Without local expertise, Big Tech will continue to fail in the South

Big Tech can be short-sighted about the South.

Products designed in Silicon Valley do not always fit the needs and skills of southern countries. Their launch could also stand in the way of homegrown competitors and accusations of digital colonialism

The need for expertise is especially essential in data science and AI.

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“For example, if you look at analytics, a data scientist from the UK who comes to integrate data in Senegal might give you insights that don’t take into account the local context, because they lack certain nuances,” says Priscilla. Chomba-Kinywa, Chief Technology Officer at Greenpeace International, tells TNW.

Her point echoes the concerns of Timnit Gebru, a computer scientist who was controversially fired from Google in 2020.

Born in Ethiopia and based in the US, Gebru now runs an independent AI lab whose researchers serve their own communities.

Gebru argues that stimulus structures in US industry and academia are too intertwined with technology giants. Her lab aims to bring AI research to the places they neglect.

“Technology affects the whole world, but the whole world doesn’t get a chance to influence technology right now,” Gebru said last December.

“If you want community-based research and you have to drive people out of their communities, and they all have to go to Silicon Valley… I don’t want to contribute to that.”

Chomba-Kinywa’s career in IT for development has exposed the risks of the reverse: sending US tech experts to other countries.

To the ground

Chomba-Kinywa recalls an example from her stint as an innovation leader for UNICEF about ten years ago.

A team from New York had pitched with drones for medical deliveries in her home country of Zambia.

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“I had to tell them that if you land a drone in my grandmother’s village without telling anyone, someone could shoot that thing — because it will be seen as witchcraft,” she says.

“We had to add a project pillar around communication with local communities. Those are things you can miss if you don’t have the local context or expertise to translate certain things.”

Chomba-Kinywa wants to reduce this risk by expanding local capacities.

At Greenpeace, this means that all national and regional organizations of the campaign network conduct their own digital maturity assessments and use local teams to lead context-specific digital transformation journeys.

Some may want to increase their data science skills; others will prioritize creating a more collaborative culture. The aim is to form strategies around their individual needs.

Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa speaks at the TNW Conference