Successful innovation depends on engaging the grassroots

Successful innovation depends on engaging the grassroots

Technologies work better 
when adapted by users: 
a podcast in local languages 
helps farmers keep cows 
healthy. Lawrence Gudza

02/05/2012. SciDev. Technological innovation can’t be imposed on poor people — they must be engaged to select ideas that suit their lives, wrote Lawrence Gudza. Lawrence Gudza is programme team leader for Responding to New Technologies at Practical Action Southern Africa, based in Zimbabwe. This article is part of a Spotlight on Supporting grassroots innovation.

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. 

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.
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.

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