Getting online is an expensive business. The ACE undersea cable, which runs for a total of 17,000km from southern France to South Africa is bringing some parts of West Africa broadband access for the very first time. It’s an immense technical and logistical challenge and, although I wasn’t able to find a quick estimate of the total cost, I’m pretty confident it’s a little bit bigger than the £10,000 we typically award to grantees. The ACE cable is, perhaps, a slightly extreme example, but it indicates the point that technology infrastructure is often costly and, more often than not, can be difficult to maintain. This is true not just of vast undertakings like the ACE undersea cable, but also of more ‘mundane’ bits of the technological jigsaw. As a small funder, we can’t afford to equip everyone with technology – even basic mobile phones – and that shouldn’t be our role. There are huge disparities in technology access across Africa, but small funders like Indigo will not be able to iron out those disparities. And despite the differences between and among countries, technology access and ownership continues to grow exponentially. ISPs, mobile operators and technology companies have been very good at exploiting moneymaking opportunities by increasing their customer base and improving access. As mobile technology has become ubiquitous, so handset prices have decreased in many parts of the world. Philanthropic funding is not responsible for this explosion in tech access. Thisis just one of the reasons that we don’t support technology infrastructure costs.
Another keen issue issue concerns sustainability. Even if we were able and willing to support technology infrastructure development, what would happen once our funding was removed? Maintenance of equipment is a challenge in the best of environments – components degrade and fail, natural and manmade disasters threaten infrastructure, equipment gets old and slow. Maintaining tech infrastructure, therefore, is a huge challenge and not one that Indigo could or should take on.
Organisations looking for support with hardware and infrastructure shouldn’t rely on us for funding. We’re just too small to be able to support it and find it’s mjuch more sustainable and suitable for us to fund projects that make use of technologies to which people already have access. While it’s true that some places have no access at all, that’s not something that can be solved by Indigo – a thousand Indigos would struggle to meet even a fraction of the demand and need. Much better to leave it to those with the expertise, resources and ability.