During the first coronavirus lockdown, I appealed for the government to insist that telecommunications firms make educational resources exempt from data charges to save a generation of Nigerians from having their education permanently disrupted by COVID-19.
With a new and more contagious strain of the coronavirus apparently identified in Nigeria, and infections rising across the nation, that appeal has become even more urgent.
In the past week, Nigeria has reported a 52% increase in cases of the coronavirus.
The head of Africa’s disease control body, the African Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, has also confirmed that new and more contagious variant of the disease seems to have emerged in Nigeria.
When the emergence of such a highly-contagious mutant strain of Covid-19 was confirmed in the UK it was a matter of weeks until the government once again closed down schools to control the spread of the disease.
Even if widespread school closures do not become necessary in Nigeria as a result of our new variant it is highly likely that more and more Nigerians will keep their kids off school in order to keep them safe in the coming weeks.
And our nation cannot afford future generations to experience yet more disruption to their education.
A couple of weeks ago, the internationally influential British newspaper the Financial Times published an editorial calling Nigeria “a failed state”.
The newspaper wrote:
“Africa’s most populous country is teetering on the brink.
“Extortion is a potent symbol for a state whose modus operandi is the extraction of oil revenue from central coffers to pay for a bloated, ruinously inefficient political elite”.
“Nigeria has more poor people, defined as those living on less than $1.90 a day, than any other country…In non-COVID-19 years, one of every five children in the world’s out of school lives in Nigeria.”
The World Bank has also warned that Nigeria’s economy is “at risk of unravelling”.
Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has revolutionised work, business and education as commerce, communication and classrooms move online.
But in Nigeria, countless homes are not equipped to adapt to these new methods of learning. Although more and more homes have devices in which to receive online learning – although many do not – many parents can simply not afford the data they need to access it.
As a result, kids who currently can’t keep up may never catch up. And Nigeria will continue to feel the effects of the coronavirus for long after the pandemic is over.
Nigeria’s economic diversification and future prosperity depend on a skilled future workforce. We will not achieve this if a significant proportion of our children go without education indefinitely.
Many Nigerian parents will be burning through their meagre data allowances trying to use online resources to help with their children’s schooling. When the data ends, so does the learning. We must help them.
At the digital democracy campaign I lead we want the Nigerian government to grasp the opportunity to become Africa’ first truly digital democracy and deliver universal broadband.
Although broadband penetration in Nigeria has risen to a little over 40%, this will take time. Government projections state that by 2025 only 70% of Nigerians will have any sort of internet.
Until then telecommunications firms must make exempt educational resources from data charges.
And if they won’t do that in the public interest, the government should force them.
As the founder of the Digital Democracy campaign, I know the impact digital connectivity can have when it comes to improving our political system.
Our free Rate Your Leader app is designed to allow registered voters to directly contact their local politicians – building trust, transparency and accountability, and allowing a two-way flow of information which educates and benefits both parties.
All of this is done with the touch of a smartphone button from the comfort of the home.
The Rate Your Leader app is designed to work with low levels of data. But online educational resources cannot. Data is a luxury many Nigerian families cannot afford. But education is a necessity neither they nor the nation can progress without.
As I have said in the past, free data for education should not be seen as an act of charity – or even good publicity – for our telecommunications companies, but a sensible business decision. It is companies like them who will gain the most from a more digitally-skilled workforce.
For a telecommunications company, who reported post-tax profits of ₦51 billion last year this modest investment would pay for itself many times over.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner, political commentator and is the creator of the free Rate Your Leader App. Follow Joel on Twitter via his handle @JOPopoola