Tag Archives: bottom-up approach

Clare’s Lessons Learned

This semester I have learned an incredible amount about the pros and cons of ICT4D, and their importance in development.  The main lesson that I have learned is that the best projects are those that are the most realistic and specific to the people they target.  Throwing 100 laptops at a group of people struggling to survive a drought in Africa is helpful to no one and a waste of time.  Thoroughly researching the location you are trying to provide with aid is a necessary step that is often skipped over in the process of providing “help” to those in need- what works for a village in Rwanda may not work for city-dwellers in Bangladesh.  There is no one size fits all solution in ICT4D.  What does work is educating those who live in the area being addressed on how to use the technologies provided, and making sure that this technology is suitable for the people to use- giving smart phones to a village with one DSL internet connection is nowhere near as effective as placing funding toward pre-existing structures to improve what is already existent in the community.  The desire to create “flashy” projects that look good on paper should be superseded by the desire to fund projects that actually work.

Something specific I have personally learned this semester is that Twitter can be a valuable resource in the ICT4D community.  While this may sound trite, I had never used Twitter before my week in this class, and had no idea how interactive it could be.  I had previously viewed Twitter with disdain as a form of social media where people could shoot off short, random thoughts into the atmosphere with no real depth or meaning- I had no idea how connective the resource can be, or how useful it could be in disaster and development situations.  The ability to get news out fast and provide different organizations to communicate with each other, with experts in the field, and with those in need is incredibly important.

The most useful theoretical framework I learned from this class regarded the top-down/supply different approach and how it differs from the bottom-up/empowerment focused approach.    I believe that the people centered model, which advocates access to information for all groups in the population, is an extremely important message that should be perpetuated in all ICT4D endeavors.  Information and communication technology needs to be used as a tool to build self-reliance and empowerment in developing nations- if they are reserved for the upper classes or those with access to wealth (perpetuating the digital divide) they cannot succeed. Something I would like to learn more about is how organizations are handling this issue- what factors are changing in new and impending projects to increase sustainability and self-agency?

Reasons Why ICT4D Projects Fail

In the following video, professionals from Africa explain why they think many ICT4D projects fail. It shows their perspectives on ICT4D and highlights 7 of the main reasons for failure.

The 7 reasons stated in the video are:

1. Ideas/results not directly tied to improving economic condition of end user

2. Not relevant to local context/strengths/needs

3. Not understanding infrastructure capability

4. Underestimating maintenance costs and issues

5. Projects only supported by short term grants

6. Not looking at the whole system

7. Project built on condescending assumptions

These seven reasons for ICT4D failure encompass much of what we have discussed in class. Some of the specific things that the people in the video talk about go into greater detail in terms of this succinct list. For example, one community organizer discusses how many projects are designed outside of the community without enough initial research or understanding of how the society works. Not only do they not do enough before, sometimes they come in with an attitude of superiority and the notion that they will be teaching the people there how to use technology, instead of working with them to see how it can be of the greatest benefit to them. Just as Richard Heeks argues, many ICT4D projects have a one-size-fits-all approach and do not take into consideration that each context is unique and some things don’t work everywhere.

The video also discusses the need for developed infrastructure to support projects. One man speaks of power outages and how they are an accepted reality in many communities. People are used to the power going out without warning and do not expect notice in advance. Another ICT professional discusses how his community received 40 computers and now none of them work. They were given as gifts, but their maintenance could not be paid for so they are out of use now. This is an example of an underestimation of costs. The biggest overarching problem that seems to be recurring in the video -and in actual ICT4D projects- is that the project designers and implementers do not fully understand the culture and the problems that need to be addressed. This will continue to be the biggest issue until ICT4D projects work more closely with communities and are led by members from the bottom-up.

Redefining the User Experience

This week in class, we discussed the various reasons that ICT4D projects fail as well as common instances of successful implementation of ICT4D. A general theme that is supported by our readings and class discussion is the notion that when projects are conceived and constructed with the community it is proposed to impacted, projects have a better chance of succeeding.Generally, the bottom-up approach is best.

mWomen Design Challenge invites designers, programmers and innovators to reimagine a smartphone’s core user interface so that it can be more intuitive and accessible when implemented in development contexts. The challenge was created to address the problem that most woman mobile users in developing countries rely on basic feature phones, which generally offer little beyond basic voice and SMS functionality. The mWomen Challenge explains that “smartphones will drive the next stage of the mobile revolution, offering access to more phone features, as well as being the primary tool for internet access for many in the developing world.”

When I first came across this challenge, I qualified it as a top-down ICT4D approach, simply because the designers who are taking part in the challenge aren’t living in the communities, asking women what they want from apps and interfaces. However, as I investigated further, I recognized that the challenge asks participants to consider factors that should be taken into account when designing apps and even offers personal stories of women who explain their needs right on the website. The challenge explains that in order to design a mobile experience that meets specific needs, participants need to consider the context in which the beneficiary lives. The challenge explains that demographics for the women that they are trying to affect,  “are incredibly diverse, with no two countries, communities, or families exactly alike. Likewise, no two women are alike, but many living in resource-poor settings experience similar constraints.” The challenge also provides ample information about the various factors that should be considered:

Written literacy 

  • ‘Literacy’ is not a black and white concept. Many people who are classified as ‘illiterate’ can read and remember numbers and recognize a small vocabulary of written words.
  • While individuals may not be literate, they can usually turn to people who a
  • In some countries, there are multiple languages. For example, there are 22 official languages in India, including Hindi.
  • In some countries, some ethnic groups don’t speak (and hence read) the national language. Sometimes, in these cases, people will speak their local language and an international language such as English or French, rather than the national language.

Technical Literacy

  • Many women learn to use new technology through friends and family.
  • Many women buy second-hand phones, which do not often include instruction manuals.
  • Often, when women already have a phone, they are unfamiliar with anything but the basic voice features, and struggle to identify how to use other common useful features like the built-in flashlight.
  • 77% of resource-poor women have made a mobile phone call, but only 37% have sent an SMS, regardless of literacy levels. Resource-poor women reported that they did not find the SMS service useful.


  • In some countries, women are expected to stay home. In other settings, women are the chief breadwinner, working long hours as smallholder farmers or shopkeepers.
  • In many countries, due to culture and economics, families live together. In many cases, women move to their in-laws’ homes after getting married. Often, elderly family members or nieces and nephews live as part of the immediate family. Often women are responsible for caring for the entire family.
  • In some settings, women are discouraged or even prohibited from using a phone, as it is considered as being at odds with their role in the home.

Resource Gaps

  • Battery life is important from both a cost and convenience perspective.
  • Many people do not have electricity in their residences, and so will take their phones to a charging shop that will cost around $0.20 to $0.40 per charge. For the many people living in rural areas, this requires the additional cost of travelling to a village.
  • In some settings, homes or communities may have power consistently during some parts of the year, but not others, for example during the monsoon or very hot seasons.
  • Mobile phone signals are often intermittent either due to poor coverage or network technical problems. It is commonly required for rural people to change their physical location to access coverage.
  • Both urban and rural populations, and men and women alike face these constraints, although women tend to have additional challenges related to disposable income and ability to travel outside the home or community.

The website includes additional factors such as the economics of obtaining a phone, purchasing airtime, costs associated with using a phone, and common phone practices. If you would like to see additional factors, you may view them on the website.

So here is my question: If the challenge designers aren’t physically taking a grass-roots approach, is this challenge automatically considered a top-down implementation of ICT4D? Or is giving the designers ample information to meet the nuanced needs of the user enough to qualify this remote project as bottom-up?

Esoko’s Demand-Driven Success in Bringing ICTs to Africa

Across the board, most development practitioners would argue the bottom-up approach is more successful than the top-down approach in regards to development projects. The main reason for this is sustainability. The following blog outlines Esoko, an organization that brings the “market” to Africa. They focus on tools for market and agricultural information via mobiles and ICT. Their success is largely due to the fact the organization is demand-driven as “60% of Africans earn their living from working in agriculture, a sector so underserved in terms of technology solutions”. Additionally, Esoko uses the bottoms-up approach. The idea was not pushed onto the people, rather the idea sprung from the people and their needs. Mark Davies, the founder of Esoko, saw the benefits of putting street markets into the viral atmosphere. Esoko hires locally, employing mostly Ghanaians and West Africans.

The organization uses the increase in mobiles and ICTs’ in Africa to their advantage. The services and apps Esoko provides are SMS messaging, market price alerts, inventory reporting, SMS bids and offerings and maps. The model they use “starts with government or donor funding and then transitions into a business; a franchise that can grow into a sustainable company”. They have started working in Ghana where local businesses are using Esoko. As of right now there are franchises and resellers in Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique and Malawi. Many other African countries are using Esoko via government funding (North Sudan and Nigeria), while even more are funded via donors (Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Tanzania, Madagascar, Uganda, Malawi, etc.).

In regards to monitoring and evaluating, “In November 2010 a survey of 62 farmers in Northern Ghana who have been receiving price alerts for one year confirmed that they have benefited from the service, with an average improvement of 40% on reported deals and revenue.” As stated before, their success is due mainly because of their bottoms-up, grass-roots approach. Why do practitioners continue to push top-down approaches onto governments and other NGOs  when bottoms-up projects tend to be the most successful?

The Importance of Incorporating Local Knowledge

This ICT4D course has opened my eyes to many aspects of development that I was not previously aware of. What I found the most interesting was the ways in which the technology I use everyday (and take for granted) can impact, for example, how a woman in rural Kenya locates clean water. Throughout this course, I have noticed one overarching trend – the importance of incorporating local knowledge. Any and all successful projects myself or the class have looked into, all had used pre-existing social networks or ways of communicating and simply adapted a technology to make this more productive. This also makes implementation significantly easier. By expanding on local knowledge, it will cut back on the amount of time needed to train the population to use new technologies. For example, in Argentina there was a system of handheld computers developed to help farmers better track their cattle. This did not require the project implementers to teach local farmers how to track cattle, just to do it in a more efficient way.

In conjunction with capitalizing on local knowledge was the concept of a bottom-up approach. It was something I had never really considered in-depth, but various readings in class opened my eyes to the common assumption that all rural peoples in developing countries only wanted technology to show them where to find food, water, etc. This condescending belief also tied into how technology and information was disseminated into a population. Using means such as the TV and radio, non-participatory and one-sided, for information broadcasting was not usually the best approach. Developing a method in which the content was adapted through local channels, and allowed for the more open discussion, adaption, and feedback created the more sustainable and well-recieved projects. The knowledge I have gained from this course will undoubtedly help me in my future career in development.

Overall, I found the class to be a great overview of ICT4D. I had never heard of a majority of the new technologies that were being employed in the development sector (web mapping, Text4Health, just to name a few). For future classes, I think more focus on the sectors would be beneficial. They encompass a majority of ICT4D aspects, problems, and have myriad relevant case studies. Also additional emphasis on case studies would be helpful because, personally, I don’t think there’s a better way to fully understand how ICT4D impacts (or fails to impact) various development challenges then to see them in action.