Promoting Digital Inclusion for Everyone

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

April 28, 2024

In an age where digitalization has become ubiquitous, access to digital services is no longer a luxury but a necessity. Digital apps offer a plethora of conveniences, from digital wallets to news aggregation, and from mobility support to chat functionalities. However, despite the advancements in digital infrastructure, there are still segments of the population in developing countries that are excluded from reaping the benefits of the digital age. 

At the beginning of 2023, there were 1.05 billion internet users in China, with an internet penetration rate of 73.7%. Approximately 374.7 million people in China remained offline, constituting 26.3% of the population. Meanwhile in the same period, around 21% or 20.60 million people in Vietnam remained offline.

Bridging this gap requires concerted efforts in extending digital infrastructures, identifying potential markets for essential services, and addressing the technological needs to support a digital future.

Extending Digital Infrastructure

China and Vietnam have made significant strides in developing their digital infrastructures, but challenges remain in reaching all segments of their populations.

China’s digital payment platforms, such as Alipay and WeChat Pay, have revolutionized financial transactions. From street vendors to high-end restaurants, mobile payments are ubiquitous. Chinese small businesses effectively utilized Alipay and WeChat Pay during the COVID-19 pandemic. These digital payment platforms played a crucial role in facilitating transactions and supporting businesses, especially in times of social distancing and reduced physical interactions.

In rural areas and among marginalized communities, access to digital services is limited due to factors like inadequate internet connectivity and lack of digital literacy. In Vietnam, specific groups, such as ethnic minorities, the elderly, people with disabilities, and those from low-income or rural areas, encounter barriers in accessing digital services.

Meanwhile, China recognizes the importance of rural digital transformation. The country aims to make staged progress in developing digital villages, providing stronger support for national food security, and consolidating poverty alleviation achievements through digital technology. The goal is to exceed 190 million rural broadband access users as outlined in their Digital Rural Development Plan of 2023.

Other than investing in digital infrastructure, governments should also focus on ensuring that digital content is available in local languages and is user-friendly. This will enable villagers to access and use digital tools effectively.

Furthermore, while smartphones are prevalent, data costs can be prohibitive. Affordable data plans are necessary to make digital services accessible to all. A few years ago, internet services in China were relatively expensive. However, prices have fallen significantly, making basic internet connections more affordable. For a basic connection of 50Mb, you won’t pay more than 100 Yuan per month (US$13.89). This reduction in cost has made internet access more accessible to a wider population.

Identifying Potential Markets

Remote health, banking, mobility, and education are critical sectors where digital apps can revolutionize accessibility and efficiency. In both China and Vietnam, there is a growing demand for remote health services, especially in rural areas where access to healthcare facilities is limited. Digital health apps that offer telemedicine consultations, health monitoring, and appointment scheduling can significantly improve healthcare accessibility and outcomes.

Similarly, there is a burgeoning market for digital banking services, particularly among the unbanked and underbanked populations. Mobile banking apps that provide convenient and secure financial transactions can empower individuals to manage their finances more effectively, irrespective of their geographical location.

Mobility is another area ripe for digital innovation, particularly in congested urban centers. Ride-sharing apps and mobility-as-a-service platforms can alleviate traffic congestion and reduce carbon emissions while providing affordable and convenient transportation options to urban dwellers.

Addressing Technological Needs

Building a robust digital infrastructure is essential for fostering digital inclusion, but equally important is addressing the technological needs of individuals. In many cases, there is a symbiotic relationship between building digital infrastructure and lifting individuals’ purchasing power. 

Rather than prioritizing one over the other, a holistic approach is needed. Infrastructure development and improving purchasing power should go hand in hand. Digital inclusion is not just about technology; it’s about empowering individuals. By extending digital reach, we can create a more equitable society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Both China and Vietnam have a chance to leverage the opportunities that digital inclusion can bring. This topic was discussed in the recently concluded 2024 Horasis China Meeting at Binh Duong, Vietnam, between 14-15 April 2024. The meeting brought together 300 of the most senior members of the Horasis Visions Community, including some of China’s and Vietnam’s best known business leaders, who exchanged ideas about enabling better futures for their citizens.

Photo Caption: China’s digital payment platforms, such as Alipay and WeChat Pay, have revolutionized financial transactions.