. For example, if someone cannot see, written content can be read by an assistive tech like a screen reader.
- Operable: Everything can be operated in more than one way. For example, if someone cannot use a mouse, they can navigate and interact with the interface using the keyboard.
- Understandable: Everything can be easily understood using simplified written content. This makes it more accessible for people with cognitive impairment.
- Robust: Everything must maximize interoperability and compatibility across a wide range of devices capable of accessing the content.
Putting the principles and digital accessibility guidelines into practice, a content creator or a developer can incorporate some of the following to ensure their content or digital product is accessible to as many people regardless of their special needs for access.
- Make sure you have acceptable colour contrasts
- Make sure your site works on mobile and can load at low internet speeds
- Make sure your mobile apps have offline capabilities for those with unstable internet connections
- Always test your digital products with your actual users, get their feedback, and try as much to incorporate what you possibly can
- Using local language as an accessibility feature by aiming to include the locally spoken language(s) in the digital product or service
“Many of us here today have spent much of our lives without access to telecommunications or information services, and many of us will not live to see the flowering of the information age. But our children will. They are our greatest asset. And it is our responsibility to give them the skills and insight to build the information societies of the future. The young people of the world must be empowered to participate in the building of the information age. They must become citizens of the global information society. And we must create the best conditions for their participation.” – (Nelson Mandela, 1995).
With the same spirit and vision that Nelson Mandela had when he made the above remarks while closing his speech at The Opening Ceremony Of Telecom 95, The 7Th World Telecommunications Forum And Exhibition, it’s of crucial importance to make an enabling environment for those living with special needs for information access to be valuable citizens in the digital workforce of our current and future data-driven knowledge-based economies.
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