Next month I am going back to Nairobi to meet with a selection of people who work in the tech4good [replace with social tech, ICT4D, digital development, or whatever buzzword you prefer here].
What led me to this visit?
When I was last in Kenya in 2016, I conducted some research for Oxfam into the technology environment and opportunities / potential roles for international NGOs (Digital Development: What is the role of international NGOs? ICT for Development programmes and opportunities in the Horn, East and Central Africa). Since then I’ve been asked to do a number of related pieces of consultancy around digital development and digital transformation for NGOs – for FHI 360, Chemonics and Practical Action. This gave me an opportunity to do some landscape research and speak to hundreds of people who work in or have an interest in the use of ICTs to improve people’s lives in the global South.
Throughout this work, three of the recurring themes that kept sticking in my head were:
- Local ownership is key
This is true, and widely known, in the development sector, but when considering digital technology – with its transformational potential and vital role in enabling a high-skilled workforce and fuelling economic growth – it seems even more critical than in other areas.
- Local technology and tech4good ecosystems are not having the impact they could
While some countries have little to no technology (let alone social technology) emerging as yet, some – including Kenya – have a long history and are buzzing hubs of activity and according to the stats (number of startups etc.) seem to be thriving. However, on speaking to those involved – it seems a lot of these start-ups are failing, a lot of products are not finding customers, a lot of local digital agencies are finding it difficult to win contracts, a lot of skilled local digital developers are struggling to find decent employment and most critically – many of the areas where digital was expected to have an enormous positive social impact have failed to materialise.
- A high proportion of aid/development money is spent outside the country being helped
At the same time, a lot of donor money ends up making its way back to sub-contractors and consultants in Europe and the US or – in the case of ICT4D work – spent with internal digital teams in head-office. This is not confined to digital, but given the importance of this sector, it is a particularly important missed opportunity, where money being spent on programs could be doing more to support and grow local technology and tech4good sectors, instead of developing skills and expertise outside the country.
What are the real problems and issues?
I have some ideas on what the challenges facing the emerging social-tech scenes in many countries might be, what barriers may exist, and what potential support could help:
- A combination of genuine and perceived skills/capability gaps (particularly in the specific ‘ICT4D skills’ – agile/lean approaches, human-centred design, open re-usable systems, low/intermittent-bandwidth solutions etc.
- A similar skills/capability gap in those donors, NGOs and governments who are holding the purse strings
- Lack of trust and understanding of different contexts and drivers
- Inappropriate approaches to procurement (i.e. fixed-price, lowest-cost wins rather than a recognition of the value of long-term partnerships and local knowledge)
- Inadequate local ecosystems, partnerships and relationships between different actors
- Difficult to obtain invaluable advice from those who have decades of experience in learning what does and doesn’t work in ICT4D (practitioners and academics)
- Communication difficulties – between techies and non-techies and between NGO/donors and other sectors
- A confusion and mismatch of approaches – log-frames, Theory of Change, lean startup, agile, participatory design, waterfall development etc.
However, in the spirt of user-focused and iterative approaches such as Lean Startup, I am remaining open to the reality that some or all of the above are probably wrong, that there are vital things missing and that there are different perspectives, other problems, more complex and more simple ways of viewing things.
What am I planning to do to help?
Before I even begin to think about potential services or solutions that might help, I want to spend some time with the people actually doing this work on a day-to-day basis – the tech startups, the ICT4D teams in local NGO offices, those donors that are closer to the programs being delivered etc. – hear what they have to say, how they see things, and what ideas they have on how to improve the situation, grow the local social-technology sector and help it to have a greater positive impact.
Where better to start than Nairobi – with its abundance of tech startups, NGOs and investors – if a solution can’t be found that works here, it probably can’t be found anywhere!
So next month, I will spend a few weeks in Kenya – meeting as diverse a range of people related to this space as possible – what problems do they see, what ideas to they have to improve things, what funding, services, skills, relationships, networks etc. do they think would help? And critically – is there a useful role for the NGO community to play in this space – or is it something better handled by the government and/or the private sector?
Once I synthesis the results – who knows… I hope that some realistic and practical ideas for services, products or solutions will emerge, that I can start to develop – iteratively of course, and with the end-users… But I am realistic – this is a big job, and may need widespread systemic change. Even with my wide network of people involved in ICT4D – this may well be too big a job, in which case… maybe the first step is to look at forming a network, to try to influence key people and organisations, or maybe the outcome is simply to write up the knowledge I glean from the discussions, share it widely, and then move on to something else. However it turns out, I am sure it will be a fascinating, rewarding and, I hope, useful exercise.
Can you help?
- Are you based in Nairobi and work in social tech, tech4good, ICT4D, digital development in some capacity? If so, I’d love to meet you while I am there.
- Do you know someone who works in this space and would have interesting thoughts to share?
- I’m also co-hosting a Technology Salon on Local Technology Ownership while I am there (probably Feb 20) and looking for a ‘lead discussant’ to share their experiences.
- I’d love to organise an ICT4D Nairobi Meetup while I am there, but it is not practical to arrange from the UK – any volunteers to organise (I can help and advise remotely)?
- Lastly, if you simply have ideas, suggestions or thoughts – or would like to get involved in whatever ends up emerging from this early research – get in touch!
I will be in Nairobi from 7-21 February, 2018, please contact me if you can help or want to know more.
And I will of course be blogging on this again during or after my trip. Please sign up to follow this blog (in the sidebar on the right) to make sure you don’t miss any updates.