Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D) aims to harness ICT for socioeconomic development, with particular emphasis on driving impact in low-resource or low-income regions. A panel discussion held at Trialogue’s 2017 Business in Society Conference explored the potential of ICT4D, the impact that new technologies could have for the developing world, as well as the ways in which existing and emerging technologies are currently used, particularly in under-resourced communities.
Vuyani Jarana, Chief Officer at Vodacom Business, suggested that energy is channelled into looking at the opportunities that ICT presents to tackle some of the most stubborn socioeconomic challenges in Africa. He explained that social innovation is about looking for prompts in societies and communities – finding out where the challenges lie and how best to respond. From there, an idea can grow to a prototype, which is then scaled up to a sustainable solution – eventually causing fundamental systemic change.
“Mobile technology is Africa’s communication DNA,” noted Jarana. “To really make an impact, we need to use and leverage what is already in Africa’s hands. Africa stands in a strong place to participate in and contribute to the fourth industrial revolution. It is up to us – to business and society – to ensure that Africa is not left behind as we address the challenges we face as a country and a continent.”
Harnessing ICT for development in Africa
Based on this call to action, conference chairperson, Thabang Skwambane, asked panellists how we should we can ensure that Africa is not left behind. Nathi Kunene, CSI Senior Manager at The Telkom Foundation, said that technology has disrupted so much over the last few years. “The youth we are assisting are born with the technology of today. If we want to reach young people, we need to understand the role of technology and social media in order to make our solutions effective.”
Marcha Bekker of Praekelt.org agreed, stating that in ICT4D it is critical to start with the end user, by understanding who that user is and what technology they already use and have in their homes. “We cannot sit in our office in Joburg and design a phone app for teenage girls in Bangladesh. We have to go there and see where they are at and what they need.” Bekker cited other examples, such as providing ICT solutions for people with disabilities or low levels of literacy – saying that more effective solutions would lie in voice-, rather than text-based systems.
She also noted the importance of ensuring that solutions are cost-effective and intended to be scalable from the start. “There is a stigma (in the ICT4D space) around ‘pilot-itus’ – too many small things are polited all the time and then they fail as soon as it is scaled.”
Gavin Weale, founder and MD of Livity Africa, commented that the development of digital technology creates unprecedented potential to create jobs and livelihoods. “As every business becomes more digital, it needs new skills – and this presents a huge opportunity for jobs, freelancers, and micro-enterprises. This new digital world is creating whole new career paths. And there are so many young people who can and want to capitalise on this, no matter how underprivileged their background.”
Addressing issues of access
Jarana was emphatic that both government and corporates need to do more. Government must facilitate the work of companies by providing permits and spectrum. Technology companies must put pressure on device manufacturers to continue to innovate and bring down the cost of smart phones. And society also needs to play its part. For example, the best technology solutions will not survive if the physical infrastructure is vulnerable to crime.
In the telecommunications space, the key is scale. In South Africa, CSI is a function of an economy not firing on all cylinders. “How can we use CSI to get the economy going?” asked Jarana. “We need to start with that in our own industry. We need to ‘solve upstream’ and make the economy work using ICT – help government to become more efficient, helping the private sector do better.”
Bridging the digital divide
Weale considered the significant risk in programmes that capitalise on providing greater digital access to those who are already connected – especially in urban areas. He noted that even basic connectivity can – and must – be leveraged.
Bekker suggested that this is a question of targeting the problem at two levels. “We need to work on getting connectivity to people, but we also can’t just sit and wait for that to happen one day. We need to work with what we have right now. Let’s start our interventions on phones that have the most basic functionality: call, SMS and USSD. And to do that, we need to work together to get those costs down. If we can’t do that, we will end up waiting until everyone has a smartphone.” Kunene agreed, noting that it is important to ensure that innovation brings with it better, cheaper products.
Skwambane concluded the discussion with acknowledgement that this is a complex issue, saying that “we are our worst enemies – limiting ourselves in terms of what ICT can bring to the development space.”
This session was presented in partnership with
- Gavin Weale, Livity Africa
- Marcha Bekker, Praekelt.org
- Nathi Kunene, Telkom Foundation
- Vuyani Jarana, Vodacom
- Thabang Skwambane (facilitator)