One of the most astounding findings I recently came across is the study of the effects of mobile phones on the Kerala fishing market in India. The research by Robert Jensen is best summarized by the figure below which shows how mobile phones led to the stabilization of fish prices in different markets.
From the figure, it is seen that the fish prices are very volatile in the three regions, but stabilize almost as if by magic when mobile phones are introduced in the region. It seems that access to information leads to the damping of the price curve and the consistency that follows is just incredible.
Responding to Demand and Supply
Jensen offers various explanations for the impact of communication on the market. It is argued that fishermen had access to price information and thus were in a better position to know where to sell. This helps them to respond to the demand and thus normalize supply in different markets.
The same could be said about buyers who had information on where the prices are low and would flock there, leading to increased demand, hence prices. Overall, the availability of information leads to a natural form of price control as market forces are able to respond more accurately.
This is one study that shows how access to information continues to impact the world in ways that many people would not have imagined. Buyers are able to get the best value for their money, while fishermen can expect more consistent prices. The social impact of this may not be easy to quantify but I can imagine the benefit of being able to plan effectively and budget.
While the information age may have peaked, there are still opportunities that are yet to be unlocked especially in marginalized societies and communities. There are still places where people have not enjoyed the full benefits of access to information, due to skill levels or lack of resources.
It is hard to imagine what will be the real impact when this happens. Imagine a scenario where all children have equal access to education, where all people have equal access to skills necessary to thrive and produce optimally, and where farmers have access to the best available agronomic information. We could solve a number of problems that we are facing in Africa today.
One of the biggest online communities we have ever built consists of 1100 subscribers who regularly read one of our websites. That is quite a big community of people from a small geographical location who are willing to keep visiting your websites and reading our content.
How does it work? Easy. It is through WhatsApp.
We created a WhatsApp broadcast list that for people who want to subscribe, and this works well because it is easy to message the 1100 people who have saved your contact. You do that through a few broadcast messages.
After using the service for about 6 months, I woke up one day to find that WhatsApp had blocked the number and I could no longer send messages. This was a big blow. I wrote to WhatsApp asking why the number had been banned. The response was that we violated the WhatsApp terms and Conditions.
Attempts to get them to explain the terms that we had violated were not successful. They will not give the specific details and the case is closed.
PayPal Account Suspended
I had a similar experience with PayPal seven years ago. One fine morning they asked me to provide more details about a transaction that I made on date X, else they would suspend my account. I asked them to clarify the date because on the specific date, I did not have any transactions. I shortly received an email saying that my account had been suspended and the decision was final.
When I asked them for more information, the automated response was that they would no longer respond to my emails on that matter. The account was closed.
Faceless Tech Giants
This seems to be a common trend with most of these big tech platforms where they are faceless when they deal with individuals, but really love their users when talking about them as a whole. They do not have time or resources for individuals, but they want you as the group because data is more useful in bulk.
This has also happened to many people on Twitter who have been banned and not given sufficient reasons as to why their accounts were suspended. I bet the reason why these tech giants would not want to give specific details is that they would want to avoid close scrutiny and possible legal processes that may follow.
But is it okay to just kick people out of a platform without giving a good reason for the same? Is it right especially when you consider that some of these people are doing their best to stick to the Terms and Conditions that the same firms make them as long as possible and as complicated as they can ever be?
Some people argue that tech firms can do what they want because in many cases they are giving a free platform. This is misguided because the platform is not free; I am giving them my data in exchange for the service.
Following Terms and Conditions not Good Enough
For the WhatsApp account that was banned, we had gone to great lengths to ensure that we were in good books with WhatsApp. This included not sending automated messages, ensuring subscribers request for inclusion in the list of subscribers by having them message us first via WhatsApp, and making it easy for them to unsubscribe. All these never worked.
What did we do wrong? We do not know. We may never know because Facebook (WhatsApp) will not go into details.
Transparency is not something they may be willing to fully embrace, and the (little) progress they have made in the past few years in being more transparent has come not because they wanted to, but because they have been pressured to be more transparent.
The Covid-19 Pandemic led to accelerated uptake of different digital technologies in a way that was unforeseen. Some estimates say that the world has taken a 10-year leap in terms of digital technology adoption. Today we have seamless cloud meetings, online learning, several health monitoring tools, booming e-commerce, automated manufacturing, better supply chain systems and many more.
Some of the technologies already existed, while others are recent innovations by people responding to the pandemic. Many of these have now gained widespread acceptance. How did this happen?
The disruption caused by Covid-19 led to a turning point that promoted the adoption of new technologies. Usually, new technologies go through an adoption lifecycle that starts with innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. With a disruptive event, the time it takes for the early and late majority to onboard is short, hence a technology can gain massive acceptance within a very short time.
The timing of the Covid-19 pandemic presented an opportune time for use of digital technologies. The world had become more connected with affordable broadband internet connection is available in many places. The availability of smartphones also made it easy to use digital technologies even in areas where computers are not available.
With this background, digital technologies could thrive. Developers went for digital tools to respond to various challenges such as contact tracing. The government needed ways to keep track of vaccine distribution. Shops needed to keep selling even when communities were in lockdown. Schools needed to keep teaching even when physical school attendance was limited. Solutions lay in digital technologies.
The nature of the pandemic also helped to encourage digital interventions. Covid-19 is spread majorly by close contact to an infected person. This called for limiting physical interactions and public gathering – the very things that are crucial for human existence. To compensate for these, digital technologies could be used to connect people where physical meetings were not possible. E-commerce was necessary if people were not to go to malls as before. Many technologies to make this possible existed, but had not received widespread adoption.
Digital technologies are also at the center of public health responses needed to fight Covid-19. The table below shows examples of digital technologies in public health intervention.
Covid-19 Responses in Kenya
In Kenya, the government implemented several responses to slow down the spread of Covid-19. Some of these include:
Requiring physical distancing in all places.
Enforcement of dawn to dusk curfew.
Restriction of movement from some geographical locations.
Closure of schools.
Requirement for people not providing essential services to work from home.
Many of these responses involved the use of digital technologies to implement, or to help cope with the new normal.
Adoption of Digital Technologies
With the closure of schools, learning was supposed to take place remotely, something that had barely been happening before (except in some Universities). This meant that teachers and students needed to get creative and find out what could work in their context. They used cloud meeting platforms to conduct classes where the Internet was available and students could afford the necessary devices. Teachers had to learn how to use the different platforms and many acquired crucial digital skills. In some cases, they had to improvise and use platforms such as WhatsApp.
This exposure to digital technologies is very useful in the sense that it makes them open to adopting other digital technologies. Running a successful online class gives the teacher the confidence to adopt other technologies, and even continue using the same after the pandemic.
With reduced income and job losses, many people tried their hand in business. This led to many people setting up their own websites and online shops to allow buyers to access their products online. Faced with a different operating environment, many businesses moved online in 2020. This is another way that people were introduced to digital technologies.
There was also an upsurge in the use of cashless payment solutions. In Kenya, the Central Bank negotiated for reduced tariffs for mobile money services, as well as free movement of money from mobile wallets to the bank and vice versa. This led to an increase in the use of cashless transactions and it become normal for small traders to accept payment via mobile money. This is likely to remain even in the post-pandemic world.
The use of digital technologies to track vaccine rollout in Kenya is also a significant step forward in managing healthcare. This could set the stage for more ehealth functions when people see the need for it. Already, there are businesses that are working to make telemedicine a possibility in Kenya.
Reduced movement of people led to a boom in eCommerce. Some people who had never ordered goods or services online found themselves with little or no option, and many are now open to shopping online and having their goods delivered without having to physically visit the stores.
The need to work remotely forced people to invest in different tools to make this a reality. This led to an increase in internet usage, and people were buying more equipment such as smartphones and computers. Home internet connections increased, and these opened possibilities for the adoption of more digital technologies.
The Covid-19 pandemic may have forced people to result to digital technologies to solve their most pressing needs, but the results will outlast the Covid-19. We will see a world that is more open to digital technologies and also developers focusing on more of these technologies. This is one positive outcome of the pandemic.
If you ask people in Nairobi where they might like to live if they didn’t have to worry about a commute to work, the answer is nearly unanimous: the suburbs. The suburbs, they say, lie just close enough to the city’s amenities while avoiding its traffic, high costs and pollution. When I suggest rural Kenya as an option, very few people respond positively. Why? Rural communities often lack reliable electricity, Internet access, good schools and healthcare facilities.
Social innovators should take notice. Missing necessities can deter people from moving to rural Kenya, and their absence also presents a host of considerations for digital technologies designed to operate in those areas. In spite of that, rural Kenya is home to 68.9 percent of the Kenyan population with the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands alone occupying almost 80 percent of the total landmass. This large size and population make them key to the economic growth of the country and it is imperative that they do not miss out on the digital revolution.
Rural areas in Kenya face a number of unique development challenges that affect the use of digital technologies. The Kenya Economic Update by the World Bank notes that while 44% of the urban population have access to the internet, only 17% of people in rural areas have access to the same. What works in urban areas may not necessarily work in rural areas.This is the reason why, at the moment, we see more people working on technologies that are more suitable for urban areas. But understanding the issues may encourage more product developers to target rural areas. Here I’ll describe three main challenges that innovators will face in rural Kenya.
Infrastructure remains one of the greatest challenges in rural Kenya. From innovation hubs, learning institutions, Internet services, mobile networks, and access to grid power, people in rural areas have less access than residents in urban areas. Deficiencies in services cascade from key absences. For example, the absence of power means it is harder for telcos to set up mobile networks, and the absence of mobile networks means that fewer people acquire mobile devices.
Even where the infrastructure is available, the quality may not be sufficient. While 77 percent of major towns in Kenya are covered with a Safaricom 4G network, the total 4G population coverage in Kenya is only 57 percent, and the majority of places not covered are rural. From the map below, it is notable that the area with the least coverage is rural Kenya, and the 4G coverage is quite low.
Patrick Sampao who has experience deploying digital solutions in rural areas, notes that sometimes even the simplest technologies just don’t work as expected. An example of this is the USSD service, which is a text-message protocol similar to SMS. USSD allows any phone to send messages by dialing a command, *123# for example, which then prompts the user to reply with a digit depending on the service wanted. While this feature works on any phone and doesn’t incur any cost to the user, there are many older SIM cards which do not support that function. Users would need to replace those SIM cards first before they can use the USSD service.
One of the greatest barriers to internet penetration in Kenya is digital literacy. Although smartphone penetration is on the rise, the number of people who are able to effectively use many digital technologies is still low. The 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census estimates that there are around 10 million Internet users in Kenya, while Google estimates the number to be closer to 13 million. In a population of 47.6 million people, that translates into an Internet usage rate of 20-25 percent. A report by GSMA in 2018 put the number of mobile internet users in Kenya at 25% of the population. By comparison, Internet usage in the first quarter of 2020 in the United States was at nearly 95 percent.
Smartphone penetration is higher in urban areas than in rural areas, as one of the hindrances in rural areas is literacy levels. Many older people struggle to use smartphones while those with little education are wary of such technologies. This was one of the challenges that the government’s Digital Learning Program faced, where many teachers were unable to use the devices that were provided. The availability of experts who can offer technical support is also low.
Even the simplest mobile phones require some form of literacy and experience. For example, the USSD function times out after a period of inactivity, requiring a user to be relatively fast. This can be difficult for those with little digital literacy, and many end up trying multiple times before they are able to get through.
While poverty is a major problem in the whole of Kenya, rural areas suffer disproportionately. This explains why demand for many services is lower in rural areas than urban areas as people do not have as much disposable income. Lower population density also makes the economics harder, even if the total populations may be large.
Competing needs in communities with low income levels may outweigh many digital services. Any digital product that charges users for a service should solve basic, pressing needs. An example of this is the AfriScout app. More than 6000 people in rural areas use the app because it solves a basic need, directing pastoralists to water and pastures.
The alternative business model for digital products is to offer services for free but place ads that users must see. In that way, products like Facebook which have gained popularity even in remote areas.
Despite the fact that people in rural areas have lower purchasing power than their urban counterparts, the cost of some services may be higher in rural areas due to greater costs in building, servicing and even fueling those networks. Michael Ouma who provides Internet services in Northern Kenya, notes that a 10 Mbps link costs at least KShs 30,000 in the region, while the same would cost less than KShs 10,000 in Nairobi. The added expense increases operating costs for rural businesses compared to their urban counterparts.
Breaking the challenges into three main groups like I have done is a convenient tactic for describing the issues more clearly, but in the real world these problems do not exist in silos. The lack of reliable power, for example, affects businesses, schools and homes and is a cause of low income levels. The lack of power deters companies that might build mobile infrastructure, which also impacts people’s income. And low income and lack of mobile infrastructure deter people from buying mobile devices, which reduces their exposure to technology and, consequently leads to lower digital literacy rates. Low incomes, in turn deter companies from building expensive power and mobile connectivity infrastructure for communities that may not be able to pay for it, thereby closing a negative feedback loop.
Overcoming the Challenges
In terms of pricing, innovators need to price their products in an appropriate way that suits the rural economy. One unique way is to make the installment affordable, instead of asking for significant money upfront. This strategy has been successful with many products and could explain why Safaricom is hoping to sell 1 million 4G-enabled devices in Kenya in the next year by having users pay only KShs 20 per day. According to a Nielsen report, more than 70 percent of fast-moving-consumer goods purchases are of products priced below KShs 55.
One also needs to find or develop suitable technologies that would be appropriate for rural areas. Devices that consume a lot of power and apps that are highly dependent on a stable internet connection may not be appropriate. Instead, innovators should focus on the use of technologies such as USSD, SMS, interactive voice services, devices that do not rely on grid power and apps that can work on simple smartphones.
The cost of entry into rural markets can also be high. Innovators can circumvent this problem through partnerships which can help subsidize the cost of entry. They can also opt to share infrastructure as various telecommunications companies have done previously.
Digital Literacy is a wide problem that needs to be addressed through the formal education channels as well as well as various initiatives to upskill people. When it comes to digital skills, the elderly people are more disadvantaged compared to young people who are digital natives. Innovators targeting rural areas need to keep their solutions simple and easy to use so that even people with limited skills will find it simple and easy to adopt. Providing digital skills is also one area where social enterprises should venture.
Great challenges and great needs
Rural Kenya presents challenges to digital social innovation, but the people there also happen to be those who could benefit highly from the right products and services. The region is a broad target for socially minded engineers and entrepreneurs. The trick is to understand the obstacles and navigate them accordingly.
If you are interested in this topic please read the research collaboration developed by E4C Fellows (including the author of this article) together with Huawei and iGov Africa around ICT solutions in Northern Kenya.
Infodemic has been a word that is closely related to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread and turned into a pandemic, an information epidemic has been going on in the world; what is now referred to as the infodemic. This refers to a rapid and far-reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information about Covid-19, making it hard to learn essential information about the pandemic. This is the current state of the world.
Behind the infodemic is the use of technology that has made it possible for anybody to widely share information, disinformation and misinformation. In today’s world, anybody can share information with a global audience using platforms such as social media. This has made it possible for conspiracy theories, fake news, propaganda or even hoaxes to spread easily. Some of this has made it hard to fight the spread of Covid-19 as people cannot tell what is true and what is false.
What role do technology companies play in this?
Tech companies dictate how people consume information. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter and others have taken over the place of traditional media and their mode of operation has made it easier to share inaccurate information. As we will see, the way these tech platforms are designed to work is what makes them good channels for misinformation and disinformation.
Creating Filter Bubbles
A major selling point of tech-based media companies is the ability to customize content for every person, thus delivering specific content and of interest to each user. This approach has helped tech companies to grow because the users only receive what they want to see and hear, unlike the traditional media where one size was offered to fit all.
Unfortunately, this approach has serious undoing. Customized content means that one can avoid anything contrary to what they want to hear, and still be fed with an endless stream of what they need. People only get to see information that they want and opposing voices are gradually suppressed. You get to see information that aligns with your believes and worldviews, even if it is wrong.
This has helped fan misinformation and disinformation because objective facts are shunned in favor of content that will generate likes and clicks. Recommendation engines give users what they want to see, not what is truthful or factual. This works closely with another innate behaviour of human beings to seek facts that confirm what they already or want to believe.
At the onset of the pandemic, people were looking for answers and narratives to help explain what was happening. Some turned to science, others to pseudo-science, and others to conspiracy theories. The origin of the virus, the mode of transmission, how it was spreading from one region to another and whether the virus was a natural occurrence or a bio weapon were all a matter of speculation.
People formed opinions and narratives to make sense of the world. They would then go online to find information about the same. When they found information that matched with what they already believed, the belief was strengthened further. Consequently, some conspiracy theories gained more momentum through online sources. People believed that 5G networks were the cause of Covid-19, and there was enough content online to support this. Others said that Africans were immune to the virus and there were online communities talking about this.
Celebrities and influencers have a lot of influence on societies today. They can bypass the traditional media and pass their message to millions of people using various tools such as social media.
Unfortunately, the information they pass may not be very accurate, and at times it might be completely wrong. Tech companies were at loss trying to figure out what to do with such people, and the Covid-19 pandemic made things worse. The problem is that when these influential people share information, it is believed by many people who look up to them.
An attempt to regulate the kind of information shared on tech platforms has a serious downside. It is hard to regulate content in a post-truth society, where everything is relative. This is why tech companies did not know what to do with the problem of fake news, until after the pandemic and the 2020 US Election.
Moderation is still a problem because of many factors. The number of users is large. There are also many languages. Political interests exist and some matters are heavily disputed, even among the experts. It is also a delicate matter of freedom of speech because a free society needs space even for dissenting opinions. As Natan Sharansky puts it, free societies are societies in which the right of dissent is protected.
Technology companies should have foreseen that and planned on what to do early enough. Instead of waiting to act when the world was faced with a matter of life and death, there should have been some preset guidelines.
Whenever disruption happens, the ability to withstand the disruption is dependent on the capacity to adapt to the new normal. People and organizations seek tools and resources that can make it easier for them to adapt, making it possible for them to survive the tough times. This was the case with the Covid-19 pandemic.
As the world was disrupted, people turned to technology as a tool to help them cope with the new normal. Technology helped the world continue working away from the office, get shopping and supplies delivered to homes, maintain social distance, monitor vaccine rollout, perform contact tracing, share news about the spread of the virus, keep students learning, and many more. Without tech solutions, it would have been harder for the world to cope.
However, there are some downsides to the use of technology in mitigating the impacts of Covid-19 and helping people cope. We look at how tech-driven solutions were applied after Covid-19 and some of the dangers that they pose to users.
Contact tracing and social distancing apps have been used to help monitor people for contact with people infected with the virus. This is a key step to curbing the spread of Covid-19, considering that the primary means of spread is through exposure to infected persons. Since it was hard to know if the people you came into contact with were carrying the virus, the apps would let one know if they had come into contact with a person who later turned positive. This is a useful piece of technology helping with contact tracing.
However, the use of these tools has not been without a downside. There was a lot of concern about user privacy with these tech-driven solutions. First, the Big Tech has not been known to be very privacy-conscious, unless when pushed to do be so. Some of the business models employed by tech companies are dependent on not being very stringent on privacy, and privacy concerns have majorly been implemented as afterthoughts. This raises concern that most tech companies cannot be trusted to make decisions that put users first, as far as privacy is concerned.
Would these tech-driven solutions compromise privacy? Already, we have seen people raise concerns that tools that are logging location and sharing it with third parties could be a concern. However, technology companies worked to assure people that their data was safe. Would people believe that? Not everybody.
This was about contact tracing, but there are other areas of concern when it comes to privacy. A different application is tools that have been used to monitor exams remotely. While these have made it easier for remote learning to continue, most users were not aware of how such tools work. The tools are invasive and users should have been educated on how to ensure that their privacy is catered for during and after the exams.
Exclusion and Digital Divide
In the world today, technology seems to be everywhere, especially when we look from the perspective of tech-savvy people and digital natives. However, this is not a very accurate depiction of the world today. There are still many people who lag behind in terms of technology adoption.
In Kenya, it is not easy to implement digital technologies in rural areas. Some areas are limited by infrastructure. Digital literacy is also low and income levels are also wanting. These are some of the hindrances that tech driven solutions to Covid-19 would need to overcome.
With this background, it is evident that some people will not benefit from many tech driven interventions. People without smartphones cannot use contact tracing apps. People without mobile phones may not be alerted when their second dose of vaccine is due. Those without power may not be aware about the spread of Covid-19 because they do not have access to the news.
Technology could easily lead to exclusion because people do not have access to the same resources. A classic example is the education sector, where there were attempts to make learning online in Kenya, but with mixed results. Children from wealthy backgrounds have access to the internet and computers, making it easy for them to keep learning even when schools are closed. On the other hand, students from poor backgrounds couldn’t afford to be online. The longer the schools were closed, the poorer children continued to be disadvantaged. While technology was hailed as a game changer in the age of Covid-19, the same technology was helping widen the inequality levels.
Making Tech Driven Solutions Work
The problems highlighted above are unintended consequences of technology-driven solutions. This means that they can be worked around so that tech solutions can be more accessible and inclusive, and the welfare of users is taken care of.
One of the approaches is to control the influence and participation of for-profit companies in designing and implementing these tech solutions. Public health solutions need to be spearheaded by the institutions that primarily deal with public health and not tech companies. This will ensure that commercial interests do not override the safety concerns of the users.
The use of tech driven solutions should not be taken as a master fix in solving Covid-19 related problems. They need to be supplemented with other solutions so that not part of the society will be excluded due to lack of resources, connectivity or skills. For example, the approach to remote learning involved the use of different technologies and tools. Teachers could use WhatsApp because more students had it. Learning programs were also put on radio and TV, increasing the reach. That was also not enough because some people would still be left out. At one point, the government was asking teachers to teach in their estates and villages. This was an attempt to get all students covered.
Technology is good and goes a long way in helping the world cope with the pandemic. However, the possible negative and unintended consequences must be put into consideration for a better experience.