ICT4D: the quest for inclusive rural futures

Taruvinga Magwiroto

The world is becoming “digital, digitalised and digitally-mediated at an astonishing pace” (Graham: 1), resulting in changing connectivities at the world’s margin. It is a self-evident fact that ICTs are causing creative disruption in many economic processes globally. While proponents of ICT for Development (ICT4D) would want us to believe that ICTs per se are positive for development, a more nuanced look shows that ICTs are not the blanket panacea that they are touted to be. However, what is beyond doubt is the potentials that exist in the use of ICTs to support development processes. This article looks at the Zimbabwe case, and synthesises some lessons from a recent study involving organically-evolving, farming oriented WhatsApp groups.

ICTs and innovation

ICTs (the hardware, software) have certain affordances that make innovation possible. If innovation is taken as new socio-technical configurations, products and knowledge, it is clear that ICTs increase the likelihood of new linkages and improves production processes in on-going economic activity. For example, ICTs provide new interfaces of interaction (e.g. WhatsApp) that have the potential to link different people (multi-stakeholders) in the processes of innovation, participation and learning.

Why is innovation important in development processes? I will quote Spielman et al (2009: ) to answer this:

“The basis for any type of development is the ability of individuals, organisations and societies to improve on what they are currently doing, i.e. to improve individual and collective capabilities”

Innovation is the basis for improving our current practices. To have better output, better profits and bigger markets, we need to innovate. There is no doubt that ICTs have expanded the space and scope for innovation.

ICTs as innovation

The newer conceptions of innovation looks at it as a new product (hardware), idea or knowledge (software) or process (orgware) that has been successfully introduced into a socio-technical environment (Leeuwis and Aarts, 2011). Conceived like this, Leeuwis (2013) goes further to say that successes of innovation depends on “conducive coupling and balance” of the socio-technical aspects of the innovation, considering that innovations operate in a competitive selection environment. What makes one innovation to be successful and others to fall by the wayside? The concept of “conducive coupling and balance” is interesting and merits further analysis.

The use of WhatsApp groups to support rural development processes

WhatsApp groups are an organically-evolving innovation in Zimbabwe, driven by the on-going world-wide digitalisation of information, affordability of gadgets and better internet coverage. While there exists the conducive coupling of economic recovery in 2010, and affordability of the  “hardware” and “software” , including widespread internet coverage (PORTRAZ 2017), what is more interesting to me is the “orgware” aspects. What new organisational competences are required to take advantage of ICTs?

For example, the use of farming-oriented WhatsApp groups to support development processes is an interesting innovation. What happens inside farming-oriented WhatsApp groups? How can groups be organised to maximise or optimise the potential of multi-stakeholders to improve on current practices? Can WhatsApp groups be used to support rural development processes? What conditions are necessary to optimise development processes inside WhatsApp groups?

Livestock Matters WhatsApp Group

The above questions were some of the issues that I grappled with in my masters thesis. It was an exciting project, challenging and myth-busting. My major finding was that intermediation is necessary within WhatsApp groups if these groups are to optimise opportunities and find solutions to members’ problems. The nature of the intermediation depends on many factors, related to the developmental stage (life cycle) of the group.  The role of the intermediator in fact is related to the processes taking place within the group. Hence we can extend Leeuwis (2013) concept of “conducive coupling and balance” to the intermediator’s varied role as “innovation broker” in the early stages of the group (Klerkx et al 2012); adult educator (Houle (1963), Knowles (1984)); and “development communicator” to support multi-stakeholder participation (FAO, 2014).

 Intermediation within WhatsApp groups is not a monolithic entity: it requires mental dexterity; unflappable temperament, leadership and facilitation skill. If we agree that ICTs are changing the interfaces within which humans interact, it is important to consider the implications of some of these findings. What sort of person can successfully play an intermediary role within the digital spaces? Can public extension departments make increasing use of such interfaces? How can international development organisations fully make use of such?

Whilst we try to understand how things work and how best to make supportive intervention, it is also necessary to understand who is in and who is out of such networks and why. And maybe we can then attempt to answer the million dollar question:

How can the affordances of ICTs be used to support equitable rural futures? As Leeuwis presciently observed, conducive coupling and balance do not happen on their own. They have to be actively influenced. Digital ICTs open up many possibilities, but will Zimbabwe and Africa take advantage? Does the will and competence exist for us to take advantage of ICTs to support development processes? Do we have mechanisms to ensure that the benefits are inclusive and accessible to all in society, so that we “leave no one behind?”

Read more from me here: www.livestockmatters.blog

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