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.
“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.
Another Greenpeace group, Alternative Futures, explores emerging technologies with powerful potential, while taking into account varying cultural contexts in the organization’s fifty-plus countries.
This approach can tap into localized innovations. In Kenya, for instance, mobile payments took off long before they became common in the US and Europe.
While most Kenyans still don’t have formal bank accounts, an estimated 96% of households now have a mobile money account.
There would be many more technological breakthroughs in the Global South if internet penetration was higher.
Chomba-Kinywa points to Zambia as an example. The majority of the population derives its livelihood from agriculture, but agriculture contributes under 10% of the country’s GDP.
In contrast, the internet sector alone comprised around 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 more equitable, but seems more committed to exploiting the international tax system.
In 2020, ActionAid, Chomba-Kinywa’s former employer, found that 20 developing countries may be missing up to $2.8bn in tax revenue from Facebook, Alphabet, and Microsoft due to unfair global rules.
That money could transform internet access and digital skills — which would be in Big Tech’s interests.
Africa’s fast-expanding population and markets can offer huge opportunities for businesses with slowing growth in their home markets.
Did you know Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa is speaking at the TNW Conference this summer? Check out the full list of speakers here.