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  • Successful innovation depends on engaging the grassroots

Technological innovation can't be imposed on poor people — they must be engaged to select ideas that suit their lives, writes Lawrence Gudza.

Technological innovation is generally viewed as a panacea for the problems of developing nations. The result is that in countries such as Zimbabwe, institutions from well-off nations have tended to 'push' technologies according to their own agendas — and not ones that suit local communities.

This denies these communities the chance for technology democracy and justice — the right to develop, choose and use technologies that help people lead the kind of life they value, without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.

The push for technologies comes at the expense of social sustainability and lasting solutions at the grassroots level. Despite decades of effort, it is doubtful whether the objective of improving people's lives through technology will be reached with this approach.

Such prescriptive approaches to technology development and adoption fail at the first hurdle: acceptance. They are subtly resisted by poor communities when they are socially unsustainable, and actively resisted where they are perceived as violating a community's cultural and traditional norms.

For example, drip irrigation technology has failed to make an impact because villagers lack water pumps to access underground water. Meanwhile, communities have not embraced ecological sanitation (ecosan) toilets because the idea of collecting their own waste to fertilise gardens violates cultural norms and beliefs.

We need inclusive, community-based approaches that consider how people use technologies in their daily lives. The key for institutions is to engage in a dialogue about technologies with communities — vulnerable groups, traditional leadership, policymakers, scientists and business people.

Examining broader issues

Introducing technology through community approaches is a social process that empowers communities to take charge of their own development through debate. This promotes a technology agenda based on local priorities and strengthens alliances for collective action.

The process is transparent, and focuses on the priorities and needs of communities. It accepts and incorporates the output from the engagement, and in so doing, a narrow focus on a particular technology is avoided. Instead, issues around the problem that technology could help solve are examined in broad terms.

For example, in 2006 a three-day workshop run by the UK-based organisation Practical Action, examined whether nanotechnologies can help achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to clean water by 2015.

Not once did the organisers mention nanotechnology until the last day of the workshop. This allowed the dialogue to focus on the problem of water in broad terms — for example, access, availability and quality — and not on a specific technology.

As a result, several preferred technologies were discussed — and when nanotechnology was proposed there were more questions about it than the organisers imagined before the workshop.

Social issues were raised too, such as the role of women and girls as those responsible for fetching water, no matter the distance from the source.

Also discussed were traditional technologies and knowledge systems that have sustained the communities for decades. What we need is to find ways to integrate locally developed systems with new technologies, and so increase the chances of their adoption.  

Policies for scaling up

The same approach needs to guide science and technology policymaking at the national level. All stakeholders, including local communities, should collaborate in the process. This will harness the power of indigenous knowledge and ensure that policies are relevant to the needs of people on the ground.

Implementation and adaptation of new technologies should also be driven by users.  

In 2008, a pilot study among a rural population of 51,000 in Zimbabwe, 'Sharing local content in local voices', another Practical Action project, tested mobile devices for podcasting information relevant to farmers — such as crop and livestock production, and food processing and preservation. Recording was done using local voices and languages.

The project's impact exceeded expectations: apart from improving livelihoods through increased production and yields, it also helped establish markets for buyers and suppliers.

The technology is now being rolled out to a population of 450,000 across several districts. Farmers trained as community extension officers are disseminating the content, while also collecting indigenous knowledge that experts can then combine with scientific content for use by all community members.

Other techniques that help to ensure the technology is being adopted and owned by communities include farmer-to-farmer 'look and learn' visits, and involving district and provincial stakeholders in developing and prioritising content.

Much technology adaptation to suit local needs is done in communities by communities, and in most cases, ideas for new technology are conceived there.

At least 40 years since the technology push started in Zimbabwe and other developing countries, the impact on poor people's livelihoods remains elusive no matter how much technology one piles onto communities. The difference between success and failure is the approach used to select and assess technology.

Lawrence Gudza is programme team leader for Responding to New Technologies at Practical Action Southern Africa, based in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted at and

This article is part of a Spotlight on Supporting grassroots innovation.