A new report launched today examines how social tech ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa can be better supported to achieve greater impact. The study, written by Madeira-ITI and developed in partnership between Comic Relief, Indigo Trust and Nominet Trust looks at emerging technologies and their role in current development practice. In addition, it offers practical and realistic advice for practitioners, funders and researchers keen to reflect upon the way they approach the issue of social tech.
The full report is available to download here and we believe that it offers insight and questions to anyone working in the field. The wide-ranging research looks at many issues, from social tech in action and learning from failure to the role of telcos and the complex relationship between technology and colonialism. As such, we think it is relevant to an array of individuals and institutions working in social tech in sub-Saharan Africa. Reflecting on our own approach and that of our peers, we have identified three areas where we believe change is both desirable and achievable:
- Engaging Government: Not all tech projects or organisations need to engage directly with government to achieve success. Inevitably, however, the parameters within which all projects must operate are shaped by government through regulation and legislation. A hostile or inflexible framework may pose a significant barrier to success for many projects, so funders need to look more carefully at how the projects they support work with or through governments. Many of the case studies presented in this report have either been led by government (MomConnect), enshrined government involvement from the outset (M-Pesa) or sought government collaboration during the scaling process (iCow). As the report comments ‘Government plays a critical role, both as an enabling influence in the ecosystem and as the direct path to success for many social tech initiatives’ (p.37). Working with governments, however, is rarely straightforward. They are far from monolithic entities and coordination or agreement between different arms of government is not guaranteed. The job of funders lies in better understanding the political and governmental conditions of countries where they work and seeking out those who are likely to listen (p.63). Alongside this is a need for others to engage in longer-term work to push for better regulation of tech ecosystems to create a more supportive enabling environment for all sorts of tech projects.
- Flexible, patient funding: ‘For the social entrepreneur in sub-Saharan Africa, the path to success is extremely narrow (p.6).’ Under such circumstances, inflexible funding arrangements or onerous requirements can be a death knell for fledgling tech groups. Donors need to be better able to ‘structure grants… to accommodate the pivots and iterations needed for tech success’ (p.42). Different cases require different treatment from donors – what works for one group, sector or country will not necessarily work for another. Funders need to recognise the diverse needs of different groups and change their approach where needed. Spending more time on the ground, hiring local staff and embracing flexibility are all key to giving local groups the support and breathing space to be able to adapt and survive.
- Gaps and gluts: Investment in African tech ecosystems is far from smooth or equitably distributed. It is, rather, a story of gaps and gluts – missed opportunities on one side, overinvestment on the other. Enthusiasm for and investment in cool, contemporary issues needs to be moderated by investment in less cool, but locally relevant issues. Rural issues, for example, have often received less attention from funders and developers primarily based in urban environments (p.71). Likewise, in recent times investment in apps has often overshadowed other forms of technology, such as voice interfaces or radio. It is beholden upon both donors and local tech players to better understand the needs and context of those they want to reach and the best ways of doing this. While the tech needs of individual constituencies may be very different, so too is the funding landscape in different countries. The report recommends that ‘a brief gap analysis in each country would yield information on specific imbalances or absences’ (p.39). This sort of data-driven, intelligence-led grantmaking may help to address some of those gaps and gluts.