Who Is ICT Innovation For? Challenges to Existing Theories of Innovation, a Kenyan Case Study

Eleanor Marchant, a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication, introduces her new report which challenges existing Western theories of innovation using Kenya as a case study. This report is part of CGCS’s ICTs, Statebuilding, & Preacebuilding in Eastern Africa Project. For the full report, please click here.

The proliferation of mobile phones in Kenya has changed the way the country operates. Anyone with a phone and an account with MPESA (a popular mobile banking platform) can now pay for most everything using their phone. Farmers can get real time access to market price information about their produce by typing a simple SMS code, and school children can connect to innovative educational platforms at the touch of a phone or tablet. Broadband internet access is proliferating, and the economy around innovating new uses and applications for mobile phones has exploded.

Kenya, along with countries like Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana, is leading the way on the continent in innovating new applications and programs that enable these kinds of developments in the information communication technology (ICT) sector. This growth has not gone unnoticed. It has attracted substantial international interest, not just from non-profit organizations focused on development, but increasingly from for-profit actors interested in investing in the country.

In this environment, understanding how tech innovation happens in Kenya – the roles played by these many different international, local, for-profit, and not-for-profit actors – is a big part of understanding the shape of new technologies that will emerge. Yet many of the theories that exist to explain technology innovation were developed to describe processes in Western contexts, like Silicon Valley, far removed from the reality of innovation in Kenya.

In this new paper for CGCS, I use the technology innovation sector in Kenya to illustrate where our existing theories fall short. If we hope to understand the growth of these sector and help shape its development, ICT, communication, and management scholars need to work together to develop better theories to explain the unique context of innovation in African countries.

I begin this process with an examination of the role of many different actors in Kenya. This includes for-profit and not-for-profit international actors like Omidyar Network, Internews, Google, and IBM, as well as local actors such as the government, universities, entrepreneurs, and the business incubators that help nurture technology start-ups. Through this, I demonstrate how the influence of these various actors on local technology innovation differs significantly from innovation as explained by existing theory.

This study led to the following conclusions about existing theories:

  1. They undervalue the contribution of the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which innovation takes place, and few studies examine how innovation practices differ in different cultural contexts;
  2. They tend to disproportionately favor the role of for-profit actors and profit motives in the push to create new applications and new kinds of mobile hardware, under-theorizing the impact of innovations with a ‘social impact’ that are common in Kenya; and
  3. They are largely unable to account for the role of disproportionately large foreign actors with the power to shape local innovation, a phenomenon that is far more common in a continent with such a long history of international involvement and historical domination, than in a similar context in the US.

As a brief example, existing theories often stress the central role of universities in producing the knowledge that will lead to the development of new technologies. In the Kenyan context, the historical lack of funding for universities and the current underdevelopment of the science and technology departments has meant that business incubators and co-working spaces that foster new start-ups, like iHub, currently play a much more central and quite untraditional role in the production of knowledge about new technology.

It is my hope that this paper will help lay the groundwork for the development of new theories, informed by existing ones, but more reflective of the transnational realities of technology innovation in Africa.


Click here for the full report.


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