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Social Tech Ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa report launch, May 16

18th May 2018

Social Tech Ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa project began in December 2016, was published in May 2018, and was executed by M-ITI. It has combined field work in sub-Saharan Africa, desk review, a peer nomination process, participant observation, and semi-structured interviews with 116 individuals in 32 countries in English, French or Portuguese.

The 'Social Tech Ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa’ report is the result of research commissioned by a partnership of three UK foundations working in the fields of social tech and international development: Comic Relief, Indigo Trust and Nominet Trust.

The report authors are Gemma Rodrigues, Chris Csíkszentmihályi, Jude Mukundane, Daniel Mwesigwa and Michelle Kasprzak. As to the interviews conducted in French, Elise Leclerc was responsible for them and the Portuguese interviews were assigned to Cristiano Gianolla.

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Commissioner's Key Points

Ecosystems are complex, especially across an entire continent with nearly 50 countries. Two of the commissioners, Nominet Trust and Indigo Trust, have each listed three key points from the report that were most important and relevant.

Nominet Trust key points:

1. Africans set the agenda for funders – To support Africans to find locally appropriate ways to build more inclusive, just and appropriate alternative technologies, we need to practice more inclusive, just and appropriate funding.

2. Social leads, tech follows –  Funding has largely been focused on building the ‘supply’ side of social tech, with an emphasis on nurturing tech founders. There’s an opportunity to flip the funding model to look at the ‘demand’ side, looking to community-based organisations to define the challenges and shape how tech responds to them and their needs. Identifying and unlocking the demand first will allow us to supply the most effective tools.

3. Successful funding supports more than just individual projects – This report challenges us to think about tech as more than just an app or an electronic device, but as a blend of knowledge, intelligence, time, labour, organisation, money and law – a combination that shifts and changes over time. Good funding can provide flexible support to grow and change the elements that nurture social tech – through mentorship, flexibility, networking, infrastructure support and more. This makes an investment in social tech an investment in society – even when a specific tech project doesn’t succeed.

Indigo Trust Key Points:

1. Engaging Government: Not all tech projects or organisations need to engage directly with government to achieve success. Inevitably, however, the parameters within which all projects must operate are shaped by government through regulation and legislation. A hostile or inflexible framework may pose a significant barrier to success for many projects, so funders need to look more carefully at how the projects they support work with or through governments. Many of the case studies presented in this report have either been led by government (MomConnect), enshrined government involvement from the outset (M-Pesa) or sought government collaboration during the scaling process (iCow). As the report comments ‘Government plays a critical role, both as an enabling influence in the ecosystem and as the direct path to success for many social tech initiatives’ (p.37). 

Working with governments, however, is rarely straightforward. They are far from monolithic entities and coordination or agreement between different arms of government is not guaranteed. The job of funders lies in better understanding the political and governmental conditions of countries where they work and seeking out those who are likely to listen (p.63). Alongside this is a need for others to engage in longer-term work to push for better regulation of tech ecosystems to create a more supportive enabling environment for all sorts of tech projects.

2. Flexible, patient funding: ‘For the social entrepreneur in sub-Saharan Africa, the path to success is extremely narrow (p.6).’ Under such circumstances, inflexible funding arrangements or onerous requirements can be a death knell for fledgling tech groups. Donors need to be better able to ‘structure grants… to accommodate the pivots and iterations needed for tech success’ (p.42). Different cases require different treatment from donors – what works for one group, sector or country will not necessarily work for another. Funders need to recognise the diverse needs of different groups and change their approach where needed. Spending more time on the ground, hiring local staff and embracing flexibility are all key to giving local groups the support and breathing space to be able to adapt and survive.

3. Gaps and gluts: Investment in African tech ecosystems is far from smooth or equitably distributed. It is, rather, a story of gaps and gluts – missed opportunities on one side, over-investment on the other. Enthusiasm for and investment in cool, contemporary issues needs to be moderated by investment in less cool, but locally relevant issues. Rural issues, for example, have often received less attention from funders and developers primarily based in urban environments (p.71). Likewise, investment in apps has often overshadowed other forms of technology, such as voice interfaces or radio. It is beholden upon both donors and local tech players to better understand the needs and context of those they want to reach and the best ways of doing this. While the tech needs of individual constituencies may be very different, so too is the funding landscape in different countries. The report recommends that ‘a brief gap analysis in each country would yield information on specific imbalances or absences’ (p.39). This sort of data-driven, intelligence-led grantmaking may help to address some of those gaps and gluts.

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