M4D & ICT4D Innovation: The Importance of Local Knowledge and Insight

Development critics have long lambasted practitioners and organizations that are seen to create development policy and interventions driven by donor demands, and in turn, isolate the very populations they seek to assist. Rightly so—history is scattered with failed projects designed without consultation with—or adequate understanding of—local communities, stakeholders and gatekeepers. Many past ICT4D projects are identified in this group, and many will have heard the anecdotes of computers being donated to villages without electricity to power them, or SMS campaigns sent to largely illiterate populations.

While recent years have ushered in a renewed commitment to downward accountability, participatory development and community ownership and engagement, there is still a long way to go before a balance is struck between external intervention and local knowledge and needs.

With this in mind, I travelled to Kenya last week with some of my development colleagues to speak to our “target market”: base of the pyramid mobile subscribers who are typically underserved by traditional socio-economic support and information services. We spent time in Kibera, Nairobi markets and rural areas outside of Naivasha. Although just a scratch on the surface, our aim was to collect information from these mobile users about their lives and their mobile phone usage to get a better sense of the context in which they access (or don’t access) m4d and other mobile services.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Safaricom’s M-PESA was a frequent topic of conversation. M-PESA’s impact in reducing the cost, time and security issues of sending money to family members, receiving payments and improving efficiency for small businesses in the informal sector was heralded by almost all we spoke with. The ease with which people could be in touch with friends and family, access Facebook (for mobile internet users), and the improved sense of security of being able to make a call in an emergency were all recurrent themes in discussions. Most comments reiterated the well-known reality that humans are social creatures, and the ability to connect has always been fundamental to our sense of well-being.

From a disaster response perspective, reflections from interviewees about the increased sense of security derived from mobile access were of particular interest. Research and anecdotal evidence shows how critical both communication and information are in all crises, including large-scale, small and individual.  When mobile is the predominant way of connecting, it’s critical that networks  can provide coverage, facilitate communication and spread information, and the GSMA Disaster Response Programme is working with mobile operators and humanitarian actors to improve this reliability and coordination.

With upcoming elections in Kenya, the conflict with Somalia and the constant influx of refugees it has brought, and recurrent food crises, there is no shortage of ways in which m4d services, and mobile connectivity more broadly are relevant. There is also no shortage of amazing mobile and tech innovation being developed by local tech communities in Kenya like *iHub, who are seeking to address the needs of populations experiencing the events above.

Linking these tech innovators with the communities they are developing platforms, apps and services for is an essential ingredient for success and impact, and positively, many of the people I spoke to at *iHub already consult local communities as standard practice (many are actually Kenyan themselves, and employ local people who know the environment).  This model is a great example of bridging the gap between technologists, humanitarians and development practitioners and the local populations. To ensure that development services using mobile are successful and resonate with those meant to use them, more engagement between local mobile operators, tech developers and local communities can only help.

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