Dr Towela Nyirenda-JereBiography
A Child is a Child is a Child: Conversations in Africa About Children in the Digital World

In 2008, after having worked in academia and in the private sector for a number of years, I took a break, and had a year off. In that year, I did leadership facilitation and leadership training, and one of the most important things I learned was that you can’t stand on the side-lines wishing for change: you must step up and be involved.

I had reason to reflect and remember this time in my life a few years back when I had another wake-up call: I had been working in the digital space, working on internet governance, on public policy, on people’s rights online, but I never thought about the rights of children online. It made me realise how much we miss out on by not focusing on children and young people. I think it also resonated with me as, in Africa, the conversation over the last five years or so has been about the demographics of Africa and how that is changing: 65% of the population are under the age of 20.


Culturally, we are different from Europe, America, Asia. In our culture, a child is a child is a child. Children have rights, but they are to the extent that parents are willing to give, or accommodate, those rights. While they can express themselves freely, it is only to the extent that the parents allow them to do so freely. When you talk about digital spaces, it causes a bit of a problem: how do we balance the cultural context, when in the digital space, there is not that cultural context? Parents don’t have the same kind of control as in the offline world. That becomes a bit of a challenge, because you then have children caught between two worlds: caught between what culture says, but having to engage in the digital space where the safe container of culture doesn’t exist. How does one navigate and balance this?

Because Africa is in the ‘catch up’ and ‘leap frogging’ phase of ICT development, there is a big push for giving people access to the Internet and digital opportunities, whether that is young people or not. This means not only access, but affordable access. There is a lot of emphasis on affordable access.

There is also a lot of emphasis on content and localised content, and being able to give content that is meaningful to young people, and that is produced locally. For us, the colonial legacy has made it so that in a lot of countries, the language that is used for business is the language that comes from the colonial legacy: you have anglophone, francophone, lusophone, and so on. However, within all that, we have our own indigenous languages as well. You find that schooling and business are done in English or French, but socially, we communicate and converse in our own languages.

When I’m online, I would like to see content that is in my own language, and content that is culturally relevant to me. If young people are not enabled as content creators, and not enabled to value content in local languages, it means that we will always have bias towards content that is not in our own languages.

What we hear from children is that they want access, and affordable access, yes. But it’s also the freedoms: and in different countries, those freedoms exist in varying degrees. More and more in Africa, rights are very politicised and become a very political issue. We all remember the Arab Spring, and since then, all these other instances of young people agitating for political change. That can be challenging, because governments don’t really know what to do with this. When you talk about young people having rights, if it’s not expressed properly, it becomes a political issue rather than a social issue.

It is also, we see, that young people are looking for entrepreneurial or entrepreneurship opportunities online. But at the same time, they are perhaps lacking in how to protect their ideas: how do they deal with issues of intellectual property? How do they make sure that when they do have an idea, that they can develop that idea and take to market, without it being hijacked by other forces? Those are some things that are important. In some other instances, it’s about safe spaces: how do you create safe spaces for young people online, not only for communication, education or social interaction, but also for access to economic opportunities?

We have a very youthful population: we encourage kids to get online and we are encouraging everyone to move towards the fourth industrial revolution. But we are not talking about how to protect children when they are in these digital spaces: how to safeguard them and make sure they can interact safely. In some instances, these so-called digital natives don’t understand how vulnerable they are online. You constantly have to tell them to be careful because in online spaces you don’t know who is on the other side, you don’t know when they ask you for information, why they are asking for information, what they are going to do with it, and what that then means for you.

Nowadays, we find a lot of African countries talking about the digital economy and about the fourth industrial revolution. They talk about the need to skill and upskill, which I think is good. What then needs to accompany that conversation is an understanding of the other side which is, when people get online, what does that then mean? How can we ensure that they can engage online safely?

Issues of data protection and issues of online protection are maybe not discussed to the degree that you would see in other places. We are still so focused on the access side of things that we have not grappled so much with the other side of data protection and privacy, and child online protections. But also, what we are seeing as more people come online, and more people are transacting and interacting and engaging online, is that we are seeing more spam, hacking, and identity theft. The need to address data protection and privacy and online protection then becomes more of an issue as a result of these things. But in terms of policymaking, it’s more of a reactive process than proactive: technology tends to advance too rapidly for policy to keep up.

How can we then make sure that when we talk about trade and the issue of trade, we realise that it is only going to be effective or efficient to the extent that we can secure the transactions? If I cannot guarantee that a transaction is safe and secure, then that will affect my ability to trade in the digital space.

One of my main wishes is that our policymakers understand this interaction between cybersecurity, privacy, data protection and trade. I would ask that they see it not that we are just asking them to secure the digital space for the sake of it, but that it does have implications on a lot of other things. Africa right now is focussed on this issue of trade, looking at inter-regional trade, as well as trade with the rest of the world. The only way we’ll be able to do that, the free movement of goods and services, is if we guarantee security of movements and transactions. In this instance, data protection becomes a very big issue. When you look at the fact that more and more, it’s young people who are coming online and engaging in these transactions, their online protection and privacy becomes a big issue as well. I really would like to see that link between securing our online spaces, data protection, privacy, online protections, and how we link that to other issues, such as trade.

The context which children and young people are born into in Africa may be different from the West, but they must not be missed in international policy conversations. They too have a right to access the online space, to participate in it as content creators, and to realise economic and entrepreneurial opportunities. African leaders must secure their privacy and security, so that they can access the full benefits of participating in the digital environment. At the same time, young people need to be aware of what exercising their freedoms online entails and how they must be responsible users of the various online and digital spaces available to them.

Dr Towela Nyirenda-Jere is one of Malawi’s first female engineers and a Trustee of 5Rights. She leads the Economic Integration Division at the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), where she focuses on various aspects of Africa’s infrastructure development including connectivity, private sector development, and access to markets and trade. Towela has a PhD in Electrical Engineering, specialising in Telecommunications and Networking, with over twenty years’ experience in the private sector, academia, and international development. She has previously worked with the University of Malawi as a lecturer during which time she also served with the United Nations Volunteer Programme on the Cisco Networking Academy project. Other past experience includes: managing an ICT company and, from 2012 to 2019, serving on IEEE’s ad hoc advisory committee for Africa, set up to improve Africa’s technical workforce development and skills. She advocates for awareness among African policy makers of the importance and significance of infrastructure and ICT development, Internet Governance and policy processes at national and continental levels.