Nature and Nurture Releasing Latent Energies in African Research and Development
This keynote presents the narrative of a Western trained engineer working with rural communities in underserved areas in Southern Africa. By reflexive interpretation and reinterpretation of physical evidence (nature) and the narratives in communities (nurture) derived from an interdisciplinary sensitivity, he presents insights in the dynamic interface between technology and culture in rural communities and their effects in meaning making and perception of the dynamics of resource allocation and alleviation. From his 'in situ' embedding, living and working with communities, Gertjan provides practical examples and, through those, interrogates the modernist philosophical operation of nature from culture and culture from technology and the attendant practical disrespect of indigenous worlviews concerning daily practices in the communities he studies. Using rural Africa’s complex positionally, he argues for a sensitivity towards the locality of knowledge and the recognition of local epistemologies, virtues, and capacity.
Nature and Nurture
Releasing Latent Energies in African Research and Development
Keynote at the EAI International Conference on Innovations and Interdisciplinary Solutions
for Underserved Areas (INTERSOL 2018), 24 March 2018, Kigali, Rwanda.
dr. ing. Gertjan van Stam
email@example.com, +263 77 663 8773
Ladies and Gentlemen, Representatives from High Offices, Colleagues and
Compatriots, thank you for the opportunity to address this opening session of the EAI
International Conference on Innovations and Interdisciplinary Solutions for
Underserved Areas, INTERSOL 2018
The organisers of this conference invited me to share with you my experiences
concerning to the case we are making here: that interdisciplinarity can shed useful
insights into providing solutions for the needs of people that are ‘underserved’. This
subject is near to my heart. Therefore, I humbly offer my story at this auspicious
venue, today. Bear with me, when we travel some challenging landscapes of
knowledge and wisdom, in an age of increasing globalisation, super-colonialism (van
Stam, 2017e) and a belief system that heralds technological fixes as solutions to
social issues (Johnston, 2018; van Stam, 2012).
Earlier this week, I accompanied a team of experts on a journey into a deep-rural
area in the Southern part of this continent. We went to visit a health institute in a
remote village in Southern Zimbabwe, travelling more than 500 kilometres from the
capital of Harare. I had visited that particular 160-bed hospital several times before.
This week, we found 15 patients admitted, most of them suffering from malaria. At
one of my previous visits, I found only two patients admitted. Although this particular
health institute has a catchment area with a radius of over 100 kilometres, at any of
my visits, the utilisation of the health institute was underwhelming.
Before moving back to Zimbabwe at the end of 2012, I lived ten years in Zambia.
In the rural village we stayed, the community built a Local and Wide Area Network to
link local community members to the Internet (Matthee, Mweemba, Pais, Rijken, &
van Stam, 2007). It succeeded in providing connectivity in places where there was
none before. From its start in 2004, the internet network was always congested
(Belding et al., 2012): the gap between supply and demand has continued to grow
ever since (Belding, Johnson, Pejovic, & van Stam, 2011). The utilisation of the
community network was overwhelming.
What is the difference between these two cases? Both represent ‘solutions in
underserved areas’. How come that utilisation of solutions to clear-and-present
problems – in this case in health and communications – can be so at variance?
Conference details at http://interdisciplinarysolutions.org/2018/show/home
In this keynote, I propose an answer: “it depends on the ‘locality’ of knowledge”,
or, in academic terms: “it depends on the epistemology employed”.
“It has been quite a journey”
for me, as a Western-trained engineer, to live and
learn in rural and urban areas in Southern Africa. Only after considerable study, I
started recognising what could make-or-break the use of technology in so-called
‘underserviced areas’ (van Stam, 2011, 2017d). The journey has taken me almost 30
years, already. I worked as a broadcast system-engineer at a shortwave radio station
in Swaziland in the late 80’s, as a strategist in telecommunication systems and
relating with South Africa in the late 90’s, and as a resident expert in Information and
Communication Technologies in rural Zambia and Zimbabwe since the turn of the
century (IEEE TV, 2010). I was fortunate to be involved with communities that use
many forms of technology when they built housing infrastructures using local subsoils
and plotted along in ensuring the availability of ‘essential services’ as water (van
Stam, 2011, p. 23) and electricity (Mudenda, Johnson, Parks, & van Stam, 2014).
Also, we got involved with esoteric community enterprises as trying to produce biofuel
or solving transport challenges through the use of aeroplanes. So-called ‘Local Talent’
(Bets, van Stam, & Voorhoeve, 2013; van Oortmerssen & van Stam, 2010) train IT
experts in rural areas (Bishi, Bishi, & van Stam, 2016; Mudenda & van Stam, 2012).
They sensitise, implement and operate infrastructures and services, and got, at times,
hundreds of people engaged with local development in their respective communities
(BBC Clicks, 2011).
Since 2010, I have taken a contemplative/academic role, reflecting on the different
ways we experience reality. In its wake, over fifty publications and a few dissertations
got published. I zoomed in on extended case studies (Burawoy, 2009) in rural areas
of Zambia and Zimbabwe in the built environment, concerning access to Information
and Communication Technologies (ICT) (van Stam, 2013a), and addressed ‘the
displacement of technology and meaning in an African place’ (van Stam, 2017d).
However, upon invitation by my friends in the community, I cannot resist to,
sometimes, to take up a screwdriver or computer and participate with local engineers
and experts in the humanities in service delivery (Toyama, 2011). In all of this, we
focus on community engagement, culture, and digital technologies. As a result, we
see ‘future centres’ emerging, convene in an eHealth laboratory to build and test local
and national services (Bishi, Shamu, van Dijk, & van Stam, 2017a), and, among
others, wonder how to facilitate communities in the utilisation of remittances
(Fulgencio, Ong’ayo, van Reisen, van Dijk, & van Stam, 2016), TV White Spaces
(Gweme & van Stam, 2016) and eHealth (Bishi, Shamu, van Dijk, & van Stam,
I experienced quickly that my personal skills and, especially, my Western-trained
understanding of ‘needs’ and ‘solutions’, was quite inadequate and incomplete to
provide solutions to the plights of the community (van Stam, 2012). Whatever I tried
to build in my individual, professional capacity, would readily fall-to-pieces, stand idle,
or break within a very short time, from the moment I thought I got it going. Actually,
hardly any of the activities I initiated got to the point of commissioning, as there was
always something else needed; To finish the activities, ‘just one thing’ was lacking,
something that was not available and needed sourcing from the outside world.
A phrase borrowed from Njabulo Khumalo (Khumalo, 2017) as he put it in the title of his assessment of the implementation of an
Information platform (DHIS2) in the health system in Zimbabwe.
Open access at https://www.vanstam.net/gertjan-van-stam
My training and methodological understanding of how to ‘get it done’ was not
cutting it (Mawere & van Stam, 2015); Electric equipment got blown up by dirty
power (Mudenda et al., 2014), Internet would be available in a manner and at a cost
incompatible with the local economy, tools and equipment – that ‘last thing’ – took
years to arrive, and an airplane would sink in the mud after a freak rainstorm. Those
visiting from the outside were unable to keep hold of what they learned when visiting
the community. I found out the truth in what the Italian Ernesto Sirolli bluntly but
convincingly presented in his TED talk: “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!”
I recognised that my training as an engineer, with its methods of essentialising,
categorising, and set frames for technical assessments would lead astray from my
ability ‘to be part and parcel of a solution’ (van Stam, 2014). This mismatch, of
course, is quite logical (Mawere & van Stam, 2016a): Who can be part and parcel of
any sustainable development when one does not start together, does not share the
local community’s understanding and needs, or does not respect the craftsmanship in
existing modus-operandi? Just turn it around: which nation or people would welcome
foreigners that ‘bring development’ that do not share the local clues about histories,
cultures, and ways-of-living and knowing? (Mawere, 2016).
The question that hounds me is whether the search for ‘solutions for the
underserved’ is like a puzzle, or if that search represents a mystery. In case the quest
is like a puzzle, it would be a matter of sorting out all the available pieces, taking into
account all available information, and thus find the answer. However, in case the
quest is a mystery, the answer will remain elusive and perhaps tantalising because
one would misunderstand the underlying question (van Stam, 2017d, p. 51).
Contemplating this issue puts a nagging concern into me. What if we are proposing
answers, or solutions, to misconstrued questions?
When reflecting on the dynamic interface between technology and culture in rural
communities and their effects in meaning-making – taking into account the local
perception of the dynamics of resource allocation and alleviation (Sheneberger & van
Stam, 2011) – the benefits of technological solutions and interventions that come
from outsiders appear to be unclear and unserving in many ways. Where do the ideas
for the solutions for conceptualised problems emerge from? (Ahmat et al., 2014).
Actually, what constitutes ‘underservedness’: who defines what needs and solutions
are, and who sets the categories that technologists use?
When I regarded the spuriousness of the outcomes of presumed solutions to
perceived needs, I did resolve that I am dealing with a mystery instead of a puzzle
We are dealing with unknown unknowns. Therefore, one needs to review one’s
philosophy of science and the use of dominant epistemologies. There is a need for
scientific wandering onto unchartered waters.
Thus, my engineering research shifted to gain a better understanding of the
question of: “what is the question here?” I learned that questioning the question is not
necessarily appreciated by engineers when potential answers address moral and
. It is thus, that I started on the path of interdisciplinarity, setting up
The revelations of Edward Snowden (Greenwald, 2014) and, for example, the public concern about unanticipated socio-political
influence possibly exercised through a Facebook data breach by Cambridge Analytica are pointers towards such a mystery in the
utilization of the internet and social media.
In this line of thought, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, argued for regulators large technology firms (Solon,
my intellectual camp in both the natural and social sciences.
Upon entrance in a community, and in research of the question of needs and
indications towards potential local solutions, I focused on building and maintaining
relationships first (van Stam, 2016a). In Murambinda, Zimbabwe, in the year 2000, it
took more than six months of unstructured living-in-the-community before I was
starting to get grounded to carefully participate in local discussions of ideas for
solutions (van Stam, 2017b). From that moment onwards, I have continuously and
fervently studied the many histories, the local understandings of meaning, the
complex settings of the many stakeholders (Kroczek, Mweetwa, & van Stam, 2013),
and the built environment. Through such study, I endeavour to discern contemporary
and fruitful theories-of-change that involve technology from within the communities
themselves. I noticed the utter complexity of what could be resulting in what we call
here ‘underservedness’. I recognised that what is happening in disenfranchised areas
is related to a history of being othered (van Stam, 2016b, 2016c) and, subsequently,
being dominated (van Stam, 2017e). From my complex positionality as an engineer in
Zambia and Zimbabwe, I found that this othering orientalism and its handmaiden
hegemonic imperialism remains the order of the day in many, so-called, ‘underserved’
environments. I started to see that many realities express themselves in a clash-of-
paradigms (van Stam, 2017d).
To deal with the multiple realities I saw, I conceptualised three different paradigms
and showed how, in rural Africa, those that I studied switch between them (van Stam,
2017d, pp. 201–203).
• The first set of realities is espoused in globalised policies and practices, set in an
I-paradigm. Here, one considers truths predicated in individualism and
capitalism, where people interact the way billiard balls do.
• This reality is overlaid with a reality set in community and social personhoods,
which I suggest is a We-paradigm. Here, one is defined by being part of a
• And, of course, there is, at least, a third one. Here one considers the inputs
from cosmology and religious belonging, in what I called the It-paradigm.
I noticed that my African friends had no problem switching between these realities in
a matter of seconds. It sometimes took me weeks to be able to switch with them,
especially when I would return to the community from a trip overseas (van Stam,
Through lots of lengthy and ongoing conversations, hard study, reflection and
introspection and living-the-life, I started to recognise and appreciate the local
paradigms, philosophies, and epistemologies. Subsequently, I recognised their
solidification in contemporary cultural expressions and the practice of local engineers.
So sensitised, I became enthralled by the ingenuity of local engineers and the general
agency of people to provide local solutions to local problems (Mawere & van Stam,
2016a; van Stam, 2013b, 2016a). For instance, I recognised that a stunning 99% of
Zambia’s energy production is green energy (Mudenda et al., 2014) and that mobile
money infrastructures allow for expressions of communal love (Fulgencio et al., 2016;
van Stam, 2017d, Chapters 12, 15). From then on, together with my local, national,
and international friends and collaborators, I committed myself to search for paths
that make sense of what technology might mean in the intricate webs of meanings,
perceptions, and, above all, human relationships in disenfranchised areas.
The voice of the ‘subaltern’
Although far and between, even in mainstream academia critical voices do pop up.
Such articulations, in ICT for instance, asked: “are we asking the right questions?”
(Gomez & Pather, 2012), or, “do pilots really work” (Surana et al., 2008)? I see one
issue that weaves these voices together: it is the question of “who defines success?”.
Critical and courageous contemporary writers, notably from within the ‘underserved
areas’, such as Munyaradzi Mawere, Francis Nyamnjoh, Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni and
several others, bring up the pertinent issue of local agency. Although they do not
necessarily address technologies, in general, they insist on the existence of different
perceptions of reality and success, depending on where one resides. They provide
sound academic grounding for the rationality of local, African understandings, as they
set their research in the context of the global matrixes of power.
In my work, I show how the local perspective in the areas where I lived and live –
now in rural Zimbabwe – has a profound impact on how to regard the constitution of
needs and service provisioning. I have made the case of ongoing orientalistic,
imperialistic and colonial predispositions. These Terrible Three, affect and obscure the
contributions from many a technologist and academic, both in and outside Africa.
Living together, sharing resources, and lots of conversation with those that are
regarded as ‘the subaltern’, or even more demeaning generalised as being in ‘the
Global South’ (Grosfoguel, 2010), brought me in a whole new realm of academic
sensitivity and understanding of the meaning of technology in the communities I live
with. I had methodologically migrated from interdisciplinarity to transdisciplinarity.
So, what are some of the realities I did not know about but found present when I
approached the communities I live(d) in scientifically? And, what are the Theories of
Change thus unearthed?
First of all, I learned that technology is not first of all about its nature, but mostly
about its nurture.
We are human beings networked together in complex relationships with other
human beings. Therefore, nature is to be understood in its social context. It is the
local cosmology, epistemology, ontology and methodologies that form the basis of
local, indigenous knowledge: that defines ‘what is’. I learned that, in the community,
knowledge is understood in its embodied formats (Mawere & van Stam, 2017) and not
necessarily – or not at all – as in a text (van Stam, 2013d). Using my interdisciplinary
use of both the social and natural sciences, and appreciating the local, ever evolving
indigenous knowledge, I was gaining some understanding and, hopefully, some
wisdom. The local realities started to make scientific sense when I began to approach
them from the local viewpoints of realities. This need to understanding technology
contextually is real for both where a specific technology is conceptualised and where a
technology is deployed. When those understandings do not overlap, which seems
often the case in disenfranchised areas, there are at least two worlds – two realities –
to consider, the local and a foreign one.
It is in those realisations of the past and the present that ‘where we are right now’
makes sense. For instance, I discovered that in underserved areas in Southern Africa,
colonialism relied on a circular process of condemnation, brainwashing, and,
subsequently, resource release linked to foreign, imposed conditionalities. In this
definition of colonialism, I came to recognise that such practices are still ongoing.
Quite often, external experts would portray my African interlocutors as having
essential deficits that need urgent interventions to solve. Subsequently, proposals
would demand foreigners to fly in to bring ‘the blessings of modern, market-driven
civilisation’. Only after sufficient compliance would have been committed to – in a
written, signed and stamped project proposal – resources could become available.
Ironically, the treasures involved might have expropriated from Africa in the first place
(Mawere & van Stam, 2016b). An academic friend living in this country, Rwanda,
started to recognise this too. Recently, he told me: “researchers from abroad that
often stopped by […] were almost always on some mission to study about Africa as if
Africa was some curiosity-ridden domain to be investigated from their elevated
perspective from the outside”
Secondly, I was amazed to recognise that a focus on innovation can be entirely
counterproductive. Innovation brings lots of risks, and, often, are proposed with such
a vigour that local relationships in the community and with stakeholders have no time
to follow or to strengthen. Literature seems to exalt these ‘exceptions-to-the-rules’.
However, they are not necessarily conversant with the local understanding of virtues,
success, or desirable practice (Mawere & van Stam, 2016a). Especially in the
communities I know, change is the result of collective processes and happens rather
gradually. Therefore, it is essential to observe the ordinary (van Stam, 2016a).
I learned that the local focus is on improvisation: One works with what one has, in
all its transdisciplinary aspects. Locally, engineers aim to improve on what works and
neglect practices that are not beneficial (van Stam, 2016a). Such a stance is clearly
shown, for instance, in the current National Health Strategy of Zimbabwe, when it
Significant investments in health system strengthening are necessary for the health
facilities and other service delivery and coordination platforms to function optimally.
[...] new innovative programmes such as e-health are implemented to enhance and
not to disrupt what has been working so far” (MoHCC, 2016, p. 61, my underlining)
In the Lands of the Misunderstood
To my relief, literature is gradually starting to resonate with this kind of counter-
narrative. For instance, coming back to the rural health institute I introduced, a
decline in health service utilisation is noticed in Zimbabwe’s National Health Profile
(MoHCC, 2015). The profile lists a plethora of social issues involved, for instance,
perceptions and factors like religion, culture, education, status, quality, accessibility
and affordability, and, of course, disease burden.
However, the quest to recognise African Expressions of Technology is not
something put centre-stage on even African research agendas. To gain the necessary
understanding, one needs longitudinal interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary study and
a refusal to give up on local agency. Further, it necessitates acknowledgement of the
fact that the realities in so-called ‘underserved areas’ are far removed from the
realities in environments where services are flush and abundantly available. Lastly, it
needs a sensitivity to underlying clashes of paradigms, and the presence - and need
of mediation - of undeserved (‘white’) privileges (van Stam, 2017d, pp. 102–109).
I put a big question mark to the methodologies that the dominant, Western-centric
academy use in so-called underserved areas. Many (most?) of them are not
conceptualised nor tested in the realities of the disenfranchised, and, therefore, their
usability is not proven (Mawere & van Stam, 2015). However, in our current age of
super-colonialism, it needs courage to stand up for counter-narratives – the narrative
Prof Bruce Krogh, 2018, private correspondence.
of those from the underserved areas themselves – and for the local desires to amplify
the local stories-of-stuff, using a local agency.
When we studied ‘how come’ many technologies work so mediocre in
disenfranchised settings, we stumbled on three realities that affect the use of
technology considerably: the reality of system diversity (van Reisen, 2017). When the
counter-narrative is ‘diversity equals normality’, technologists are faced with three
(1) the issue of latency. Here, we recognise that the transfer of information –
whether digital or interpersonal – takes considerable amounts of time. Latency is set
to the absolute maximum of the speed of light, or what-ever used means of transport,
and the enormous distances to reach information platforms (the West is far, far
away). Thus, any form of information transfer takes considerable time. Bits and bytes
have thousands of kilometres to travel and building relationships takes travel and
involving all authorities. Getting all permissions in order takes significant efforts. In
ICT systems, for instance, we noticed that in a mixed flow environment with
significant latency, Linux bases systems outperform Windows systems almost ten-to-
one over a 1 Mbps line (Johnson & van Stam, 2016).
(2) the issue of congestion. Due to the dominant mix of technical, economic and
political systems and the hegemony of neo-liberal guidelines, supply seem unrelated
to demand. Although communities are used to share out of abundance, technical
systems thriving on models of scarcity are timing out while communities are busy
(3) the issue of diversity. Here, we recognise the enormous variety, diversity and
richness of expressions in Africa. It seems that anything one can think of is available
in Africa. There a lot of variety in languages, in cultures, and in regulations, and an
enormous range in equipment. When one tries to plug a power lead into a power
socket … you know what I mean.
In many parts of Africa, the reality of system diversity has been present for a very
long time. This is unlikely to change soon. Thus, we had better take advantage and
think about how “to enhance what has been working so far” considering the normality
of system diversity.
A view on African Critical Agency
When we get back to our two cases at the start of this address, one where health
services are sparsely used, and one where internet connectivity is always congested,
how to regard these differences in the adoption of solutions to perceived problems?
I propose that underutilisation is mainly caused because of ‘discontinuities of
vision’. Reviewing an extended history, it becomes clear how the pre-colonial systems
have been overlaid and crowded out by foreign systems. These systems emerged
from an alien worldview, in the I-paradigm. Such systems continue to match poorly
with the local views of continuity that rely on the maintenance and expansion of
human relationships. Settler colonialism is long gone, but the systems that were put
in place continue to ravish relationships. In our example, overreliance on foreign
scheme and support (to maintain them) has led to disrupted visions on the mechanics
of how-to-do health. When testing the counter-narratives as proposed in this address
with the leadership at that particular health institute, I saw eyes spark and heard
initial ideas about how to augment health operations in light of locally established
In the village of Macha, in Zambia, from the outset, local ways of doing were - and
continue to be - taken into account. Macha Works’ Theory of Change involves Local
Talents (van Oortmerssen & van Stam, 2010) in a circular and continuous process of
Community Engagement (van Stam, 2013c), Workforce Development, and Thought
Leadership (van Stam, 2013e). Subsequently, ‘new Macha’ was declared by members
of the community and Internet and technologies like community radio became desired
vehicles for the progress in community life (Mweetwa & van Stam, 2012).
So, if we want to look from the local perspective and live in a locally enshrined We-
paradigm, what are some of the local virtue epistemologies? What did I recognise as
being regarded ‘ordinary’ in the African settings I live and work in? Of course, in the
diverse African realities, there is not one, essentialised reality or culture. However,
although there are many and varied African philosophies, it appears that the values of
Ubuntu are widely shared, especially in many parts of sub-Sahara Africa.
• In Ubuntu – or whatever the word in specific languages
– one views existence
from the perspective of the community (Mawere & van Stam, 2016c).
• Further, I propose the value of Oratio, indicating how, in the community, one
continuously communicates embodied knowledge.
• The third virtue to highlight is Relatio. Relatio describes how resources are
allocated in relational fashions (Sheneberger & van Stam, 2011).
• The fourth virtue of significant epistemic influence is Animatio. Animatio signifies
the continuous present moment, where one does adjust according to the way the
future presents itself in the continuous present.
• The last one to highlight is Dominatio, which represents the virtue of maturity,
activating Ubuntu’s conviviality through forgiveness and in covenants between
I propose these perspectives on African virtues as tools for intellectual sensitivity, for
use in daily encounters in disenfranchised communities. These Big Five, I offer,
provide a framing for conversations on the ordinary that sustains arts-of-living in
So, what is the effect of all this on the use of technology in solving problems for
those being ‘underserved’? My ‘living research’ (van Stam, 2017b) in disenfranchised
communities puts pregnant questions to out-of-context research and development of
solutions. There is clear need for sensitivity towards both the valuable opportunities
internally derived - based upon the local understanding of the needs - and recognition
of the local capacity for serving those opportunities. The definition of success depends
on the local context, local epistemologies, local values, and the local agency to negate
the ongoing effects of what I call the Terrible Three – orientalism, imperialism and
colonialism. The dominant stories of techno-solutions are problematic. However,
recognising the community for what it is, hopefully, opens exciting avenues for
The technology friend here in Rwanda, from whom I cited before, forwarded me a
story of an entrepreneur in the southern part of this beautiful country, Rwanda. This
person breeds fish. He commented that his “fish team work better than any
mechanised device”. He relates how he was forced to find this out when his imported
equipment failed to work. Now, after having been forced to regard what works, he
improvises: “I converted from paperwork to software and from clipboard mounted
For instance, Ubumuntu in Rwanda (http://www.kgm.rw).
charts to handheld internet devices. Now I have a management information system
that helps me hone in on trouble spots, and project future feed requirements, sales
income and cash flow.”
Coming back to the case on health, when we regard the field of electronic
information handling, it is clear that the current ‘platformising’ of technologies has
major effects, also for the disenfranchised. Dominant information platforms, especially
those of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and, upcoming, Amazon and Alibaba,
aim to define the information relationships that are possible. Their architecture and
models threaten to govern how health professionals will interact and how they
exchange information, as prosumers (producers and consumers) of knowledge. When
we analyse the underlying commercial values that fuel these platforms and map them
with communal values as proposed in The Big Five, it becomes clear there is little
overlap. As a result, there is a vast field of opportunities to empower communities to
engender technologies and platforms that genuinely serve them and allow for the local
beneficiation of information.
In the history of imperialism and colonialism, ‘the centre’ reifies realities in ‘the
periphery’ (Galtung, 1971). Coming back to the case in community networks: when
we look at the architecture of the Internet, it is striking that current information-
streams overlap with the shipping routes of centuries ago (Williams, 2017). Therefore,
in its contemporary structure, the internet will continue to sustain and grow digital
exclusion as it inherently reproduces power-distances, bringing the benefits of the
periphery to the (super-colonial) centre. Therefore, there is much opportunity to
counter this imperial expropriation of information and define new and more just
technologies that allow communities to beneficiate their local resources, locally.
I hope to have made the case as to the importance of one’s positionality when
approaching the question of ‘solutions for underserved areas’. There is a need for
expressed recognition of both the implicit intend and explicit capacity on both the
community and technologists, in that order. When we are decolonised and switch to
the We-paradigm – to community (van Stam, 2017c) – technologist can function in
facilitation and mentoring roles to assist the local talents in achieving their collective
and individual potential (Bets et al., 2013). Without such an attitude and orientation, I
propose, the impact of technology can be minimal at best (Marais, 2011) or can
amplify unintended negative consequences that are detrimental to the agency and
strengths of the local community (e.g. in human trafficking (van Reisen et al., 2017)).
Accepting foreign ‘black boxes’ to provide solutions in disenfranchised communities
can put such a community under a foreign spell (van Stam, 2017a). Technology is
valuable, only, as a servant in ‘the amplification of human intent’ (Toyama, 2015).
When we seek to know local human intents – for the actions local people have reason
to value – technologies can be of great help.
Through an interdisciplinary approach of nature (engineering) and nurture
(humanities), I have learned that relationships are just as ‘real’ as spatiotemporally
instantiated entities (technologies) (Bateson, 1979). Systems designed outside of
Africa carry the thoughts and cultures – and histories – of those that created them.
Without taking into account all voices, foremost the voice of the disenfranchised, any
foreign construct is self-validating and tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we
blindly accept definitions that are bestowed upon Africa and allow alien systems and
platforms to frame local realities, we become the proponents of a new form of
colonialism. That colonialism is a system that defines a world – not describing a world
– in which control is exercised by those who own the machines to do so. Therefore,
how we view realities and allow foreign definitions of success to be generative of
outputs-that-we-consume will define our histories, presents and futures.
In my findings, the notion that people who barge in with ideas (the innovators or
disruptors) are the ones who will make the difference is flawed. In this keynote, I
hope to have put some light on the mystery that could hamper an understanding of
local perceptions of realities. Also, I hope that we recognised some means to face our
anxiety in establishing the right solutions in challenging places. I propose we must
embrace courage to explicitly state the local meaning-making and understanding of
needs. Further, I would hope we will persist in amplifying the local voice – the grantor
of any local authority – by trusting the soundness of the embodied knowledge that
exists in the local community.
I would like to conclude that those who are engaging within the precepts of local
culture and are knowledgeable about the resources at hand – the improvisors – and
nurture nature accordingly, can inherit sustainable development.
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