Simply Complicated Technological Solutions in the global South

Global South: Computer technology with iHub, Kenya
Computer technology with iHub, Kenya | Photo (detail): Photoshot © picture alliance

Emerging technologies present opportunities for countries in the global South to realise exponential change and growth. But just as abundant as the potential is, so are the bottlenecks. Nanjira Sambuli explains.

By Nanjira Sambuli

Local technological innovations come in varied ways. They may be in the form of ‘copy and paste’ in brand and approach, such as a ride-hailing service akin to ‘the Uber of grocery delivery’ or the ‘Silicon Valley of Ghana’. Imitation can be coupled with or mutate into localising the use of something built elsewhere. The American cross-platform social messaging service, WhatsApp, for instance, now serves as an e-commerce platform for many businesses and individuals across the globe.

M-PESA was developed as a concept in the UK, gained traction in Kenya, and is now a leading mobile money transfer service in Africa. Localising technological innovations not only means adapting and modifying existing solutions, but also developing and deploying new ones to address local needs. The boy who harnessed the wind did just that for his village in Malawi. And there are many more examples.
 
Underlying these and similar cases is the truism that talent is everywhere but opportunities are not. It takes talent to replicate, customise or create something new. How each innovative idea is supported is the challenge for which we urgently need lasting, evolving and contextually appropriate interventions. 

There is no shortage of talent

A popular approach in many parts of the global South is to create new institutions, complete with missions and visions that promise to support innovation. However, the imagination and organisation therein are often suboptimal, even if talented persons lead the institutions. At the institution level, R&D labs within universities or tech labs and hubs come to mind. Often, a new building, swanky equipment and such accompany the set up. Are these, however, readily available and accessible to the talent that should appropriate them? Or is the talent that flows through these spaces of a particular homogeneity? If, for example, a ‘maker space’ is only available to university students, the assumption is that the talent that could take advantage of its offerings can only be found within the university. What becomes of the talented thinker and doer locked out of the formal education system, yet whose idea or craft could lead to the next big thing?
  • Global South: IT specialists in the iHub, an innovation centre for technology companies, 25.02.2020, Kenya, Nairobi Bernd von Jutrczenka © dpa
    25.02.2020, Kenya, Nairobi: IT specialists at the iHub, an innovation centre for technology companies
  • Global South: An M-Pesa mobille phone shop in Kenya's capital city Nairobi. M-PESA is mobile service provider, Safaricom's, 'mobile money', allowing users to transfer money using their mobile phone. Kenya is the first country in the world to use this service which helps users transfer small amounts of money to pay for goods and services or to send direct to relatives in villages without banks. Boniface Mwangi © epa-Bildfunk
    An M-Pesa mobille phone shop in Kenya's capital city Nairobi. M-PESA is mobile service provider, Safaricom's, 'mobile money', allowing users to transfer money using their mobile phone. Kenya is the first country in the world to use this service which helps users transfer small amounts of money to pay for goods and services or to send direct to relatives in villages without banks.
  • Global South: William Kamkwamba (left) and the actor of the film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” Maxwell Simba at the Berlinale on February 12, 2019. The film is based on the autobiography of the same name by William Kamkwamba. The Malawian-born mechanic became a hero in his home country because he built a windmill made of eucalyptus, bicycle parts and material from the local scrap yard to supply his house with electricity. Later he constructed a solar-powered water pump that supplied his village with drinking water for the first time. Because his family could not pay the school fees, Kamkwamba had to leave school. However, he continued his education in the village library, where he discovered the book “Using Energy” and saw in it the picture and explanation of a windmill. Ekaterina Chesnokova / Sputnik Foto © picture alliance / dpa
    William Kamkwamba (left) and the actor of the film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” Maxwell Simba at the Berlinale on February 12, 2019. The film is based on the autobiography of the same name by William Kamkwamba. The Malawian-born mechanic became a hero in his home country because he built a windmill made of eucalyptus, bicycle parts and material from the local scrap yard to supply his house with electricity. Later he constructed a solar-powered water pump that supplied his village with drinking water for the first time. Because his family could not pay the school fees, Kamkwamba had to leave school. However, he continued his education in the village library, where he discovered the book “Using Energy” and saw in it the picture and explanation of a windmill.
  • Global South: Workers in the sewing workshop of the Egyptian company Sekem, where they sew together small textiles and components for cloth dolls, recorded on 27.10.2014. The Sekem initiative is an anthroposophical company founded in 1977 by Ibrahim Abouleish, which developed a desert area about 47 km northeast of Cairo for biodynamic agriculture and has since then been able to expand continuously in other areas. The company, which has since developed into a holding company with six groups of companies, operates fair trade and maintains a school, a kindergarten, a vocational training centre, a clinic and a university for its almost 2,000 employees* and their families. In 2003 Ibrahim Abouleish was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize for the Sekem initiative. Matthias Tödt © picture alliance/dpa-Zentralbild
    Workers in the sewing workshop of the Egyptian company Sekem, where they sew together small textiles and components for cloth dolls, recorded on 27.10.2014. The Sekem initiative is an anthroposophical company founded in 1977 by Ibrahim Abouleish, which developed a desert area about 47 km northeast of Cairo for biodynamic agriculture and has since then been able to expand continuously in other areas. The company, which has since developed into a holding company with six groups of companies, operates fair trade and maintains a school, a kindergarten, a vocational training centre, a clinic and a university for its almost 2,000 employees* and their families. In 2003 Ibrahim Abouleish was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize for the Sekem initiative.
  • Global South: The Africa Netpreneur Prize in Accra, capital of Ghana, on Nov. 16, 2019. The Jack Ma Foundation of Jack Ma, founder of China's Internet giant Alibaba gave a total cash prize of one million dollars to support the enterprises of 10 young African entrepreneurs, the winners out of more than 10,000 participants. Zhang Yu © picture alliance/Xinhua
    The Africa Netpreneur Prize in Accra, capital of Ghana, on Nov. 16, 2019. The Jack Ma Foundation of Jack Ma, founder of China's Internet giant Alibaba gave a total cash prize of one million dollars to support the enterprises of 10 young African entrepreneurs, the winners out of more than 10,000 participants.
  • Global South: A child in a village in the Tanga region of Tanzania learns to write from a tablet using open-sourced software that would easily be downloaded by illiterate children to teach themselves to read. The winner of the competition for a $10 million XPRIZE for global innovation. Courtesy XPRIZE © picture alliance / AP Photo
    A child in a village in the Tanga region of Tanzania learns to write from a tablet using open-sourced software that would easily be downloaded by illiterate children to teach themselves to read. The winner of the competition for a $10 million XPRIZE for global innovation.
  • Global South: Chemist Derek Ndinteh in his office at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Due to poor conditions for education and research, many African academics leave the continent. Anja Bengelstorff © dpa
    Chemist Derek Ndinteh in his office at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Due to poor conditions for education and research, many African academics leave the continent.
The same (in)advertent myopia can be seen in how governments in the global South plan and invest. A narrow-minded theory of change ­— often one that has been derived from a singular success story at home or abroad — encompasses and ultimately rigidifies the resources made available. A particular parochial packaging of ideas, and therefore knowledge is encoded as the best solution. This ends up locking out diversity of approaches that emerge from the wider (often marginalised) communities.
 
We understandably end up in these stale configurations because in part, the resourcing and support made available to institutions and countries in the global South are hardly without strings attached. If development, investment, aid or any other support mechanism is essentially pre-baked, it undermines the eventual outcome(s). 
 

“Fashioning the global South in the image of the global North is a pervasive, persistent challenge. We can skirt around the edges, but it remains the elephant in the room.”

To illustrate, the “Marshall Plan for Africa” — a customised copy and paste concept, with minimal consultation with its ‘beneficiaries'— will surely only stray so far from how its antecedent was packaged for Western Europe.

We are not poor

My proposal on how institutions and countries in the global South can support and leverage local technology innovations is perhaps mundane. And it is not a technological fix. It can be summed up in one word: ideology, which is simple, yet complicated. We must intellectually and financially budget for the alternatives in the subaltern. Today, these exist in "informal" economies and groupings that have arisen due to the rigidity and frankly, inappropriateness, of what have been set up as the ‘formal’ institutions and means of governing. How can we possibly continue to rationalise a ‘marginalised majority’ existing in the fringes of what’s supposedly mainstream?
 

“To those offering external support to the global South: find some humility, ask how you can support, not where your ready-made ideas and solutions can be implemented.”

To the institutions and countries of the global South: find pride in the vastness of an untapped archive of creativity, knowledge and insight that remains in the minds and hands of your citizens. Carve out ways to adapt the incoming ‘support’ to the seemingly invisible, unquantifiable, yet hugely unused potential. Quieten the noise of (un)solicited expertise from far-removed parts of your reality and focus on the signal that is in the energy and daily execution of ideas, indigenous knowledge and so much more in our societies.

“We are not poor; we have just systemically mismanaged our resources – natural and human.”


Local technological innovations in the global South could vary from the tools of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ to brick-and-mortar, age-old ones. How each of them serves the desired goals in any community is largely a function of the ideologies steering their application to a challenge.
 
There is no technological wonder that can ‘leapfrog’ this fundamental reform that remains elusive. The hope is that global South institutions and countries can put their finger on this beating pulse, and reorganise accordingly. Additionally, that their partners in the North can also shift their mindsets and how they tailor their support, for us to truly unleash the capabilities for technological innovations driven by local expertise.