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How IT can Impact Sustainable Development in Africa

How IT can Impact Sustainable Development in Africa

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure to attend a conference on responsible supply chains at Stanford. One of the presentations was titled “How can oil filters save Africa?” The title made me curious because my initial thought was that an oil filter would pollute rather than save Africa.  However, the story was not so much that there were too many oil filters but not enough. And sometimes, a missing oil filter in a motorbike or car, or not having the right filter, can cause an otherwise functioning vehicle to stop working. And this can then be the reason why medicine or vaccination is not at the right place at the right time, with serious health issues and even death as a consequence. At the end of the day it was about managing a very simple supply chain, using the example of oil filters, in a highly constrained environment.

So I thought if oil filters can ‘save’ Africa, what potential postive impact could IT have? Of course, there is the digital divide and one might say Africa needs many other things before IT comes into play. True and not true. True, because it is obvious that there are many rural areas where food security, supply of clean water, and electricity are not a given. Not true, because IT is in fact already there.

Let’s take Ghana as an example. 15 years ago I worked as a software developer in Ghana’s capital Accra. In Germany I was working with a 486 processor and I was very much astonished when in Accra a 386 machine was waiting for me. So the available technology and software was not far behind European standards. Today, 60% of the world’s population have a cell phone, 23.5% have access to the web. Both numbers are growing extremely fast. According to the CIA fact book for Ghana, the cell phone coverage there is 37% (in comparison: coverage for main lines in use is 1.5%) and 3% of the population has web access. And this data is already two years old. So IT is in fact available, gaps are closing fast and  cell phones play a very important role in not only verbal communication but also data exchange and web access. So why not leverage it for socially sustainable development?

When we look at the inhibitors of economic development, then very often the following characteristics of the economic base of the pyramid (BOP) are mentioned:

1: Significant unmet needs like water, health, electricity but also needs for communication (cell phones) and access to financing.

2: Dependence on informal or subsistence livelihoods with no access to markets.

3: Base of pyramid penalty impact: being poor often results in paying higher prices or getting lower quality (or both).

Well, the good news is that there seem to be already a couple of good examples where IT is used to overcome these challenges.

Significant unmet needs

  • Access to capital through micro financing has caused a revolution in economic development not only since Professor Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank won the Nobel Peace Price in 2006. And access to financing is meanwhile even supported through IT. The WIZZIT Bank is working on mobile banking services for poor people in rural South Africa, where mobile banking payment services and easy account opening in areas where three in five people are not serviced by banks, are mayor focus areas.
  • Health is another basic unmet need: Ideas for ICT projects for African health cover education via satellite to health workers in selected remote areas, e-communication between healthcare facilities in isolated areas, and development of ICT infrastructure with databases of health and geographical information.

No Access to markets

  • The ITC e-choupal in India is one of the early projects where not only IT but even already the Web has been leveraged to connect local farmers in India to global markets. Started with soy beans the project helped farmers to get better information on market prices via the Web and with that decreased their reliability on middlemen, who worked ineffectively, frequently dishonestly and did not pay farmers a fair price for their beans. In addition to market information the IT and the Web was also used to educate farmers how to increase productivity and yield quality. Meanwhile the project has been extended to several other crops and live stock. According to Wikipedia, the plan is to scale up to 20,000 e-Choupals by 2012 covering 100,000 villages in 15 Indian states, servicing 15 million farmers – that sounds pretty ambitious.

Base of pyramid penalty impact

  • Many poor people face the challenge that they not only have less money to buy goods and services, they also have higher ramp up costs to even be able to get access to the goods and services they are interested in. For example they often pay more for the transportation to reach a distant hospital or clinic than for the treatment (source). The Collaboration at Rural project in South Africa, driven by SAP Research addresses this issue. Small retailers who had to drive long distances with public transport to fill up stock for their shop can now send orders via SMS to so called “infropreneurs”, who not only pick up the orders but they also consolidate orders from several shops to be able to buy larger amounts and hence get lower prices.

Interactive children education in Ghana is an interesting example because IT is not only used as a means to solve an issue, in this case primary education. Here, the software development is considered a business, driven by young Ghanaian software engineers. So IT as an opportunity for career development and employment can play a major role in economic development. India is the best example about this potential of transforming a whole economy.  

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  • Heino, all the initiatives that you mentioned are great but what exactly will they be saving Africa from? Suffice to say, the title of your blog really irks me. I come across many, many blogs from people that have briefly visited the continent. Possible investors & business people read these blogs & then consider Africa a risky proposition.
    • Trevor, propagation of stigmas is a point many overlook because unfortunately it becomes so engrained (often to our detriment) to think in a particular way.  And to your point, I can see how such a title could be inflammatory to those sensitive to the injustice of such stigmas.  So first, I thank you profusely for surfacing this important topic and caring to make the distinction and sharing how it sounds and irks.  We need such feedback and intelligence when choosing our words.

      But I am also very sorry when the wording in a title prevents further understanding of the content.  Here we do the topic a disservice and it’s a shame because this blog and the ensuing links highlight something very  important and probably just the opposite from continuing a stigma. 

      It offers an insight into how people are changing the way they help themselves and how they are using technology to do that.

      I listened and watched with great interest the video which shows how, by use of “infopreuners” and “microfinance plans” people self-help and improve their own lives, in ways that make best sense to them.  (ie. Not imposed by casual outsiders who might have business interests first and local interest second).  I saw this at work in a recent visit in India to the Dahn organization that is helping to create a very sustainable education system for children in dire poverty and working to support local farmers and community members in the process.  There are outside elements partnering, but the program is really owned by the people who understand the culture, needs, and functioning best: the locals.  I hope others will take the time to look at some of the links and see how these programs work and comment on that content.

      • Thanks for the feedback & the points you've made Marilyn. I did read & understand the content & I thought it was a great read, others will too. The title didn't dissuade me from from reading on.
        • I was thinking of how a title can be better used to plant a subliminal message that does a service rather than disservice.  Would such a title as: How IT Can Partner with Africa work better?  What do others think?
    • Well, doing business in Africa, particularly Central and West Africa can in fact be a risky proposition. And I am sure that possible investors and business people do their due diligence before they make decisions (regardless of blog titles). But that by the way is true for any internationalization strategy.

      My intention was to show opportunities for socially sustainable development through the use of IT. And for SAP as an IT and business process company that is particulary relevant.

      Save Africa from what? I think the question was more rhetoric but you could add "...from falling behind in the globalization process", "...from stagnation in social and economic development", or even "... from not reaching the Millenium Development Goals". All negative notions, I agree, but I think there are more powerful publications than this blog, which see these as real challenges. Ignatios interpretation of the title is certainly also right.

      Anyway, thanks Trevor for the feedback. I will consider your comments and be more thoughtfully next time.

      • Heino, I really enjoyed the content. It's the title I had an issue with. Living in Africa all my life, my perception of Africa is somewhat different & I believe it's on the up. Sure, there will be due diligence done before an investment but you can't deny that a possible investor could be turned off if s/he happened upon your blog & started reading the title. Let's turn the tables a bit. I'm a savvy investor & I'm considering an investment in General Motors & I stumbled across a blog titled 'How IT can Save the Motor Industry in America'. Although I'm a savvy investor & I see potential where other's may fear to tread, the seed of uncertainty has been sown (subliminal or not). Just a bit on constructive criticism, that's all 🙂
  • Hello everybody,
    based on the constructive discussion I have changed the title from initially "How IT can save Africa" to the current one, which I hope does not divert attention from the final question: Where do you think can IT have the greatest impact in socio economic development at the base of the pyramid? Do you know of great examples or do you have the perfect solution in your mind. Please let us know.
  • I have been doing some initial level research on how internet and moblie phone can help women in the rural areas of Pakistan to improve their economic conditions and attain slef confidence .Most women in the rurals are earning the living for the fmaily, in addition to taking care of the home/children, but they do not have the right to make any decisions about themsleves, or their children. Also the access to moblie phones and internet is either restriced or given. It would be interesting to study how technology can help empower women who are equally contributing in the economic cycle.
    • Hi Maria, thanks for your comments.
      I would love to know more about your experiences from Pakistan. In fact, one of the reasons why we have chosen Shea in Northern Ghana is the strong power of the women in that value chain. They are not only driving the collection and processing of Shea nuts, they also to a large degree run the family businesses. Stay tuned to study how our project will impact the lives of the women and the communities they live in.