Collaborative African Tech: Part I

Co-Design Workshop, Nairobi

The insights into shared challenges from our African co-design process.

On 28-30 May 2024, OpenUp hosted our Co-Design Workshop in collaboration with the CIVICUS’ exciting new Digital Democracy Initiative and our partners at the Civic Tech Innovation Network with a community of democracy innovators in Nairobi, Kenya. The goal was for all of us, as stakeholders significantly invested in innovation for enhancing inclusive democracy, to consider the real context for African innovation, and prototype the different kinds of both financial and other resourcing that can help us to drive these goals together.

OpenUp are always delighted to work in our region, and the activities around the workshop (and the accompanying co-design activities) have given us a great opportunity to reflect on the region's social impact innovation environment. In a two-part series, we thought we’d share what we learned, and remembered:

  1. Digital infrastructure is a problem

Foundational digital infrastructure still remains a challenge in the region. When we surveyed 61 respondents from the innovation community, they noted that “Digital Infrastructure Failures” was one of the two most significant external threats to their digital democracy ambitions (second only to “Cybersecurity” threats). 

These constraints are true of both ICT and broadband types of digital infrastructure, but also supporting infrastructure like electricity provision. Even poor logistics infrastructure impedes digital trade dimensions of innovation. Importantly, and sometimes underappreciated in the digital infrastructure conversation, is that there is an urgent need to increase African data centre capacity.

But there are improvements. Internet access increases have been due to growing mobile broadband penetration, rather than other infrastructure. There are significant rural urban divides in digital penetration - so for instance, 4G penetration in urban areas is at 84% regionally, but in rural areas it's only 25% (this links to narratives on digital divides discussed later). These infrastructure inequalities contribute to the digital divide. 

  1. Real digital divides exist 

According to the United Nations, in 2021 only 36% of the Sub-Saharan African population actively used the Internet. The African digital landscape is largely defined by inequality, and digital inequality has multi-faceted intersections:

“...Paradoxically, as more people are connected, digital inequality is increasing. This is not only the case between those online and those offline…but also between those who have the technical and financial resources to use the Internet optimally, and those who are ‘barely’ online” (Gillwald, 2017). 

And the complexity of this inequality is that, even as digital infrastructure challenges are increasingly addressed (see “Digital infrastructure” above), people may nevertheless not have the resources to get online.

One of the primary barriers to accessing the Internet is the cost of devices, as well as the price of data. Alternative strategies to extend affordable access to communications as practical, short-term interventions remain urgent. And we see these divisions expressing themselves in our own community of innovators.

The range of across different groups’ “digital presence” - which is a reflection of both capacity and resourcing - is strongly varied across our respondents.

  1. Funding landscapes are challenging

Funding landscapes for innovation are constrained for both for-profits, and non-profit actors. There are general finance and funding constraints - like slow growth, etc, in the region, financial challenges relating to digital innovation, and even more specific financial peculiarities for impact innovation in the Sub-Saharan African landscape.

Investment into the African tech startup ecosystem actually fell by 27.8% to US $2.4 billion in 2023, as a result of global finance influences. The manner of investment is also worth reflecting on. Some domestic contexts demonstrate a gap in early-stage investment, in particular. A lack of access to capital is a common and pressing challenge across the innovation ecosystems in Africa, and investment flows are concentrated in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa: “The result is the lack of risk capital for scaling up innovations across the continent” (Adesida et al, 2021). 

But other aspects of the financial landscape are also relevant to innovation: according to current UN statistics, Sub-Saharan Africa sees only research and development expenditure being only 0.44% of GDP. There are emerging forms of investment for innovation not solely associated with returns, which may be relevant to digital innovation for democratic impact in particular. It is worth exploring some of our previous research into impact investing and similar here

Digital innovation can of course be facilitated through philanthropic and grant funding (about 65% of our community work off a totally non-profit model). Whilst there are of course challenges to philanthropic funding as a form of funds - for instance impermanence and significant competition for limited resources - there are also aspects of the Sub-Saharan context that may contribute to challenges for philanthropic funding itself. So for instance, the World Bank notes that whilst such funds may contribute to development gains (which would include digital development gains), barriers to such funds in the region include:

“...increasing barriers to cross-border flows; lack of government support for civil society organizations; increasing scrutiny of philanthropic organizations focusing on advocacy, democratization, and human rights; and political instability, among others”.

And the funding constraints directly impact the ability of groups to innovate. As our respondents noted: 

When considering their digital needs, whilst there are of course digital infrastructure challenges, general and specific organisational funds were viewed as the most significant for our respondents.

  1. Data is a foundational constraint

Data continues to be a foundational constraint in the region. In Sub-Saharan Africa, data accessibility stands as a formidable challenge within the digital landscape, creating significant barriers to innovation and equitable growth. There are of course the data infrastructure challenges we already mentioned: High data costs, inadequate infrastructure, and profound urban-rural divides exacerbate digital inequality across the region. These challenges are compounded by a complex regulatory environment, and inconsistent enforcement of data protection laws, which create additional obstacles for small and medium-sized enterprises seeking to innovate. 

A lack of access to open government data is a constraint both for accountability, and innovation. Whilst openUp continues to drive exciting projects to open up data, like our involvement in the Africa Data Hub, there is still a dearth of the kinds of quality, relevant data that could fuel localised innovations.  

And whilst there are often discussions about limits for a variety of communities in digital skills - we believe foundational data skills act as a primary inhibitor. OpenUp has long believed that if you can change how an organisation approaches data, then you have properly set it on the path to positive digital innovation adoption and development. 

OpenUp’s Sihle Makanya making friends.

Conclusion

Good technology understands the community it ultimately seeks to serve: and in social impact technology, this is not just the user of the technology, but also ultimately the beneficiary communities that may be impacted. Knowing what we know, then, what might our learnings mean for understanding opportunities in African digital innovations? We’ll explore some of the opportunities the innovators helped identify in Part 2 of our blog.

But sneak preview: it always starts with community.

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The insights into shared challenges from our African co-design process.

On 28-30 May 2024, OpenUp hosted our Co-Design Workshop in collaboration with the CIVICUS’ exciting new Digital Democracy Initiative and our partners at the Civic Tech Innovation Network with a community of democracy innovators in Nairobi, Kenya. The goal was for all of us, as stakeholders significantly invested in innovation for enhancing inclusive democracy, to consider the real context for African innovation, and prototype the different kinds of both financial and other resourcing that can help us to drive these goals together.

OpenUp are always delighted to work in our region, and the activities around the workshop (and the accompanying co-design activities) have given us a great opportunity to reflect on the region's social impact innovation environment. In a two-part series, we thought we’d share what we learned, and remembered:

  1. Digital infrastructure is a problem

Foundational digital infrastructure still remains a challenge in the region. When we surveyed 61 respondents from the innovation community, they noted that “Digital Infrastructure Failures” was one of the two most significant external threats to their digital democracy ambitions (second only to “Cybersecurity” threats). 

These constraints are true of both ICT and broadband types of digital infrastructure, but also supporting infrastructure like electricity provision. Even poor logistics infrastructure impedes digital trade dimensions of innovation. Importantly, and sometimes underappreciated in the digital infrastructure conversation, is that there is an urgent need to increase African data centre capacity.

But there are improvements. Internet access increases have been due to growing mobile broadband penetration, rather than other infrastructure. There are significant rural urban divides in digital penetration - so for instance, 4G penetration in urban areas is at 84% regionally, but in rural areas it's only 25% (this links to narratives on digital divides discussed later). These infrastructure inequalities contribute to the digital divide. 

  1. Real digital divides exist 

According to the United Nations, in 2021 only 36% of the Sub-Saharan African population actively used the Internet. The African digital landscape is largely defined by inequality, and digital inequality has multi-faceted intersections:

“...Paradoxically, as more people are connected, digital inequality is increasing. This is not only the case between those online and those offline…but also between those who have the technical and financial resources to use the Internet optimally, and those who are ‘barely’ online” (Gillwald, 2017). 

And the complexity of this inequality is that, even as digital infrastructure challenges are increasingly addressed (see “Digital infrastructure” above), people may nevertheless not have the resources to get online.

One of the primary barriers to accessing the Internet is the cost of devices, as well as the price of data. Alternative strategies to extend affordable access to communications as practical, short-term interventions remain urgent. And we see these divisions expressing themselves in our own community of innovators.

The range of across different groups’ “digital presence” - which is a reflection of both capacity and resourcing - is strongly varied across our respondents.

  1. Funding landscapes are challenging

Funding landscapes for innovation are constrained for both for-profits, and non-profit actors. There are general finance and funding constraints - like slow growth, etc, in the region, financial challenges relating to digital innovation, and even more specific financial peculiarities for impact innovation in the Sub-Saharan African landscape.

Investment into the African tech startup ecosystem actually fell by 27.8% to US $2.4 billion in 2023, as a result of global finance influences. The manner of investment is also worth reflecting on. Some domestic contexts demonstrate a gap in early-stage investment, in particular. A lack of access to capital is a common and pressing challenge across the innovation ecosystems in Africa, and investment flows are concentrated in Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa: “The result is the lack of risk capital for scaling up innovations across the continent” (Adesida et al, 2021). 

But other aspects of the financial landscape are also relevant to innovation: according to current UN statistics, Sub-Saharan Africa sees only research and development expenditure being only 0.44% of GDP. There are emerging forms of investment for innovation not solely associated with returns, which may be relevant to digital innovation for democratic impact in particular. It is worth exploring some of our previous research into impact investing and similar here

Digital innovation can of course be facilitated through philanthropic and grant funding (about 65% of our community work off a totally non-profit model). Whilst there are of course challenges to philanthropic funding as a form of funds - for instance impermanence and significant competition for limited resources - there are also aspects of the Sub-Saharan context that may contribute to challenges for philanthropic funding itself. So for instance, the World Bank notes that whilst such funds may contribute to development gains (which would include digital development gains), barriers to such funds in the region include:

“...increasing barriers to cross-border flows; lack of government support for civil society organizations; increasing scrutiny of philanthropic organizations focusing on advocacy, democratization, and human rights; and political instability, among others”.

And the funding constraints directly impact the ability of groups to innovate. As our respondents noted: 

When considering their digital needs, whilst there are of course digital infrastructure challenges, general and specific organisational funds were viewed as the most significant for our respondents.

  1. Data is a foundational constraint

Data continues to be a foundational constraint in the region. In Sub-Saharan Africa, data accessibility stands as a formidable challenge within the digital landscape, creating significant barriers to innovation and equitable growth. There are of course the data infrastructure challenges we already mentioned: High data costs, inadequate infrastructure, and profound urban-rural divides exacerbate digital inequality across the region. These challenges are compounded by a complex regulatory environment, and inconsistent enforcement of data protection laws, which create additional obstacles for small and medium-sized enterprises seeking to innovate. 

A lack of access to open government data is a constraint both for accountability, and innovation. Whilst openUp continues to drive exciting projects to open up data, like our involvement in the Africa Data Hub, there is still a dearth of the kinds of quality, relevant data that could fuel localised innovations.  

And whilst there are often discussions about limits for a variety of communities in digital skills - we believe foundational data skills act as a primary inhibitor. OpenUp has long believed that if you can change how an organisation approaches data, then you have properly set it on the path to positive digital innovation adoption and development. 

OpenUp’s Sihle Makanya making friends.

Conclusion

Good technology understands the community it ultimately seeks to serve: and in social impact technology, this is not just the user of the technology, but also ultimately the beneficiary communities that may be impacted. Knowing what we know, then, what might our learnings mean for understanding opportunities in African digital innovations? We’ll explore some of the opportunities the innovators helped identify in Part 2 of our blog.

But sneak preview: it always starts with community.