“Get Me into Google, I Don’t Know How”

Covid-19 widens the digital divide in Nicaragua

Those who don’t have access to technology or the internet are left unable to study or work, as well as losing business opportunities.

By Vladimir Vasquez (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Edmundo Lopez is a farmer from Madriz, Nicaragua. At 63, he doesn’t read or write. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in Nicaragua in March, Lopez’ world changed overnight. He could no longer meet in person with the donors, partners or clients in his cooperative. Lopez doesn’t know how to use any of the video call applications, nor a computer, nor does he use the internet.

Lopez is president of the “Jose Alfredo Zeledon” Cooperative in the municipality of San Juan del Rio Coco. The cooperative is made up of 357 coffee producers from 24 communities in the department of Madriz. Except for a few members of the administrative team, the farm producers don’t normally have smartphones, although the zone does have internet service.

Every time there’s a meeting with those who donate to the cooperative, the members of the Board, who are all farmers, must travel for more than an hour from their communities to town. They arrive at a meeting room where they can hold a virtual conversation, watching on a computer connected to the internet through a telephone.

“The cost [of internet service] is high, adding to the problem of the low coffee [prices] and the high cost of basic food products,” Lopez comments.

The cooperative members collect money to pay the monthly 800 cordobas [just under US $23] for monthly internet service on a telephone belonging to Francis Gonzalez, the cooperative’s administrator, who coordinates all their communications.

“The Board members don’t have access to smartphones, so we do the meetings on the computer. We notify the community of the virtual meetings, and they come to town to be present. As rural people, it’s a little difficult for them to adapt to this medium,” Gonzalez tells us.

In 2019, the Inter-American Development Bank presented a Broadband Development Index for Latin America and the Caribbean. This study situates Nicaragua as among the four countries with the lowest index of development, ahead only of Guyana, Surinam and Haiti. The reason: the low indicators for internet access, infrastructure and affordability of broadband service. In addition, according to the study, there’s a lack of public policies and strategic regulation to change this reality.

The challenges of education

Xiomara Diaz is the founder of Up Nicaragua, an initiative dedicated to teaching computer programming to girls in the rural zones of Granada. At the onset of the pandemic, they decided to convert all their trainings to distance learning.

The first problem they ran into was that the girls didn’t have access to the internet. Xiomara and her team opted for prepaid mobile data so they could continue the classes on their phones. Nonetheless, the quality of the connection is poor.

“That’s the reality. There isn’t a stable enough connection to keep the students from getting discouraged along the way,” Diaz laments.

For people in the rural zones, and even in the urban centers around Managua, paying for a fixed monthly internet connection is difficult, due to the high cost.

According to a study carried out by Cable.co.uk regarding broadband access prices in the world, in 2020 Nicaraguans are paying an average of US $56.50 for a fixed home internet plan.

The same study calculates how much the cheapest internet service plan costs (US $27.99) and the most expensive (US $114). Such plans are a luxury in a country where the highest minimum  wage (in construction, finance and insurance) doesn’t exceed US $285 a month, and in the countryside it barely reaches $130.

In Central America, according to the same study, the average cost for Internet (in US dollars) is: Costa Rica – $43.22; El Salvador – $41.96; Guatemala – $38.13.  Only Honduras, with an average cost of $60, is more expensive than Nicaragua.

“Unfortunately, this type of situation increases the gaps in both social and digital education, because more people see themselves without opportunities… I know many young people who aren’t planning to return to school, or who see themselves with more barriers to be able to reintegrate themselves into their studies,” Diaz warns.

Coverage, but no knowledge

Another situation that arises in Nicaragua involves people who have access to technology but who don’t know how to use it, and don’t have anyone to teach them.

Maria del Carmen Molina, 58, lives in a central neighborhood of Managua, together with her goddaughter “Marcelita” who she brought to the capital from a rural community in the southern department of Rivas so that she could study.

Neither Molina nor her godchild knew anything about the internet or computers when the online classes began. They both had to seek out a way to learn so that the girl could do her schoolwork. With the help of some neighbors, they managed to resolve their complications, ranging from how to do a Google search, to how to reduce the size of a video in order to send it to class.

“Get me into Google, I don’t know how,” says Molina, who hasn’t worked with computers since 2007, when she left her office job to care for her ailing mother.

Molina’s effort to help “Marcelita” learn has been useful to herself as well, although her difficulties are evident. There’s no internet service in her house, nor can she afford to pay such a bill, so they depend on a neighbor’s connection.

Lack of public policies

Molina affirms that she doesn’t know anything about public policies to support the education of people like her, who don’t know how to use the internet and the new technologies. She’s unaware if there are any projects for supporting those who can’t even pay the cheapest internet plan.

Lucia Morales de Franco, founder of the technology platform “Nicawomantech”, asserts that it’s hard to know if Nicaragua has any public programs for people with limited resources, or for the most vulnerable in the pandemic, because there’s no public information available.

In El Salvador, for example, at the beginning of the pandemic, in March, payment for the public utilities was suspended for three months. In Nicaragua there’s been no government action to aid those who have lost their jobs to confront the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development asked the government to establish a three-month grace period for payment of basic services, for the most vulnerable population plus the cottage industries and the small and medium businesses. Their request went unheeded.

Morales de Franco, who works closely on topics of technology with schools and small businesses, estimates: “we’re not prepared to conduct online classes.” She herself at times has to work from her cellphone so that her daughter can use the computer and complete her assignments.

Given this gap and the poor conditions, the only recourse is to adapt. In Madriz, Edmundo Lopez is currently finishing a series of visits to a number of communities, while he prepares to go to the city for the weekly virtual meeting with donors.

Despite their limitations, being part of a cooperative has allowed him access to someone who is teaching him how to manage the basics of technology. He trusts that these tools will allow him to reach the clients they need.