Catherine Adeya. Photo: Teddy Mitchener

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By Jason Hopps

In the 1980s, Catherine Adeya’s father offered her some advice: “Computers will be big one day.” Before the advent of Facebook, Twitter, smart phones, Wi-Fi, or even the Internet, it wasn’t such an obvious assertion to make—especially in Nairobi, where home computers were extremely rare. The words lingered in Kenyan-born Adeya’s mind, convincing her years later to abandon plans to study law and instead pursue a career in technology.  Since that decision, she has been working in technology and development for 20 years, including stints on World Bank and IFC projects.

Today, Adeya is the new director of research at the World Wide Web Foundation, the first African to hold the role. The foundation, co-founded in 2008 by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Rosemary Leith, a Canadian with global experience in finance, tech, and development, focuses on access and affordability, women’s rights online, and data rights. Adeya is leading a research team dedicated to achieving a Web that is safe and empowering for everyone. In this edited interview, she discusses the relationship between digital tech and development, defines “meaningful connectivity,” and offers advice for young people hungry for a career in IT.

Q: First, congratulations on your recent appointment. What will your role involve?

A: Thank you. People think it will be my job to fix the Internet! That’s not true, of course, but I am working to help level the playing field so that everyone can benefit from the Web and digital technologies, especially women, the poor, and those in rural areas. Specifically, I will be leading a research agenda that supports our mission to build a safe and empowering Web for everyone. The WWW Foundation has published groundbreaking research in areas from Internet access and affordability, to women’s rights online, to privacy and data rights — all focused on low- and middle-income countries that are too often overlooked. Quality research and evidence are necessary to help drive reforms in the digital sector and attract investment into it.

Q: You mention both the Web and the Internet. People often confuse the two, as do I. What’s the difference?

A: Yes, many people think they’re the same thing, but they aren’t. The Internet is the underlying infrastructure to transport information — a global network of networks. The Web is one of the main tools we use to read and interact with this information. It's thanks to the Web that the Internet became widely accessible and changed our world as it has.

Q: Let’s talk about Africa. How important is improved access to digital skills and the Internet to the continent’s future?

A: Before COVID-19, it was already essential. Today, it is more critical than ever. Digital technology has created new industries and opportunities in Africa, but most people in Africa are still offline. Only about 28 percent of Africans are connected today. The next lowest region is Asia Pacific at 48 percent, while Europe is at 82 percent. This puts Africans at a huge disadvantage when it comes to education, health, economic development, and so many other areas. Digital skills and technology are no longer “nice to haves,” they are lifelines that are becoming increasingly essential to daily life.

Q: So, how can we get Africa and other underserved regions connected—and whose role is it?

A: It’s a big challenge that involves many partners. Global leaders need to make it a priority. Those who are offline are disproportionately women, low-income, live in remote and rural areas, and are in the global south. We cannot allow these groups to be left out and unable to access the benefits of digital technology. For example, in Africa, the cost of just 1GB of data is equal to about 7 percent of the average monthly salary, an amount totally out of reach for most people. Many African governments have good blueprints, but the reality has not always matched those ambitions. Huge investments are needed from both the public and private sectors to improve infrastructure such as 4G equipment, including improving access to power. But the infrastructure is useless if people don’t have the skills—and the confidence—to work or learn or access information online. So, what we really need to nurture is meaningful connectivity.

Q: Let me pick up on that idea. What is “meaningful connectivity”?

A: It means that we must raise our ambition beyond basic access. You hear people say we’ve connected so-and-so many villages, but how meaningful is that connectivity? Can the people in those villages afford to be online? Do they have fast internet speeds or slow? Do they know how to tap the power of the Internet to strengthen their businesses, apply for a loan, educate their children, or access health or other government services? COVID has really brought these issues to the fore. Children in middle- and upper-income homes in Africa have been learning online, but what about the poor? Are they and their families connected to the Internet in a meaningful way? Our Alliance for Affordable Internet recently launched a Meaningful Connectivity Standard, setting minimum thresholds aiming to ensure people have regular access, a suitable device, enough data, and fast speeds. [More information on meaningful connectivity can be found here.]

Q: Clearly, connectivity of any kind remains a huge challenge in Africa, but there are promising pockets of real digital innovation, including in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and elsewhere. Should Africa be looking to build its own Silicon Valleys?

A: No, I don’t think so. Instead, Africa should be building something uniquely African with technologies that properly meet the needs of people in Africa. There has been talk of a “Silicon Savannah,” but truthfully Africa must carve its own path. Although funding is coming into the continent, it often goes to expats and not African entrepreneurs. We need to see more investment available for homegrown talent—not just international funding but local funding too. There is also a need for a cultural shift among local investors: they need to trust local talent and help nurture it. African countries should work to avoid the mistakes of Silicon Valley and elsewhere where the tech industry has become homogenous and male-dominated by investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) education for girls and actively supporting women technology leaders. When an industry is more representative of its users, it creates better products, better services, and better businesses.

Q: What role should the World Bank Group and other development institutions play?

A: The World Bank Group and others are vital in helping battle digital inequalities, not only by supporting infrastructure development but also through training and skills development, especially in poorer countries and regions. The World Bank Group has committed $25 billion to support digital infrastructure in Africa and the Web Foundation is part of that effort, helping develop the road map. This large investment is only the beginning: it should help catalyze further investment in the sector in Africa and this is where IFC can play a leading role. 

Q: Finally—and I’m sure you’ve been asked this before—what is your advice to a young person in Africa or other developing regions who wants to pursue a career in technology?

A: Actually, it’s often parents who approach me saying their child wants to study information technology, with the parents wondering if it’s a good idea. I like to talk to their children directly to understand what motivates them. I ask them what they want to focus on because IT is such a broad field. I also want to know what their passion is. There is a real need for data scientists, security researchers, and digital marketers and of course there will be a great number of new jobs created in the next 10 years that we aren’t even imagining today, so a career in tech can mean many things. I would say that the young generation must lead…The young will be responsible for finding those innovations and solutions that can improve lives, whether they are in Africa, India, Brazil, Colombia, or any other country, rich or poor or somewhere in-between.

Published in November 2020

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