Better opportunities for digital participation are only possible through a focus on homegrown solutions and innovation driven by local user needs.
Innovation for innovation’s sake does little to improve digital participation. As Catherine Gicheru, country manager for Code4Kenya points out, “the innovations that give access and information to Kenyans and help them make informed decisions are the ones that trigger participation. If you can bring innovation down to that level, you have engaged the citizens that have the possibility to influence policy.” Mykhailo Koltsov, senior lecturer for journalism at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kiev, Ukraine, argues that as open source programs are mostly international, an increased emphasis on homegrown solutions tailored to local problems and concerns is vital. Like all the experts surveyed as part of the #speakup barometer, William Senyo, founder and CEO of iHub Accra, Ghana, see the future of this type of local innovation in his country’s young people. "We have to develop a critical mass of young people who will eventually shape the dynamics of digital society to our advantage,” he said. "I think there has never been a better time to be young, black and African. And I think there is a lot of untapped energy here in terms of both economic gain and empowering people to flip the African narrative."
There are nonetheless several roadblocks that must still be overcome. In Myanmar, on the one hand, experts such as Hsan Winn Hlaing, senior business development associate at Phandeeyar, say that although it’s a good time for start-ups, e-commerce is not ready because of the banking system. “Online payments are difficult. The demand is there, but progress is very slow,” said Hlaing. In Pakistan, on the other hand, much of the emphasis is on innovation in e-commerce, e-payments, and in the Internet of things, says Sophia Hasnain, founder and CEO of Linked Things. “However, not many people have thought about digital participation," she said. Inflexible government regulations also remain an issue. Camila Perez, economist and deputy director of Fedesarrollo, a think-tank in Bogotá, Colombia, argues that "regulation is slowing down the development of the digital economy." Grace Harb, program director of Initiation to ICT and Tech for Girls and Marginalized Youth in Lebanon, advocates for more funding initiatives, especially for marginalized groups. "I think access to finance is one of the biggest challenges for women. They ask her to bring a guarantee, a warranty from a man," Harb said.
In order for innovation to spark greater digital participation, the building blocks – financing, education, and access, among others – must be in place to nurture young "ICT wizards,” as Moses Watasa, the commissioner of information dissemination monitoring and inspection at the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance in Uganda, calls them., and develop new homegrown initiatives and solutions. As Jimmy Gitonga, senior consultant with Afroshok Media said: “We can learn from other innovative spaces around the world, copy what is necessary, build what infrastructure we need, and innovate for Africa first. Only then can uniquely African knowledge and financial investment grow in an environment that is, in itself, unique.”
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer