Technology in Developing Economies

The Need for Appropriate Technologies

Impoverished state common to developing nations (public domain)

Poverty seems to persist in areas even where the population has been identified as rational, efficient, entrepreneurial, technologically adaptive, creative, and value conscious. In an attempt to elucidate what otherwise appears to be a paradox, Ernst F. Schumacher has introduced the concept of inappropriate technologies. This idea suggests that technology must be tailored to the unique situations present in the countries to which it is brought. How the technology is distributed and used strongly depends on the skills and consumption needs of the country's people, and especially the poor, since they constitute the majority of the population in low-income nations. Appropriate technologies account for the capabilities of the underprivileged in relation to the country's economic status and are thus highly responsive to their needs.

Case Study: Rwanda

The Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) Capacity-Building Technical Assistance Program was established in 2006 by the World Bank and government of Rwanda in order to "implement practical solutions to a series of everyday practical economic and social development problems." The program focuses primarily on reducing poverty by improving the living conditions of the poor and generating wealth by diversifying the economy and supporting private sector initiatives. The following describes the status of some simple technologies that have been identified by the program as appropriate for the country.

Rural energy

Agricultural technologies and transport

Low-cost building

Case Study: Africa

Africa presents an intriguing case of the redesign of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to serve the particular needs of the African poor. Despite its status as part of the developing world, Africa has been the fastest growing mobile market in the world between 2000 and 2005. In 2005, 52 million people, or approximately 7% of Africa's population, were subscribed to a mobile network. This figure is projected to increase at an astonishing rate of 35% per year over the next few years. The rapid integration of mobile devices into low-income communities has surprised many researchers and analysts, but even more remarkable is how mobile technology has been transformed to serve uniquely African development needs, in conjunction with its conventional function as a telecommunications device. In fact, it is estimated that almost 80% of rural African households regularly use mobile phones in many ways other than as an infrastructure service.

Mobile phones, not just for communication (taken by authors)

Specifically, mobile phones have been utilized as a financial or investment sector service, or as a market, weather, and health information exchange mechanism. In Mozambique, for instance, farmers access information provided by the state Agricultural Marketing Service about current market information and product processing and availability on their mobile phones. In Kenya, the Agricultural Commodity Exchange developed a service called "SMS sokoni" that allows shareholders to view daily agricultural commodity prices and gives them opportunities to sell or bid, all through text messages. In both of these cases, and in others, increased access to market information has positively impacted the economic situation of the African poor.

Several factors are believed to contribute to the rapid proliferation of mobile technology in Africa. First of all, mobile phones involve lower overhead and installation costs and are more easily introduced than fixed-line telephones. The mobile phone lends itself to communal use, so that families and neighbors can all benefit from the device while paying for only a portion of its cost. Finally, the creative uses for which mobile phones have been used have helped make it an appropriate technology for Africa and its people. Though not originally intended to provide additional services, this is nonetheless an excellent example of how technology can be shaped to the specific needs of a developing economy.

by Joe Cackler, Emily Gu, and Mike Rodgers
for CS 201: Computers, Ethics, and Social Responsibility
at Stanford University
on March 17, 2008