On tech production/innovation in the global south and ICTD research*

By Seyram Avle

*This is an edited version of a short talk (less than 10 minutes if I remember correctly) that I gave at a joint University of Michigan and Michigan State University mini-symposium on ICTD on October 30, 2015  about the upcoming ICTD conference to be held in June in Ann Arbor (I’m the program committee). I wanted to talk about bringing more of what tech industries in developing countries are doing into conversation with ICTD research and the Q & A session somewhat accomplished that, in that it focused on shedding more light on the industry in Ghana with a room full of ICTD researchers… I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation with them and others who will be at the conference. Begins after the jump.

**Image from the office of Africa’s Talking (Nairobi, Kenya)
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I’ve been thinking about the production culture and industry evolving around ICTs in places like Ghana. Production culture is about the practices, beliefs and situated actions targeted at designing, building, and distributing ICTS in the country. Industry logics speak to the broader political economy (both local and global) that impact how the collection of firms, individuals etc. that make up the industry go about building, designing, distributing ICT products, both software and hardware.

Let’s think of ICTD as a field is writing a history of technology in the global south. Is it doing it by coming at it from a place of lack/want, on what external agents bring in and neglecting much of what is already happening? We have a definition of what innovation is and what design looks like in part due to interdisciplinary work done in fields such as HCI and design, documenting, questioning, and theorizing tech developments in silicon valley, research hand national labs, the military, etc. in the US and other western contexts. On the other hand, a lot of the research from the south is about how agents from outside that group think about what is missing and what to add, what they need, and less so about what may already be happening outside of the immediate area of interest. As a group of researchers concerned with the present and future well being of fellow humans in less privileged societies, I think we will be shortchanging the very group we seek to help if the record we leave posterity is that of mostly failed projects and funder agency ego stroking.

In thinking through my own work, one way that an explicit focus on industry can work its way into ICTD’s mandate is to document, make sense, and theorize what is already taking place in the global south. That is, for us to to look more closely at where design and innovations are already happening in situ. It requires a shifting of lens, repositioning of self, and rethinking the questions we ask. For me, that means moving from a position in which “my work is development related to the extent that it resides in a developing country” to more of a “my work is development related because it reflects how people living in a developing country, are utilizing what is around them, creating and tapping into networks, and seriously building things for their own societies”.

I’ll give an example. I went to Ghana to speak to a range of actors in what is still a growing tech industry, surveyed some more after I returned, and basically tried to make sense of who is doing what, why, and how they are doing it. I interviewed CEOs of very established, multinational but Ghana founded and based tech firms as well as recent college grads armed only with an idea and generalized basic tech skills. My goal was to document, understand, and make sense of what to me was an industry with its own peculiarities in its social, cultural, economic and political milieu. Part of the motivation then, and still is, that we can’t challenge dominant notions and discourses on what design is, what it looks like if we have little to compare it to. There’s work from China’s manufacturing sector (for instance Silvia Lindtner et al’s work) challenging that but there’s still a lot of work left to move the discourse of design and technology innovation forward towards a multiplicity of contexts the way user appropriation work has done. It’s still very easy to slip into claiming that all/most innovation comes from Silicon Valley (the “center” in the center-periphery narratives) and diffuses elsewhere. Switching where we begin the work is how I’ve been looking at it.

My informants answered a range of questions about their backgrounds, interest, motivations for doing technology, what products and services there were building, what their business strategies were, etc. I didn’t ask about development or ICTD. The questions were framed as more oriented towards business and the economy, the role of the government in supporting industry, etc. I wasn’t planning an intervention or thinking about what development means.

One key theme that emerged that struck me, was the ways that technology entrepreneurship was framed. It was presented to me as a set of practices, as an identity, and as an economic position, al of which do different kinds of work. One kind of work was the aspirational – the tech entrepreneur is a highly valued and valorized identity that new entrants into the market aimed at. Some of the people mentioned were the likes of Bill Gates, others were Herman Chinery-Hesse, one of the first Ghanaians to build a tech company, Patrick Awuah (founder of Ashesi University), people in Ghana building things they wanted to emulate. If we think about this through the lens that Kentaro Toyama (author of Geek Heresy) has recently been talking about, i.e. getting at people’s needs and aspirations, and then seeing how we can help with the resources we have, I think we can do development work by asking what is going on in industry by looking at the goals and aspirations, and building on from there.

Another theme from the Ghana work was how the practice of design and its purposes were framed. There was a certain instrumental functionality applied to what these technologists were building. One was the requirement that what they designed filled a need, not just as a market function, i.e. “there’s this need and I’m only providing a business response”. It was often framed within a broader need, as one step towards a bigger problem. So, the person building software to help process insurance claims, was addressing a very local (but also global south) challenge of hospital record keeping. The one building games was targeting a generation of Africans who were absent in a particular space – gaming – but also towards building a company that trained people to think across story telling, engineering, computer science, English majors, etc. to build a dynamic system. [I talk about some of this in a paper (with Silvia) accepted for the upcoming CHI conference]

We could take a skeptical view and say “oh Silicon Valley techies also say they want to change the world”. However it won’t be a helpful view and doesn’t really advance the conversation. Those identifying peculiar needs from the sample I’m drawing from weren’t necessarily trying to save the world. They didn’t present idyllic view of some techno utopia to come; which isn’t to say those trying, say, through social enterprises are. I’m interpreting this as a somewhat pragmatic response of making use of what is available in a resource-constrained environment and innovating around that challenge, understanding that some challenges are things they cannot directly change. The innovation might be in the training they do of recent university grads, or it might be allowing people to pay utility bills via multiple platforms through the ubiquitous mobile phone, leaving utility provision to others skilled at providing that. But the applications are not being built just for smart phones; many targeted ‘dumb ones, basic java enabled ones… across the spectrum of phones available and users, not just rich not just poor but both plus the growing middle class.

So, while we are looking for those vulnerable populations or the ever present farmer and fisherman in need of our interventions, we can also look for who in the local market is already thinking about this farmer and building something that we can add on. In fact, there are more than a couple that were working (for e.g. Farmable, Esoko, etc), some of which are profitable while still serving a critical need for the poor (who make up the majority of customers in some cases). The market isn’t inherently evil. It has its distortions but it can be useful for thinking about collaborating instead of starting whole new projects that cannot scale outside the particular context we implement them in. Participatory design for instance gets at some of this. Studying what the local industry is already doing, then should also be fulfilling some of the ‘development mandate’ in perhaps more sustainable ways.

From the Field: Observations on tech production & innovation in Ghana – Part 1

By Seyram Avle

I’m back in Ghana to continue fieldwork I started in 2012 – documenting & making sense of technology and new media production  [see here, here, and here for published work on this]. This is the end of my third week, and in that time, I’ve (briefly) visited two co-working spaces in the city, attended a couple of industry events, and spoken to some tech entrepreneurs. Given the limited time and data so far, my observations should be not be interpreted as sweeping claims about technology production/entrepreneurship in Ghana as a whole. Kumasi, another major city, has its own stuff going, as does Takoradi which now apparently has a fablab and hosts a maker group (more on that later). These are just some things that are striking based on what I saw in 2012 and what I’m observing this time around. I expect that some of these impressions will change as I spend more time with a couple of companies and talk more to the different actors in the tech and new media sectors.

So, what’s changed since 2012?

New and varied players

  1. Several new companies have emerged, still largely software based. However, many of these companies are service providers first, tech companies second; i.e. lots of tech enabled services like food/grocery delivery, banking, e-commerce, etc. serving both local and diaspora based Ghanaians.
  2. Some of the startups from 2012 have been acquired by foreign entities (E.g. ClaimSync, now part of Genkey, Saya is now part of Kirusa) and many have evolved in what service/product they deliver.
  3.  The school/Incubator (MEST) that some of those companies came out of has refashioned into a “school and incubator for African startups” – showing a broader continent wide focus that speaks a lot about its growth in the last few years.
  4.  There are two additional incubators/hubs in the city (iSpace and Impact Hub (formerly Hub Accra) that house a number of startups while doubling as co-working spaces.
  5. Most, if not all, of the telecom operators now offer some sort of mobile money (See Airtel Money, Vodafone Money, Tigo Cash, etc.) that are either competing or working with companies like MPower, expressPay, etc. Likewise banks are offering mobile services for their customers, e.g. GT mobile, all showing how pervasive mobile based products are in the fin tech sector.
  6. National aid/development actors (eg. USAID, DANIDA, etc) are getting in on the action by directly funding companies or initiatives, reminding me of just how entrenched the NGO infrastructure is in Ghana and Africa in general. I had an interesting conversation about the implications of this shift and keeping my fingers crossed that my interlocutor will write a neat post about it that we can share here and elsewhere.
  7. Chinese technology in the form of user products have become a formidable force in the marketplace. Huawei and Tecno phones are competitively priced for both the middle class and those at the lower end of the economic ladder. Samsung and Apple are still the high end desired products but those other two are not to be sneezed at in their higher end lines. There appears to also be some more collaboration between Chinese firms and Ghanaian partners, not just in phones but across different industries. (The China angle is a whole other post that will come later).
  8. Women technologists are more visible. I don’t know for sure if there are more women moving into tech related endeavors or some other broader issue. What I do know is that I’m looking out more for more women techies (especially at the C-level (i.e. CEO/CTO, etc) and thus seeing more of them.  I only managed to speak to 4 women tech CEOs compared to 14 men (as a subset of the larger group of people I spoke to) in 2012.  I’ve since met or heard of a few others at that C-level or other positions of power, with many more at various levels. Just take a look at Women in Tech Africa, and see for yourself. You can search by country under “meet amazing women in tech”.

Innovation is a keyword

In 2012, I was very much focused on technology entrepreneurship and my research questions were centered around the activities happening in that space. I’m following up this year but I’m also interested in the term ‘innovation’ and what it means to the people using it, what my own understanding of the word is, what extant literature both from the global north and south say about it, and what my fieldwork presents for empirical evidence. At iSpace, it was explained to me that the ‘i’ there is for innovation and not information or information technology as some might think. Indeed, not all the companies there are IT based (e.g. ZaaCoal, a green energy from waste start up). While hanging out there, I run into folks from a company that recycle plastic into cool looking bags [Trashy bags]. Impact Hub also has non-tech companies (e.g. Raffia) and one of the co-founders spoke of ‘innovation funding’. Unlike many of the tech hubs around Africa, these spaces have broadened the narrative beyond information technologies; and, while entrepreneurship is still privileged, the path is not predetermined to be a tech focused solution or idea.

Last week I purchased an ‘emergency fan’ designed by a Ghanaian and manufactured by a Chinese company and then shipped back to Ghana. This multifunction device (labeled Ferddy King (and no, that’s not a typo)), like the power bank phone, is a response to the ongoing electricity crisis in the country (dubbed ‘dumsor’ from the Akan phrase for ‘turn it off, turn it on’). This thing has a rotating fan, a fairly large LED light, a radio tuner, USB port for an MP3 player and another to charge your phone, and a tiny remote control for the audio components. Its  battery is charged by A/C power but lasts for more than 10 hours thereafter.  The few people who saw me using it all expressed surprise at the revelation that the design and specs originated from within the country. Those encounters reminded me that its easy to miss innovation because we’re used to seeing a specific kind from a specific place and don’t open our eyes to possibilities outside of those places. Moreover, the mix of design, manufacture and distribution factors around this device underscore the new forms of collaboration that are emerging in and outside Ghana, both in terms of technology and other forms of production.

In my next post, I’ll talk some more about innovation and what it’s looking like in the info tech space specifically and perhaps talk a bit about how new partnerships and collaborations are emerging with China in that area in Ghana.