The role of culture and place

XVII.3 May + June 2010
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Give man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and…he will overfish

Jussi Impiö

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I had arrived to Kisumu, Kenya, some hours earlier, and I was waiting for dinner in a two-table outdoor food joint by Lake Victoria, ice-cold Tusker (local beer) in hand. I have always liked the rhythm of this lakeside town. There were stars in the sky, and a fresh breeze was humming from the majestic lake. After Nairobi, the breeze smelled especially good. In a state of serenity, I admired the perfume in the wind, when I suddenly realized the simplest thing. It turned the perfume into a stench and made me open a new, slightly darker perspective on my work. Water hyacinth: The enchanting smell came from the beautiful flower called water hyacinth. This free-floating perennial was brought to Africa from Brazil by a British gardener in 1986 because of its beauty and scent and planted to decorate the ponds in private gardens in Nairobi [1]. Now it covers large parts of Lake Victoria and many of the freshwater reserves in Africa completely [2]. Little did the gardener know that the plant has sticky seeds that stick to the feet of water birds and, without its natural enemies, water hyacinth spreads like a disease with pretty similar consequences. In some seconds my professional life flashed in front of my eyes. While studying what good ICT and mobile technology could bring to developing countries and developing new communication tools for the low-income communities, could it be we might be actually introducing digital water hyacinths? Seemingly harmless, even useful beauties. Could it be that technology developed in the industrial world, to assist and allure, could have different consequences and side effects when introduced to an environment whose "ecology" is fundamentally different [3]? This article speculates on these thoughts: the potential of unintended side effects of communication technology in Africa and how to avoid the darkest scenarios.

Eventually my meal arrived. Nile perch. Another species that Westerners with good intentions introduced to Lake Victoria. Now it has eaten more than 200 species to extinction. Most of these existed only in Lake Victoria. I started to lose my appetite; I needed to talk to somebody. I called a biologist friend to ask him how biologists study the introduction of new species to a new environment. He thought about it for a while and called back with an answer. He said it is probably not conclusive, but it will do as an example: the five main questions that biologists study before starting a pilot plantation.

Introducing new species to the new habitat:

  1. Why? What is the benefit of the introduction?
  2. What are the potential effects to the environment?
    • Which endemic/localized species are in that same ecological niche?
    • Will they be endangered? How?
    • Attracting and supporting harmful species?
    • Resources: water, nutrition
  3. Can the benefits and harmful effects be measured and weighted?
  4. Can the harmful effects be controlled?
  5. How to make it survive?

Traditionally, the last question in the list is the only question ICT R&D ever asks. How to make the service, application, or device accepted, used and paid for. I started to wonder if the other questions were also relevant for ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) and M4D (Mobiles for Development). We are working to introduce technologies developed in the industrialized world to remote, low-income African locations, where interaction with the surrounding world has been very limited. Are there potential unintentional consequences with rapidly spreading technology? How suitable are the Western models of services and applications in Africa? Are we maybe speeding the process of language deaths and monoculture [4]? Could we potentially be sparking a crisis within African countries around ethnic, political, or religious tensions?

Let's take Kenya as an example. Kenya has slowly been healing wounds exacerbated by post-election violence—members of the two main tribes and political parties clashed in the confused aftermath of the elections in January 2008. Now the situation is seemingly calm, but police and UN officials report that people are arming themselves in preparation for the repetition of the clashes during the elections in 2012. This time with AK47s, instead of sticks, stones, and machetes. In Eldored and Rift Valley, the areas with the biggest and most violent clashes, people have very limited access to news media [5]; they completely rely on radio and word of mouth. The local radio stations broadcast in the local language, which is great when accessibility is in question, but because of this, they are also an easy channel for religious, political, and tribal propaganda.

What would a loosely controlled social-media platform bring about within these communities [6]? The optimist in me says it would create a channel to exchange thoughts and find out that differences are artificial and fed by the political elite. Through time, with some people, this would eventually happen. The pessimist side tends to think of the horror scenarios: the rumors and long-cherished myths of the other tribe would be documented and evolve into "facts" that could be shared and that could increase the potential for physical conflict [7]. Think how easily anonymous Web discussions in the West evolve from insults into threats. (Generally, Kenyans are more polite and welcoming than Westerners—maybe they would have better cultural tools to handle their emotions in these discussions?) Obviously, the solution is to not keep the communities isolated. Poor access to information is one of the root causes for the conflicts, especially in countries with high population growth [8]. Uneducated young males are very good raw material for any political leader [9]. The most recent example of mobile agitation by SMS is the clashes between Christian and Muslim communities in Nigeria earlier this year. One of these messages said: "War, war, war. Stand up... and defend yourselves. Kill before they kill you. Slaughter before they slaughter you. Dump them in a pit before they dump you" [10].

The question is how to introduce social media and other tools to areas like these while minimizing the likelihood of the horror scenarios. Low-income communities facing the pressure of high population growth are a fragile environment. Due to this fragility, they are also likely to hang on to new opportunities easily. One example is a story about a village that was moved from the riverbank to the mountaintop, because the mountaintop had GSM coverage.

First it is important to get a proper look at what you are doing. If you want to develop mobile tools, for example, for the micro entrepreneur, you need to thoroughly understand how the microeconomics works, who are the key players, and how it is linked to macroeconomics. And then, how would the new tool affect the whole structure. It is also very important to identify the root problems—the problems that cause the symptom, which is observed as the problem. The meta-level horror scenario should be kept in mind: "Am I solving a real problem here, or a symptom and incidentally cementing the root problem by making a single problem locally more bearable?" These are among the problems that traditional development agencies have faced for decades and have battled with very little success. And these same issues are to be faced with ICT4D and M4D too.

The typical causes for failed development projects have been the lack of cultural understanding, stubbornly pushing Western ideals and operating models to African countries, corruption in the society, ineffective economics of the projects and organizations, and the sustainability and overall scalability of the projects. In general mobiles and ICT create new opportunities to overcome these problems. Currently most of the ICT4D and M4D projects have failed to gain sustainability and success for exactly these reasons. The results have vanished together with the project funding and the Western project team in the close of the project.

The best way to create locally relevant and sustainable ICT and M4 development is to assist in the growth of local African R&D ecosystem—universities, developer communities, startups and individuals from all fields of human activity with ideas and energy [11]. It's essential to get the locally relevant and culturally fine-tuned devices, applications, and services we need to boost the creation of local R&D ecosystem; hire African scientists and developers to work in Africa; and for Africa to develop tools that look, feel, and are African [12].

There is also something that ICT4D and M4D could achieve in the industrialized world. The development organizations working in the developing world are not collaborating, but rather competing against each other in all fields, particularly fundraising and field operations. It is expensive to have an office in Washington and Geneva. It is also expensive to send expats to live Western lifestyles in developing countries [13]. This is where ICT and M4D could do a great favor. We might be able to create tools that enable (or gently force) the NGOs to collaborate. By effectively coordinating efforts in the source and target countries with the organizations, the finances donated by you and me (or collected from us in the form of taxes) could be used more effectively. Now many NGOs are operating like businesses; the results are needed fast to satisfy the donor, to print the calendars and put together new fundraising campaign. I am not saying that NGOs aren't doing an important job. They are—there is no doubt about that. But they could be so much more efficient if they collaborated with each other [14]. Any good ideas?

Biologists study the introduction of new species carefully because the trail of human beings spreading around the planet from Africa [15] is paved with extinct endemic plants and animals [16]. We have learned it during tens of thousands of years and started to attempt actively to control it during the past hundred years. Together with the great business opportunities and socio-economical development potential for ICT and mobile technology we see in Africa, we have to be able to also identify the potential threats the technology poses to the individuals and their societies. This is necessary in order to enable us to create the best possible tools for sustainable social and economical growth in Africa and to avoid repeating the same mistakes again and again.

Despite these dark clouds, I am a sincere believer in the enormous potential of innovation, energy, joy, and beauty that lies in Africa. With the help of communication technology, it is possible to create better lives in terms of health and education for large numbers of people in Africa. I do not think technology is going to solve all the problems in the continent, nor that it will be able to do so independently from the rest of the society and environment. But I am sure its role will be crucial, and it is up to us make it happen.

Recently, the water hyacinth and its effects have been studied more in order to eradicate it for good. However, biologists discovered it actually has a unique ability to collect heavy metals and other toxins from the water. In a controlled manner, it could be used in cleaning polluted lakes and rivers, and the beauty of the flower and its amazing smell could be enjoyed without dark thoughts.

back to top  References

1. Wikipedia notes the water hyacinth was introduced to Lake Victoria through the Kagera River from Rwanda. I stick to version I heard from the Lake Victoria fishermen.

2. I knowingly use "Africa" here when referring to 53 countries, more than 2000 languages and cultures in sub-Saharan Africa.

3. "Industrial world" is an unsatisfactory definition to describe the wealthy part of the world—including Europe, the U.S., Japan, and other parts of Asia where, despite the poverty, the-well-to-do middle class is significant in size. Other definitions used are the West, the North, G20, etc.

4. Mufwene, S.S. "Language endangerment: What pride and prestige got to do with it."; Mufwene, S.S. "Globalization and the Myth of Killer Languages."; Mufwene, S.S. "Language birth and death." Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 201–222.

5. Access to media follows the same lines: There is one copy of newspaper for every 17,000 people in Kenya.

6. Social media was used to inform the public of wrongdoings and also to agitate people to attack their neighbors.

7. Mäkinen, M. and Kuira, M. "Social Media in Post-Election Crises in Kenya" The International Journal of Press/Politics 13 (2008): 328–335.

8. A more fundamental root cause is "why there is low access?" It exposes the source of the most pressing problems, which can be narrowed down to some high-level issues: colonial heritage, corrupted leadership, external interference, unfair trade regulations, and uncontrolled population growth.

9. "State of the World's Cities." UNHabitat Report (2006): 88–89.

10. Njanji, S. "SMS 'Helped Stoke Nigeria Violence.'" The Sydney Morning Herald. 27 Jan. 2010,

11. Nokia is investing in developing the African R&D ecosystem in conjunction with the EPROM project at MIT and the Nokia University donations program and start-ups—Forum Nokia and the Sustainable Business in the Knowledge Economy program with InfoDev.

12. The Nokia Research Center Africa in Nairobi employs 20 Kenyan researchers, and operates all over sub-Saharan Africa.

13. Bolton, G. Aid and Other Dirty Business: How good intentions have failed the world's poor. London: Ebury, 2008.

14. Edelman, M. and Haugerud, A. The Anthropology of Development and Globalization: From classical political economy to contemporary neoliberalism. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005; Leys, C. The Rise and Fall of Development Theory. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996; F. Cooper and R. Packard, "The History of Development Knowledge." In The Anthropology of Development and Globalization.

15. Unlike much of the planet, in Africa humans have contributed very little to the extinction of animals and plants. Over millions of years the evolution of mankind was in Africa, together with all other species; the ecological niche for man was formed very slowly. You could argue that Africa is the only continent where we have a natural ecological niche; in other areas we are an invasive species.

16. Diamond, J. Guns, Germs and Steel: The fate of human societies. NY: W.W. Norton, 1999.

back to top  Author

Jussi Impiö is research leader of the Nokia Research Centre (NRC) Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. NRC Africa conducts socio-cultural research in sub-Saharan Africa. Together with non-governmental organizations and local universities it creates communication solutions to assist in socio-economical development in Africa. NRC Africa has a multi disciplinary team of 20 African researchers. Impiö's academic background is in design and anthropology. He has 13 years of research experience. He first joined Nokia in 2003 as a senior research scientist and has conducted research in the areas of mobile video, civic activism, and citizen journalism. Since 2006 Impiö has worked with low-income communities in Africa. He has been living in Nairobi with his wife and two children since 2008.

back to top  Footnotes

Title from G. Pauli's "Biomimetism and Other Zero Emissions Ideas," Lift France 09.


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