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.
“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.
First off, I’m a sucker for hardshell travel gear.
“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.
Another Greenpeace group, Alternative Futures, explores emerging technologies with powerful potential, taking into account the different cultural contexts in the organization’s more than 50 countries.
This approach can benefit from local innovations. In Kenya, for example, mobile payments took off long before they became commonplace in the US and Europe.
While most Kenyans still do not have an official bank account, an estimated 96% of households now have a mobile money account.
There would be many more technological breakthroughs in the South if Internet penetration were higher.
Chomba-Kinywa refers to Zambia as an example. The majority of the population makes a living from agriculture, but agriculture contributes less than 10% to the country’s GDP.
By contrast, only the Internet sector included: about 10% of US GDP in 2018† If Zambia had the same level of internet penetration, the impact could be transformative.
Big tech can make the internet fairer, but seems more committed to exploiting the international tax system.
In 2020, ActionAid, Chomba-Kinywa’s former employer, discovered that 20 developing countries may be missing up to $2.8 billion in tax revenue from Facebook, Alphabet and Microsoft because of unfair global rules.
That money could transform internet access and digital skills — which would be in Big Tech’s best interest.
Africa’s fast-growing population and markets can present huge opportunities for slower-growth companies in their home markets.
Did you know that Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa speaks at the Applied Sciences conference this summer? View the full list of speakers here.