Tech Updates

Without local expertise, Big Tech will keep failing the Global South

Big Tech can be small-minded about the Global South. 

Products conceived in Silicon Valley don’t always fit the needs and skills of Southern nations. Their launch can also stymie homegrown competitors and fuel accusations of digital colonialism.

The need for expertise is particularly vital in data science and AI.

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“If you’re looking at analytics, for example, getting a data scientist from the UK to come and integrate data in Senegal might give you insights that don’t take account of the local context, because they will miss certain nuances,” 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 leads an independent AI lab whose researchers serve their own communities.

Gebru argues that the incentive structures in US industry and academia are too intertwined with tech giants. Her lab aims to take AI research into the places they neglect.

“Technology affects the whole world, but the whole world is not getting a chance to affect technology right now,” Gebru said last December. 

“If you want community-rooted research and you need to displace people from their communities, and they all have to go to Silicon Valley… That’s not the kind of thing I want to contribute to.”

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

On the ground

Chomba-Kinywa recalls an example from her spell as an innovation lead for UNICEF around a decade ago. 

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

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“I had to tell them, if you land a drone in my grandma’s village without telling anybody, somebody might shoot that thing down — because it will be seen as witchcraft,” she says.

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

Chomba-Kinywa aims to mitigate this risk by expanding local capabilities.

At Greenpeace, this involves all the campaign network’s national and regional organizations completing their own digital maturity assessments and using local teams to lead in context-specific digital transformation journeys.

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

Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa is speaking at the TNW Conference