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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

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The Subtle Condescension of “ICT4D”

I have cognitive dissonance over the term “ICT4D“. The term “ICT4D” is confusing, hypocritical and has a whiff of condescension that makes me cringe.

As I understand it, it’s what NGO’s do in places like Africa and Asia, but if the same things are done in poor communities in the US or Europe, it’s not called ICT4D, it’s called civil society innovation or a disruptive product.

I’ll be the first to say that I think more communications and technology tools in the hands of ordinary people is good, it’s what we need. For this reason I didn’t come down on the OLPC project, not because I agreed with it’s strategy or reason for existing, but because I simply think that getting more computers in kids hands is good idea.

So, let me be clear: I’m not against the practice of getting more ICT into Africa, I’m just don’t appreciate the condescension and hypocrisy that the term ICT4D comes with, and I’ll bring up the reasons that it actually constrains the technology innovation culture in Africa.

What do we really mean by “ICT4D”?

Ken Banks is doing a fun “ICT4D Postcards Project” where he’s asking people who work in that field to send him a picture with a note of why it matters to them. Though a fun project, I hesitated when asked to participate, because I’m particularly put off by the terminology. But, I did one, and here it is:

A few of the UN cars outside UNMIL in Liberia

“ICT4D” represents a mental roadblock. A term that brings as much baggage with it as a sea of white SUVs, representing the humanitarian industrial complex’s foray into the digital world. It means we’re trying to airlift in an infrastructure instead of investing in local technology solutions. Like the SUVs, it’s currently an import culture that will not last beyond the project’s funding and the personnel who parachuted in to do it.

If an ICT4D-type project is done in a poor part of America, is it still considered ICT4D?

That’s the question that sums up the hypocrisy of this term to me more than anything else. Here’s a an example of what I mean, on a project that I really like and am behind: PeaceTXT. It’s using mobile phones and SMS to help with violence interruption in Chicago.

Is that ICT4D? If it was deployed in Johannesburg or Mogadishu it sure would be labeled as such.

Is ICT4D basically branding for emerging market tech? It seems like it’s a way to name interesting and innovative products from Africa and Asia as something different than their counterparts doing the same thing in the West. In the West they’re called a disruptive initiative or civil society product.

If an African company creates a product that gets millions of Africans using technology to communicate better, which seems to be the very definition of ICT4D, are they automatically that? Mxit does that… What are they?

Let’s say you’re Kilimo Salama, run by my friend Rose Goslinga, which is a micro-insurance program designed for Kenyan farmers, and a partnership between Syngenta Foundation, UAP Insurance, and Safaricom. You charge, make money and yet are helping both small and large farmers alike. Is this ICT4D?

A roadblock to African tech

I was recently discussing this term with one of my Kenyan tech friends, where he stated, “I always picture a team from the UN putting up toilets in Uganda when I hear of ICT4D.”

Uganda: poster about UDD toilets

That’s one of the key problems that the ICT4D space, because to an African it comes with all the baggage of 60+ years of failed aid and development work on the continent. It triggers that begging bowl mentality, instantly stripping the dignity away from the initiative.

It also feels like this is how international NGOs are trying to stay relevant, by creating a new department and new initiatives that the big funders will buy into and support (themselves to stay relevant). Ask yourself, how many ICT4D projects in Africa are more than pilot projects? How many are just Westerner organizations parachuting in, which have no hope of staying alive beyond the time and funds put in by their organization? Sounds like the same old “aid story” to me.

That might be annoying, but the actual problem with this is twofold.

First, the African technology startup scene is young, but it’s ready to be treated as a real industry with real investors looking to make real returns. When the people who are doing business and making money in African tech get a sniff of an “ICT4D” project, they immediately dismiss it – labeling it as a special needs project where the regular rules don’t apply.

A startup company who is trying to create value and make money, but doing so with what outsiders view as poor or disadvantaged communities, is often pigeonholed internationally as ICT4D. For instance, is Esoko the money-making agricultural product from Ghana, which is now in a dozen countries, an ICT4D company? How about if a company started off by being used in Africa, but then their product went global – such as with Ushahidi?

Second, the funds and work put into this space by the NGOs are creating a false floor in the economy. They’re undermining the community of tech entrepreneurs who could be building the same products and services and charging for it, just like we’d expect any company in the West to do if there was a valuable service worth paying for. If it’s a service that should be supplied by the government, then they’re short-circuiting those responsibilities and subsidizing actions that subvert the public offices away from their duty.

Let’s say, for arguments sake, that the only way to get a much needed project going is to get a Western team in-country to start it. Is there a reason why ICT4D projects are slow to get local ownership, management and team members? Is this technology tourism and fabricated externally run projects, created because doing work in Africa is an adventure?

In Closing

What I’m hoping to get across is that we’re doing ourselves a disservice with this terminology and that it has a negative perception in the tech startup culture in Africa. Technology is about overcoming inefficiencies in the system, and products succeed because they solve real needs within communities. In Africa, as in the West, some of these solutions are for-profit and some not-for-profit. It’s important to invest in the local startups involved in trying to solve these problems and come at it from a more objective view, instead of labeling innovative technology solutions from Africa automatically as ICT4D.

We have to thinking less of ICT as something that’s about development, and more of it as a commercial venture. We need more focus on ICT4$ than ICT4D.

Rugged, solar powered VSAT broadband in rural communities

I just sat down next to Raphael Marambii, who happens to be the innovations and knowledge management specialist for a small local NGO called ALIN (arid lands information network), at a cyber cafe in Nairobi. As happens in Africa, you get into conversations, and I found out that they have been connecting rural communities via community knowledge centers (sort of rural cybercafes cum libraries / training centers) running solar powered VSAT dishes.

Solar powered VSAT broadband for communities in Kenya

They have deployed a unique prototype solar powered VSAT base station terminal at two of ALIN’s Community knowledge centers, at Marigat and Nguruman, Kenya. The base station is self contained and toughened for remote African rural conditions and requires little expertise to deploy. It’s part of the University of Michigan’s Imagine Africa project.

The question is, “why is this NGO plunking down remote satellite connections in rural Africa?” I asked Raphael just that question, and he tells me that it’s because they strongly believe that information and access to knowledge is what is needed most in these communities. They are trying to get the youth within these rural communities to embrace some of the new social media tools too, like blogging and podcasting.

From what I understand this is a pilot, testing out what happens when a new form of information is freely available within marginalized or disconnected rural communities. Raphael and team have ideas on seeing this become embedded in the community – ranging from helping with eCommerce, to creating new local content, to live video language services available over the connection.

There are two reasons I like this project. First, because it’s being driven by a local NGO, so it has some hopes of making it after the big donors leave. Second, the team is truly trying to think different – they make no bones about how their ways to connect the community to the rest of the world in mutually beneficial ways isn’t “normal”.

The true test however will be found after their 6 months of funding is gone. It costs about 26,000 Shillings ($320) to run one of these each month. Let’s see where this project, and more importantly, the communities are in one year.

FrontlineSMS (v2) is Reborn & Ready for Use

One of the guys that I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know over the years is Ken Banks. He’s a tireless believer, and more importantly practitioner, in the field of mobile phone as change agent in the world. His FrontlineSMS mobile phone software has been making waves from Chile to Nigeria, and it’s use is only accelerating.

Since its initial release in 2005, FrontlineSMS has been adopted by NGOs in over forty countries for a wide range of activities including blood donor recruitment, assisting human rights workers, promoting government accountability, keeping medical students informed about education options, providing security alerts to field workers, election monitoring, the capture and exchange of vegetable (and coffee) price information, the distribution of weather forecasts, the co-ordination of healthcare workers, the organising of political demonstrations, the carrying out of surveys and the reporting and monitoring of disease outbreaks.

As of today (9am GMT), the new and improved version of FrontlineSMS will be unveiled. The software will continue to be made available for free to non-profits, available in Windows, Mac and Linux formats in six languages; Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili.

Knowing Ken personally has a few perks, like the chance to see the new version early and know the amount of work he’s been putting into making this come into being. On top of that, Ushahidi will be utilizing FrontlineSMS as an extension to the new version of the tool we’re creating – and I know that InSTEDD plans to do the same. You know you’ve created something remarkable when you’re starting to make an impact on the NGO and the technology sides of the world.

Keeping up with Ken is difficult, as he’s a road warrior constantly speaking at conferences or in the field with his software. My suggestion is that you join the his Social Mobile Facebook group, catch him on Twitter, or read along on the Kiwanja.net blog.

Ken, congrats on this, I know it’s been a long time coming. Next drink is on me! 🙂

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