Leveraging the Power of IT in Alleviating Poverty
March 22, 2021
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by Stephen Kanyi

ICT In Poverty Alleviation

Much has been made of the power of science and technology to solve virtually every problem humankind faces today. From climate change, gender equality, governance, human rights to even ethical questions, technology seems to be able to provide viable solutions. 

This optimism and complete belief in the power of technology, however overblown, could be well-founded. The explosion of scientific discoveries and their applications with technology have been responsible for the massive reduction of poverty levels all over the globe. In the 1800s, up to 90% of the global population lived in extreme poverty. Today that figure stands at just under 9.6 percent. A massive achievement, within a relatively short time frame.

A few facts & figures

It is still however important to note the world is yet to completely eradicate poverty. While 9.6 percent sounds like a small figure it represents more than 689 million people, most of which are based in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Also, it does not mean that those living above the poverty line, i.e. $1.90 per day, are having it easy. The World Bank says: ‘At higher poverty lines, 24.1 percent of the world lived on less than $3.20 a day and 43.6 percent on less than $5.50 a day in 2017.’ 

Here are a few statistics to put all these numbers into context:

  • For every 1,000 children born, 39 will die before they turn five years old
  • Globally in 2016, over 63 million children ages 6-11 years old were not attending school
  • Today, approximately 8.9 percent of the world’s total population is still practicing open defecation
  • People in Europe are expected to live 19 years longer, on average, than those born in Sub- Saharan Africa

Is ICT really the answer?

Now the question for the next generation of entrepreneurs, policy makers and the whole world at large is whether we can leverage modern technology to completely alleviate extreme poverty. The UN set a good sentiment by setting ‘complete alleviation of extreme poverty by 2030’ as one of its famous UN sustainable development goals. As it stands however, we are not on track to achieve this goal, this has especially been exacerbated by COVID.

For those in the tech sector, the challenge is to use modern technology i.e. ICT to create solutions that can directly impact the lives of those living in dire conditions. The bigger question however is whether sophisticated technologies such as AI, robotics and blockchain are the answers needed at such levels.

As a Kenyan I have witnessed countless projects meant to help the chronically poor fall through. These are well intentioned projects conceptualised by people in developed countries who have a very scanty understanding of the real issues facing people living with very low-income levels. Now it is important to note that this is due to the relative higher status of the countries they live in and not due to blatant ignorance. And barring the ignorance, there is a big difference between knowing the numbers and actually living in those conditions.

Intel, for instance launched a project in 2017 meant to improve the digital literacy rates of women in the rural areas called ‘she will connect.’ A laudable idea, as many people in rural Africa despite increasing connectivity to both the electric grid and the internet are still relatively digitally illiterate, and we all know how important such skills are to the modern world. 

I remember exchanging confused looks with a friend when the fully-furnished containers were being unloaded onto a nearby hospital. We were both astonished at the absolute idiocy of the project. First, in an area where most people are fishermen, small scale farmers and small business owners, knowing how to use a computer was the least of their problems. Most people were more concerned about their boats, fishing nets, farms and their small businesses. Secondly, while the sentiment behind the project is great, it is important to note that the digital skills gap is not restricted to women alone. Many young men, in the rural areas especially, lack these essential skills.

Frugal Innovation

I have always suspected that there are better and cheaper ways to solve problems facing people in extreme poverty than these gargantuan projects. Take for instance, the Hippo Roller, a relatively simple innovation that is helping women and children collect water safely and effectively through rough terrain. This would have been more useful in my upcountry area as compared to the Intel computers. I myself know the difficulty one endures when fetching water from a far-off distance.

What this indicates is that simple piecemeal innovations are sometimes more effective. The beautiful Hindi word jugaad meaning ‘frugal innovation’ really captures the spirit of this idea. NGOs, multinationals and government institutions need to be humble enough to realise that they may not know the best solutions. Local piecemeal innovations are sometimes more effective and ‘are more easily scaled-up — than anything dreamed up by R&D-centric outsiders.’

Getting ICT for Development right 

This does not mean that there is no space for ICT in developing solutions for people in extreme poverty. To the contrary, if done right, ICT can have massive direct impact and change lives for the better. Here are just two examples: 

1.Mobile Money

I’m sure many have heard of the famous mobile money revolution in Africa, and especially Kenya. Now spread to over 30 nations in Africa, M-pesa is powering a fintech revolution by providing banking to people who previously had no access to such services. With one’s phone, be it smart or ‘dumb’ you are able to send, receive, borrow and save money at the touch of a button. Today more than half of Kenya’s GDP flows through M-pesa!

2. ICT for Education

Online platforms like Udemy, Code academy are providing learning opportunities to people who cannot physically reach these learning centers. More importantly, these courses cost little to nothing to access.

China’s Taobao University, for instance, provided 559 courses through their online classes to more than 1.12 million people from 765 national-level poverty-stricken counties in China. This helped provide both technical and entrepreneurial knowledge so that the number of businesses registered in these areas under the same time period reached up to 197,000 with orders reaching an estimated 4.97 billion yuan.

Youpal Group owner, co-founder and CEO Karl Leahlander is planning to take this idea a notch higher by designing a BPO solution which he determines will uplift the lives of up to 25 million people all across Africa.

In an interview with Uteckie, Leahlander says:

“…like in India and China, you can look at the region as a mass, a whole and do something for 300 million people, as opposed to 10 million here or 5 million there. My dream is to implement a BPO solution which stretches over this geographical region. What they may be offered may not be their ideal job. I mean, coding may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But, all they need to think about is their children and not having to worry about school tuition or books. Or, they won’t have to worry about not being able to afford electricity or clean water. All that will be taken care as the parents have are offered the chance to provide for their family”

Reaching 300 million people may sound like a pipedream but that’s the power of ICT. It allows you to dream big, no matter the numbers there is no telling how many lives you can actually touch.

The prospect of raising millions from extreme poverty is one of the most important goals of our age. However, as we pursue this dream let us tether ourselves to reality so that we do not end up wasting crucial money and time.

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