Senegal's digital skills initiatives should have equity in mind

The Digital Senegal 2025 strategy adopted eight years ago makes it clear: Senegal wants to become more digital and a hub for innovation in West Africa. Ennatu Domingo and Maëlle Salzinger look at the country’s digital skills advancements and the gaps that still remain.

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    The Senegalese presidential elections finally took place on Sunday, one month later than initially planned. The postponement caused an uproar in the country, which the government tried to control by shutting down the connection to mobile internet – twice. A paradox as Senegal aims to raise the digital economy’s contribution to the GDP from 3.5% to 10% and equip its citizens with the skills to navigate the internet in a responsible and innovative manner. To achieve this, the winner will need to roll up its sleeves and attract investment in digital infrastructure and more inclusive digital skills programmes.

    Senegal's aspirations to become a competitive actor in the global digital economy are clear. The Digital Senegal 2025 strategy adopted in 2016 shows its long-term plan to invest massively in the digital skills of its population, half of which live in rural areas. Senegal aims to boost human capital as a prerequisite to support digital transformation, with a specific emphasis on women and vulnerable groups. 

    In Senegal, digital skills and social inclusion are interlinked. The digital divide remains stark as 42% of the population does not have access to the internet, while limited digital literacy and skills prevent millions of Senegalese from participating in the growing digital economy and threaten to exacerbate existing inequalities.  

    Despite efforts to support digital skills in Senegal, a narrow understanding of digital skills and a lack of intersectionality render current digital skills programmes widely insufficient to meet the needs of the population.

    The Senegalese population needs a more holistic approach to digital skills to acquire a basic understanding of data protection, online behaviour and disinformation from a young age.

    Going beyond digital skills for the economy 

    The advent of technologies, in particular the high use of mobile phones, is transforming the economy and society. Senegal wants to create more than 50,000 direct and 160,000 indirect jobs and raise the contribution of the digital sector to 10% of Senegal’s economy by 2030. As such, the government has developed a human capital action plan focusing on the education sector, employability and entrepreneurship. It also includes programmes to equip rural populations with specific digital skills, such as for engaging in e-commerce, to support their livelihoods. 

    However, civil society actors warn that digital literacy and skills are needed from a young age and in all spheres of life. Senegal’s 8 million internet users face cyber-harassment, low personal data protection, disinformation, hate speech and repression of freedom of expression, and there aren’t rigorous policy responses to these challenges. 

    For example, reports of cyber-harassment keep increasing, but no national data on it is collected, while the state mechanism to address complaints is not effective, and sensitisation campaigns are rarely conducted outside Dakar in non-written formats (around 40% of the population is illiterate) and in local languages.

    The Senegalese population needs a more holistic approach to digital skills to acquire a basic understanding of data protection, online behaviour and disinformation from a young age, but also a broad set of competencies that support their overall aspirations and well-being.

    Initiatives that are able to integrate all these skills in a single offer are sparse and often led by small non-governmental organisations, like the Soft Skills Academy part of Groupe ISM (an initiative bringing together four schools of law, engineering, management and leadership), which complements the technical skills taught at the school with soft skills (teamwork, communication, advocacy, etc.) and dialogue about the problems young people deal with online.

    While Groupe ISM is a private school and, therefore, not accessible for most Senegalese, this kind of approach could be used in other digital skills training programmes across the country. Many current programmes that are short and focus on hard skills should thus be complemented by mentorship and more grants for start-ups and women entrepreneurs to allow participants to develop a professional project afterwards.

    Addressing the needs of vulnerable groups in rural areas

    Senegal's national and sectoral digital policies stress the importance of strengthening the skills of women, vulnerable groups and youth for the country’s digital economic transformation. Women and youth, in particular, face high unemployment rates, with 3 out of 10 Senegalese between 18 and 35 being unemployed.

    Digital skills providers, including the government and its partners, have set inclusion targets for women and vulnerable groups, which are important but not enough. Only 16% of people in rural areas have access to the internet compared to one-third of the population in urban areas and 60% in the urban area of the capital Dakar. Further, women living in rural areas are 32% less likely to use mobile internet than men, compared to a difference of 11% in urban areas.

    That is why training programmes should be more nuanced by addressing the stark digital divide, low literacy levels, lack of availability of trainings in local languages, etc.

    The government has also shown a clear commitment to adapting digital skills programmes to the needs of people with disabilities with its action plan to improve its collection of inclusive and disaggregated data to inform policymaking. But, the development of frameworks and projects accommodating the needs of people with disabilities is nascent in the country. For instance, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and ST Foundation are rolling out a​ course on ‘Introduction to Computer Basics for Visually Impaire’”.

    It is particularly important that training programmes are adapted to participant’s realities and constraints, including social norms on gender and the family.

    It is particularly important that training programmes are adapted to participant’s realities and constraints, including social norms on gender and the family. In rural areas, especially, digital skills training should be complemented by awareness campaigns to build the trust of participants and community leaders. Digital Nissa, a Senegalese start-up that supports women’s entrepreneurship and digital skills, provides trainings for women from diverse backgrounds and runs specific awareness-raising programmes in rural areas to inform women about the opportunities digital skills offer to improve their lives. 

    International actors can add value

    The Senegalese government relies on international partners to complement its limited budget for digital skills. To prevent gaps in the international support of digital skills in Senegal, we highlight the following recommendations: 

    First, in partnership with local companies and civil society organisations and in line with government strategies, international actors should develop digital skills programmes that combine modules on hard and soft digital skills to address the range of economic and societal challenges faced by the Senegalese population. Programmes should strengthen endogenous processes like public education and state mechanisms for cyber-harassment, data protection and cybersecurity.

    Secondly, digital skills projects in rural areas should be upscaled and combined with increased access to digital infrastructure and services, in line with the country’s priorities.

    Thirdly, international actors should improve coordination at the policy and project level to help address the skills demand beyond urban areas and across sectors. In practice, using mapping tools to coordinate interventions will be key to avoiding overlaps and gaps in digital inclusion.

    Finally, international partners should work closely with local organisations and the private sector across the country for more inclusive programmes. It is not enough to consult CSOs, systematic engagement when developing and implementing projects can help ensure programmes respond to the needs of the population.

    The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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