As the world explores the seemingly endless limits of urbanization, with cities rapidly expanding both their infrastructures and populations, rural areas aren’t faring as well. According to the World Bank Group, the majority of the world’s population — 55 percent — lives in urban areas, which means cities currently account for 80 percent or more of global GDP.
As this trend continues, rural areas face a constant exodus of citizens to more urban areas. In Japan, for instance, young people are continuously leaving small villages and towns and making their way to more bustling cities, making real the possibility that 869 Japanese towns may cease to exist by 2040. And in Spain, the term “España vacia” (meaning “empty Spain”) reflects the county’s 28 percent decline in rural population over the last five decades.
Depopulation has devastated the economic and social structures of rural areas, which in many cases become abandoned hamlets. First and foremost, the standard of living can drastically decline in rural areas as any remaining residents have limited access to grocery stores, hospitals, and general goods they need on a day-to-day basis.
Businesses tend to avoid opening in locations without a dense population to purchase their services and goods. And when business activity decreases, job scarcity surfaces, which makes generating income to support themselves difficult for remaining families. Further, in developed countries, depopulated rural areas mean shrinking tax revenues. When fewer people pay property taxes, towns can’t improve or even maintain general infrastructure like streets and sewers. For example, the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador has struggled with this issue recently.
Rural depopulation is also hitting local education systems hard. School buildings languish without proper care, curricula stagnate, and teachers lack sufficient support and guidance. All around the world, this educational decay disproportionately affects women. Access to education, which is already tenuous in many developing countries, becomes even more scarce for young women who remain in rural areas.
In Africa, for example, this problem exacerbates existing issues. Many of its countries are predominantly rural and currently facing weak education systems, and rapid urbanization strips critical resources that rural schools need to improve. According to Brookings, in some impoverished Kenyan regions, only one in 15 girls is enrolled in primary school. Coupled with depopulation-related problems, Kenyan girls can potentially find more obstacles on their path to education, therefore intensifying gender inequality.
With all the havoc that rural depopulation has caused, is there any way to empower remaining rural inhabitants, especially women? That’s where rural digitalization comes in.
What Is Rural Digitalization?
What Does Rural Digitalization Look Like?
Put simply, rural digitalization involves using advanced digital technologies to strengthen the economic and social fabric of rural populations, ultimately providing them with more opportunities to lead connected lives. These technologies take many forms — from agricultural innovations to solar-powered lighting systems — yet they all address the same bottom line: People shouldn’t be moving from the countryside out of necessity. Many families have cultural and historical connections to their rural locations, and digitalization ensures they can remain there without compromising their quality of life.
China is a prime example of rural digitization in practice. Recently committing to revitalizing the countryside, especially in terms of agricultural modernization, China has focused on improving information and communications technologies (ICT). For example, 4G and cloud computing systems in villages can power produce sales and improve communication between farmers and manufacturers. At the same time, digital literacy courses in these areas ensure that farmers can successfully and efficiently navigate online markets.
In the E.U., the implementation of the world’s largest research and innovation programs — Horizon 2020 — resulted in many projects that aim to secure European global competitiveness. For example, DESIRA has focused specifically on assessing the impacts of digitalization, laying out seven guiding principles to aid Europe in achieving rural digitalization by 2040. Among these principles is the implementation of policies promoting digital inclusion. In the process of rural digitization, some rural areas could be left out, resulting in a growing digital divide and uneven development. To prevent this, DESIRA affirms that European governments are responsible for ensuring people aren’t disadvantaged based on their location, which governments should universally adopt when it comes to rural digitalization.
And in Australia, the government has prioritized the modernization of outdated infrastructures in rural regions, where they have financially supported the utility Horizon Power in installing off-grid solar power systems and Australia’s first renewable hydrogen microgrids.
All in all, federal governments are arguably the backbone of the digitization process. In countries that have had numerous successes in digitizing rural areas, the governments have paved a path through constructing and funding dynamic, national projects. And when such projects with specifically outlined goals join forces with tech companies or nonprofits with similar visions, change can occur efficiently and precisely. The digitalization process requires time and proper organization, and governments should take initial steps in crafting suitable environments for groundbreaking work to occur.
Paving the Way for Rural Schools and Young Girls
Alongside improving rural infrastructure, using renewable energy resources, and incorporating communication technology in agricultural industries, digitalization especially provides better opportunities for young girls. Improving women’s educational opportunities through school digitalization is perhaps one of the best methods of empowering girls, as it provides them with new, refreshing perspectives on the world they live in.
For example, CAMFED, a nonprofit organization that has partner schools in impoverished, rural areas in Tanzania, Ghana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, has found success through e-reader literacy programs, which primarily supply textbooks and similar reading material for students. In these partner schools, mobile monitoring technology also creates more productive learning environments, allowing teachers to track attendance, analyze exam data, and perform other functions to track the long-term impact of education. More than 460,000 secondary school girls directly benefited from such learning ecosystems in 2020.
Technological innovation in rural African schools has also flourished thanks to MobiStation, which is a so-called “school in a box.” As implied, this UNICEF-produced unit includes a built-in sound system, solar-powered computer, and even a projector that brings digital textbooks, video lessons, and other learning media to the classrooms of many primary schoolgirls in Uganda.
Outside Africa, many European countries have also faced the necessity of digitizing their rural schools. In a 2021 study focusing on the two German states of Lower Saxony and Baden-Wuerttemberg, Christina Rundel and Koen Salemink argued that, beyond simply providing advanced ICT systems for schools, training teachers on how to efficiently use them is critical for sustaining long-term student benefits. Teachers are essential to a student’s learning experience, and they should be the first to thoroughly understand how to use technologies like smartboards, projectors, and laptops in their classrooms.
Step by step, rural schools can become more digitized to provide young girls a promising future and the possibility of higher education and fulfilling careers.
In villages where women leave school early or are barred from leading professional lives because of inequitable gender norms, digitalization can help them jump start their careers and achieve financial wellbeing. With more access to internet services and mobile technology, e-commerce, the process of conducting sales electronically, becomes an ideal tool for them. Upon joining digital marketplaces, women can then build their own online shops to sell goods they produce, such as handmade clothes, jewelry, pottery, and others. And in countries rich with agricultural business, like Vietnam, women have been safely selling their agricultural produce as well. Not only does this give them a sense of control over the course of their life, but it can simultaneously provide a valuable source of income.
In countries like India, however, another barrier specifically hinders female success: digital illiteracy. Under the Digital India Initiative proposed in 2015, the government is currently implementing high-speed internet, online banking opportunities, and secure cyberspaces in many villages. Yet, in a country where 30 percent of internet users are women and only 12 percent are rural women, even if internet access reaches remote settings, many women will not know how to use the technology, let alone reap all the benefits of digital spaces.
That’s where digital literacy initiatives such as Internet Saathi come into play. A combined effort of Google and Tata Trusts, this program enables rural women to learn about the basics of internet navigation through other trained local women, called saathis. Being able to use technology, such as smartphones, ultimately opens up the doors for employment possibilities as well.
Such programs can also help women use and understand various electronic banking options, which are spreading quickly all over the world. Training must be readily available for women, considering a study that found 76 percent of rural women respondents in Bangalore, India faced one main problem: They had persistent technical hardships when using e-banking. But when rural women do indeed grasp knowledge of e-banking services, they’ll be able to organize savings, budget more effectively, and plan for their family's future or the future of the businesses they lead.
Eyes Ahead: A Cycle of Empowerment
Young girls and women living in rural areas could play critical roles in the advancement of their local economies if only they were given the chance. As rural areas depopulate and socially weaken, the financial and academic success of female populations are simultaneously hindered. In our rapidly modernizing world, however, this shouldn’t be the case.
Governments should universally fund national projects that are dedicated to the technological revitalization of their rural areas. By partnering with leading tech companies, better internet services, telephone lines, and even solar power systems could be installed. With such a foundation, online ecosystems will undoubtedly spring to life, providing digital learning environments and workspaces for female inhabitants. For example, young girls can use school computers to conduct individual research on topics of interest, while women can open up online shops or attend virtual classes not offered in their town.
Connecting rural women to the outside world is a process of empowerment. It is the heart and soul of financial liberation and self-led prosperity.