Guest post: Power to the People – Tech, Transparency and Transformation

In an exclusive guest post for HumanIPO Loren Treisman, the Executive of grant-making foundation Indigo Trust, writes about the power of technology to transform lives in Africa. Indigo Trust supports technology-driven projects in Africa, with Treisman having expertise in how new technologies can drive social change on the continent.

The tables are turning. It’s long since been recognised that traditional models of aid can at times be inefficient and ineffective. The development community is now well aware of the need to empower citizens so that they can make the changes they wish to see in their own lives and communities. Technology, when integrated into well-devised social projects, can greatly contribute to this process.

Through accessing, sharing and creating information, citizens are able to more effectively participate in civic life and improve outcomes across a range of sectors including health, agriculture, human rights and education. Additionally, technology can ensure that projects can achieve impact at scale and at relatively low cost.

There are more than 450 million mobile phones in Africa. This provides a tremendous opportunity in terms of ensuring that critical information reaches everyday citizens, even in remote locations. Applications can be developed anywhere globally. If we can encourage more of these technologies to be developed in-country, this will contribute towards Africa’s economic growth and ensure that interventions best cater to the needs of end users; local developers and social activists are best placed to understand the local context, having experienced its challenges and nuances firsthand.

In order for this approach to be successful, it is necessary to create an inviting ecosystem where technologists and social activists can come together and have the necessary support structures, infrastructure, facilities, regulatory framework and access to funding available to them to enable them to thrive.

At Indigo Trust, we provide support to technology innovation hubs across the continent. From RLabs (South Africa, Namibia and beyond) and Bongo Hive (Zambia) in the South to Co-Creation Hub (Nigeria) and Activ Spaces (Cameroon) in the West, with KINU (Tanzania), iHub (Kenya) and Hive Colab (Uganda) spreading across East Africa. Some are even cropping up in unexpected places like Somaliland (RLabs) and Liberia (iLab).

We believe that through galvanising the tech community, encouraging collaboration, providing state of the art facilities and access to training, events and mentorship, hubs form a vital component of a tech ecosystem and have a catalytic effect on both the quality and quantity of social projects being developed within Africa.

We also recognise the importance of encouraging innovation in such a new and rapidly changing sector. By providing seed funding to social tech entrepreneurs, we allow them to pilot new ideas with room for trial and error. Through connecting them to our wider network of funders, technologists and like-minded activists and by actively promoting their work, we also aim to add significant value to our grantees’ work beyond the funding provided.

Whilst the broader impact of social tech interventions remains to be determined, inspiring projects are already creating a buzz.

One of the sectors that excite us the most is the field of good governance, transparency, accountability and citizen participation. One of our longest standing grantees, MySociety is partnering with organisations across the continent to develop websites which enable civil society, journalists and the general public to access information about their elected representatives and parliamentary proceedings and to contact those that represent them. Odekro.org in Ghana and Mzalendo in Kenya are two great examples of this work. Budgit in Nigeria is creating infographics which raise awareness and stimulate discussions around budgetary considerations, whilst Pledge 51’s Nigerian Constitution Application enables citizens to access the constitution via their mobile phone and has been downloaded over 450 000 times.

Citizen reporting platforms like Lungisa (by Cell Life) in South Africa or the Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition’s Health Legends platform enable citizens to report challenges in service delivery by SMS, whilst FrontlineSMS Radio enables two way communication by SMS between radio stations and their audiences.

All these interventions have a part to play in bringing citizens and governments closer together, giving once marginalised citizens a voice and in ensuring that citizens are able to hold governments (and corporations) to account.

Technology’s impact also spans across other sectors. SHM Foundation are providing SMS support groups to women who’ve been diagnosed with HIV during pregnancy whilst the fabulous iCow provides timely information to farmers by both voice and SMS according to a cow’s gestation calendar. The Tanzania Gender Network Programme are utilising an SMS platform to connect female activists across the country.

There’s still a long way to go before technology contributes towards the wider transformation of Africa. As well as creating the right ecosystem, it is crucial that innovators understand the wider processes of stimulating social change. For example, what will incentivise citizens to report challenges in service delivery when governments have so often previously let them down? How can governments be engaged in the process and equipped with the necessary tools and know-how to respond to citizens?

Nonetheless, I’m excited to watch this exciting field evolve and stimulate change across all social sectors and beyond.

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