Emerging nations often have the advantage in infrastructure deployments and upgrades because they have no legacy infrastructure to replace: they can just start from scratch. Legacy infrastructure can stifle innovation because of real and perceived barriers. In researching this subject, I questioned how much technology can help emerging countries that may struggle to house and feed their citizens and/or refugees from nearby countries. I would like to spotlight the work of Nethope, which aims to expand tech to lift nations from poverty and provide opportunities for growth through innovation.
How Much Tech?
In 1989 my wife and I toured Egypt and we traveled through a small village with basic concrete houses. We watched as the residents made their way to fields in the morning to harvest the crops. In the evening they returned to homes that had no electricity, modern lighting, or communications. They filtered water from the nearby Nile. This was their daily routine. I compared that with my role at the time as a computer administrator and realized the absurdity of my work in contrast to this simple everyday life. They had no use for the work that I did, which would not help move that cart to and from the field and would probably not increase their harvest or enhance their lives. My skills and knowledge were useless to them.
Should we concentrate on bringing technology to impoverished nations and villages? How would technology benefit people whose lives revolve around providing basic needs? Can it help in providing clean water, basic health care, communications and education? Which problems are we trying to solve through innovation? These are questions I no longer assume I know how to answer.
Nethope is a non-profit organization dedicated to matching tech firms and individuals with non-governmental organizations to apply innovation to solve problems in emerging nations. Much of their focus is on wireless connectivity and building alternative energy sources to power the infrastructure. They have provided portable cellular hot spots for Syrian refugees to connect them with family members back home and with aid organizations. It also might enable young people to continue their studies, although sporadically, through online education programs.
A similar project established internet connectivity in a refugee camp in Kenya. Refugees flooded there to escape famine, drought, and conflict. This camp has become the fourth largest population center in Kenya and is a temporary home for thousands. As in the Syrian refugee crisis, it is hoped that the youth in particular will be able to continue their education through remote courses. In another area of Kenya, wi-fi hotspots were established with unused television whitespace. This might give villagers an opportunity to improve their lives through education and expanded business opportunities.
One of the services provided by Nethope is technology coordination between many non-governmental aid organizations. Each organization tries to aid in various ways and sometimes they end up stepping over each other, particularly in areas such as technology infrastructure. Nethope and their partners provide expertise and coordination, whether it be a temporary crisis or an ongoing project. This approach allows the other aid organizations to focus on their strengths providing for basic necessities.
Has technology become a basic necessity or is it still a luxury? In an emergency, where does it fall on the list of priorities? I live near an earthquake fault and try to be prepared for a potential disaster. On the one hand, I can’t eat my smartphone, but on the other hand it would come in handy should my house suddenly become an island. I applaud the efforts of Nethope and other organizations that share their expertise with those in need. It is good to provide basic necessities and basic communications. I wish them well on their quest.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional and assistant professor of practice for the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.