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Technological development in Africa – a viable opportunity for philanthropy?

The impact of technology on social change across the continent cannot be denied.  Remote areas are well-served by the use of expanding internet coverage, may it be for business or pleasure.  Additionally, the growing use of mobile technology has seen ailing health care systems revived, with government and aid work made easier.  Last month bbc.com asked the question, “Do Africa’s technology entrepreneurs need charity?”  Considering what technology has already done for aid work and worthy causes on the continent, I believe the answer is ‘Yes.’

The Pros

Without trivialising the complex challenges faced in the third world, how diverse these issues are and how much in-depth information and understanding is needed to even begin to tackle solving them, it’s clear that technology is of great importance in all sectors and it’s ability to galvanise communities and make day-to-day challenges easier has been proven.  An estimated 735 million mobile subscribers are expected across Africa by the end of 2012 – these numbers strongly suggest that technology will provide a platform with a wider reach than any other method of communication.  However, with the private sector taking the reigns as the primary force behind stimulating the African IT industry, it seems that aid organisations are on the fence about whether to treat the IT sector as a charity or whether to leave that to private companies and approach aid from the more traditional angle that they’ve always adopted.

iLab Technology hub, Liberia

iLab IT hub, Liberia – Google.com

Small IT start-up projects and incubators go a long way to educate, not only directly but indirectly through applications and processes developed as a result of training.  To quote Loren Treisman who addressed this issue on bbc.co.uk, “We recognise that the best solutions to Africa’s challenges will come from the communities which are affected by them. This turns the traditional model of development on its head.”  The domino effect created when more people are trained and more resources are available has seen access to information on health, agricultural safety, education, political and human rights news becoming widespread, generating ideas and solutions that work for their immediate, familiar environments.  Technological hubs create an ecosystem of creative thought and practical solutions for social change that would greatly benefit from additional, large scale support and should be seen as real sources for both economic growth and improved social outcomes.

The Cons

The risk involved in investing in these not-for-profit social enterprises can be quite high.  There is no long-term evidence that these kinds of projects will succeed or be sustainable, thus making them unattractive investments to aid organisations that really can’t afford any financial gambles.

 

The key here will be to approach technology like any other charity – with long term goals and a focus on education and innovation.  According to Treisman, “By philanthropic organisations making small investments in social start-ups in the ICT sector, self-sustaining projects which can achieve social impact at scale can be identified and supported until they are able to thrive independently.”

Loren Treisman, PhD, is an executive of Indigo Trust, an organisation that funds technology-driven projects in African countries.

 

 

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