Do Africa's technology entrepreneurs need charity?

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Media captionWATCH: Indigo Trust's Loren Triesman explains why investing in technology organisations like the iLab in Liberia, above, is important

At times people may wonder why charitable foundations would consider funding projects within the information technology and communications (ICT) sector in Africa, when there is already significant private sector investment.

While technology is not a panacea which can solve all social problems, with an expectation that there will be more than 735 million mobile subscribers in Africa by the end of 2012, it is hard to ignore the tremendous opportunity for technology to contribute towards social change.

Information technologies have the capability to achieve social impact at scale and at a relatively low cost.

One can deduce that when people are able to access, share and create information, they are empowered to make the changes they would like to see in their own lives and communities.

When used as a tool and integrated into well-devised programmes, information technologies are also enabling; they put power into the hands of citizens who can use technology to hold governments and other service providers to account.

Citizens can also access information on issues impacting their everyday lives, such as crop prices, cattle rearing, health and information on public officials such as MPs.

Home-grown talent

We recognise that the best solutions to Africa's challenges will come from the communities which are affected by them. This turns the traditional model of development on its head.

Technology Innovation Hubs are springing up across Africa from Activ Spaces in Cameroon to KINU in Tanzania. Some are even arising in unexpected places like RLab in Somaliland or iLab in Liberia.

While their number is still small, hubs form a crucial component of the technology ecosystem, by supporting entrepreneurs so that the ideas which they generate are realised as commercially-viable businesses or socially-impactful projects.

By bringing together the tech community, while providing high speed internet, hosting events and providing training and mentorship to aspiring entrepreneurs, hubs have a catalytic effect on the number and quality of successful projects and products which can be developed in the country.

As the sector grows and is adequately supported, more successful social projects will arise.

This is likely to lead to more sustainable social change, as projects devised locally are more likely to adequately address local needs.

In some cases, it is also possible for social ICT projects to generate an income, removing the need for on-going funding, which often stalls other development interventions.

Investing for good

Organisations like Indigo Trust invest in people producing what economists call 'public goods and services', a category of projects that have traditionally not attracted private investment due to market failure.

Image caption Loren Treisman says grant funding allows entrepreneurs to pilot new ideas, with room for trial and error

They provide small, high risk grants to not-for-profit or social enterprises which contribute towards social change at the early stages, when Angel investors and larger institutional funders are unlikely to invest.

This enables entrepreneurs to pilot new ideas, allowing room for trial and error.

An example of such a project is Budgit, a Nigerian organisation being incubated by Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria.

They use infographics and online discussions to stimulate dialogue around Nigeria's budget.

As well as contributing towards good governance, they are beginning to generate an income through acquiring government and private sector contracts to create infographics relevant to their work.

By philanthropic organisations making small investments in social start-ups in the ICT sector, self-sustaining projects which can achieve social impact at scale can be identified and supported until they are able to thrive independently.

Another role for philanthropic organisations is to identify technology-driven projects which contribute towards social change, but would be hard to implement without external funding, both in the UK and internationally.

Sites like Huduma in Kenya and Tanzania enable citizens to report on challenges in service delivery across all sectors via SMS or online, whilst iWatch Live enables citizens in Nigeria to track government projects and promises.

While these sorts of interventions may require on-going grant funding, they can dramatically increase transparency and accountability when effectively implemented.

It is my hope that a combination of philanthropic, institutional and private sector investment in technology innovation hubs, early stage tech start-ups and tech for social change projects will have a catalytic effect in stimulating both economic growth and improved social outcomes.

Loren Treisman, PhD, is trust executive of Indigo Trust, a grant-making foundation that funds technology-driven projects to bring about social change, largely in African countries.

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