Collaborative African Tech: Part II

The insights into opportunities and solutions from our African co-design process.

In our Part I blog, we reflected on our Co-Design Workshop (hosted on 28-30 May 2024) to highlight some of the key challenges for digital democracy and civic tech innovators in the region. Following our deep dive into these challenges, Part II of our blog series explores the opportunities and solutions identified through the same process (and influenced by our decade’s long experience in driving social impact technology in the region). With a focus on community-driven innovation, we uncover how local insights and shared resources can move toward a more inclusive digital future in Africa, because the positive are always our favourite bit :)

1. Funding environments need to change

Ah money. So frequently the source of all challenges. As mentioned in Part I, financial resources are a general constraint on many organisations’ work in our space, but also a specific constraint on organisations’ ability to innovate.

In previous research we did in collaboration with the Civic Tech Innovation Network (that looked more specifically at the funding environment in Africa for civic technology), we noted that there are a broad spectrum of potential funding and financing options that might support civic technology. In the non-profit space though, it seems that there is an opportunity to advance particular learning that could advance philanthropic funding of innovation (or at least social impact organisations that want to innovate). Social impact technologies have their own specific kind of budgetary priorities for collaborative tech to be properly resourced, and dialogue with philanthropies in this regard would be useful for the region. Short-term, restrictively budgeted funding models can really limit a social impact group’s ability to develop technology through an agile model that authentically responds to community needs.

Innovating communities can help drive a conversation on what African contexts need funded in order to drive their impact.

2. Peer trust presents community opportunities

True collaboration is hard. It requires trust, resources, and commitment. In spite of this, there is a strong desire in the African innovators community to collaborate. OpenUp has experienced this in every year of our ten years' of civic technology collaboration.

And our surveys and interviews ahead of the Co-Design Workshop confirmed this too. When we asked innovators who they would partner with in order to meet their digital needs, there were strong preferences toward international and local non-profits, and other peer organisations. As one respondent noted:

“We need more collaboration and solutions sharing given that we all generally share similar constraints in Africa”.

Additionally, a significant portion of the cohort demonstrate “Digital Innovation and Leadership” - opening up the possibility for forms of peer exchange and support within the African innovator community itself to assist in the embedding of digital advancement. 

The African innovating community is the solution to many of its own identified problems.

3. Create data-driven organisations first

As we stated in Part I, 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. 

And there are already  data-driven innovation communities beginning to grow. Different kinds of open data innovation communities have demonstrated significant potential for both economic and social outcomes. So, for example, in agriculture, iCow was an app launched by a Kenyan entrepreneur that helped improve yields on cows for individual farmers by 100%. And innovative firms can also arise from open data, like the South African examples of OpenUp (Cape Town) and our partners at Open Cities Lab (Durban), which are socially-focused enterprises both driven by open data. Ushahidi is an organisation (and software-as-a-service company) centred around an open-source platform, which integrates crowd-sourced open data and maps it, and has been used to incredible social and governance effect in elections monitoring and crisis response throughout the region. 

There are - excitingly - many more examples of data-driven social impact innovation in the African space. And collaborations like our existing partnership with the Parliamentary Monitoring Group and OUTA to drive transparency and accountability of South Africa’s new seventh Parliament through data are a stellar example of data leading the way of great social outcomes!

Communities can also be directly involved in the collection and curation of data for positive social outcomes. The very communities many of us hope to benefit can embedded within the very processes by which we hope to drive positive change.

4. Policy and economic winds are driving alongside innovation

Ecosystems need feeding from all sides. As innovators begin to emerge, and partner for data-driven social impact, the policy and regulatory environment should try and encourage positive innovation where possible. 

The Africa Free Trade Area Agreement is presenting an important policy window for digital innovation, leading to instruments like the AU Data Policy Framework (full disclosure: I was involved in drafting, which may be why it's so great :), which demonstrates a significantly progressive African vision on data governance that includes a strong emphasis on openness. And there are multiplicities of policy communities of relevance, like the Policy and Regulation Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA). The policy trends naturally focus on advancing regulatory cohesion, with important emphasis on facilitating innovation and trade. 

Conclusion

In the end, the greatest innovation opportunity in the region might lie in the various impact and innovation actively engaged in advancing a regional vision of development. As research on innovation systems has noted, after all, “...[n]etworking assets are critical for flourishing innovation ecosystems'' (Hunter et al., 2020). OpenUp were thrilled to engage with so many innovation partners in our Co-Design Workshop - and look forward to how the groundwork is being laid for bigger and better regional innovation collaborations. 

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The insights into opportunities and solutions from our African co-design process.

In our Part I blog, we reflected on our Co-Design Workshop (hosted on 28-30 May 2024) to highlight some of the key challenges for digital democracy and civic tech innovators in the region. Following our deep dive into these challenges, Part II of our blog series explores the opportunities and solutions identified through the same process (and influenced by our decade’s long experience in driving social impact technology in the region). With a focus on community-driven innovation, we uncover how local insights and shared resources can move toward a more inclusive digital future in Africa, because the positive are always our favourite bit :)

1. Funding environments need to change

Ah money. So frequently the source of all challenges. As mentioned in Part I, financial resources are a general constraint on many organisations’ work in our space, but also a specific constraint on organisations’ ability to innovate.

In previous research we did in collaboration with the Civic Tech Innovation Network (that looked more specifically at the funding environment in Africa for civic technology), we noted that there are a broad spectrum of potential funding and financing options that might support civic technology. In the non-profit space though, it seems that there is an opportunity to advance particular learning that could advance philanthropic funding of innovation (or at least social impact organisations that want to innovate). Social impact technologies have their own specific kind of budgetary priorities for collaborative tech to be properly resourced, and dialogue with philanthropies in this regard would be useful for the region. Short-term, restrictively budgeted funding models can really limit a social impact group’s ability to develop technology through an agile model that authentically responds to community needs.

Innovating communities can help drive a conversation on what African contexts need funded in order to drive their impact.

2. Peer trust presents community opportunities

True collaboration is hard. It requires trust, resources, and commitment. In spite of this, there is a strong desire in the African innovators community to collaborate. OpenUp has experienced this in every year of our ten years' of civic technology collaboration.

And our surveys and interviews ahead of the Co-Design Workshop confirmed this too. When we asked innovators who they would partner with in order to meet their digital needs, there were strong preferences toward international and local non-profits, and other peer organisations. As one respondent noted:

“We need more collaboration and solutions sharing given that we all generally share similar constraints in Africa”.

Additionally, a significant portion of the cohort demonstrate “Digital Innovation and Leadership” - opening up the possibility for forms of peer exchange and support within the African innovator community itself to assist in the embedding of digital advancement. 

The African innovating community is the solution to many of its own identified problems.

3. Create data-driven organisations first

As we stated in Part I, 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. 

And there are already  data-driven innovation communities beginning to grow. Different kinds of open data innovation communities have demonstrated significant potential for both economic and social outcomes. So, for example, in agriculture, iCow was an app launched by a Kenyan entrepreneur that helped improve yields on cows for individual farmers by 100%. And innovative firms can also arise from open data, like the South African examples of OpenUp (Cape Town) and our partners at Open Cities Lab (Durban), which are socially-focused enterprises both driven by open data. Ushahidi is an organisation (and software-as-a-service company) centred around an open-source platform, which integrates crowd-sourced open data and maps it, and has been used to incredible social and governance effect in elections monitoring and crisis response throughout the region. 

There are - excitingly - many more examples of data-driven social impact innovation in the African space. And collaborations like our existing partnership with the Parliamentary Monitoring Group and OUTA to drive transparency and accountability of South Africa’s new seventh Parliament through data are a stellar example of data leading the way of great social outcomes!

Communities can also be directly involved in the collection and curation of data for positive social outcomes. The very communities many of us hope to benefit can embedded within the very processes by which we hope to drive positive change.

4. Policy and economic winds are driving alongside innovation

Ecosystems need feeding from all sides. As innovators begin to emerge, and partner for data-driven social impact, the policy and regulatory environment should try and encourage positive innovation where possible. 

The Africa Free Trade Area Agreement is presenting an important policy window for digital innovation, leading to instruments like the AU Data Policy Framework (full disclosure: I was involved in drafting, which may be why it's so great :), which demonstrates a significantly progressive African vision on data governance that includes a strong emphasis on openness. And there are multiplicities of policy communities of relevance, like the Policy and Regulation Initiative for Digital Africa (PRIDA). The policy trends naturally focus on advancing regulatory cohesion, with important emphasis on facilitating innovation and trade. 

Conclusion

In the end, the greatest innovation opportunity in the region might lie in the various impact and innovation actively engaged in advancing a regional vision of development. As research on innovation systems has noted, after all, “...[n]etworking assets are critical for flourishing innovation ecosystems'' (Hunter et al., 2020). OpenUp were thrilled to engage with so many innovation partners in our Co-Design Workshop - and look forward to how the groundwork is being laid for bigger and better regional innovation collaborations.