News, Technology

Innovation in the Global South

Adam England

Adam England, Writer
@uxconnections

Countries in the Global South are combining resources to solve local problems with tech innovation

When we consider technology innovation it is usually through the lens of Silicon Valley and the companies constantly striving to advance. However, it can be useful instead to cast our eyes over to countries in the Global South to see what’s happening under the radar. In these areas of the world, there is constant innovation that aims to improve the lives of the people living there. 

The organization Global South Tech (GST) describes their aims as such: “Most of the world’s population lives in emerging economies and these are getting connected online. We exist with the purpose to link, bridge, connect and cross-pollinate the tech communities of the Global South (Latin America, Africa, Middle East, India, South-East Asia, and China).”

GST assist in these areas through the creation and hosting of a number of events and by building connections and networks. They “have created a pipeline of investment, talent acquisition, partnership and innovation mapping opportunities between regions and key tech stakeholders.” These include, “investors, accelerators, co-working spaces, maker spaces, tech startups-companies, telcos, public-private institutions, governments, and policymakers.”

In 2019, GST held events in a number of mainly Asian cities, including Bangalore, Phnom Penh, Manila and Karachi, discussing areas including smartphone penetration, policies and ‘competing technology hubs’. They bring together the leaders in innovation across the Global South to create a vibrant network of research and progress.

In light of GST’s activity, it begs the question: who is technology really for? In the real world, it can be of great help and change lives, improving efficiency and productivity. Whereas there is an abundance of resources available to entrepreneurs in the US, Canada, Europe and East Asia, countries in the Global South often have fewer financial resources.

An example of Global South innovation is the development of artificial intelligence (AI) in Africa. IBM now have two research centres in Africa – in Kenya and South Africa – while Google opened an AI lab in Ghana last year. At the South African centre, researchers in Johannesburg made it easier and faster for cancer data to be sent to the government, when previously it took twice as long as it does in the US. Meanwhile in Ghana, Google are working on a project involving around 2,000 languages spoken across the continent, aiming to improve natural-language understanding. 

Google’s research centre in the capital of Ghana primarily focused on machine learning and AI in medical diagnosis and treatment. With Africa growing into a hotbed of innovation, the company are looking to continue at the cutting-edge of AI by embracing the fast progress in the industry.

Meanwhile, in India PayPal have begun using AI and machine learning (ML). PayPal’s largest tech centre outside of the US is located in the country, and over 33 million transactions per day are carried out through PayPal in India. They’ve also opened ‘Innovation Labs’ in Bangalore and Chennai, where employees can experiment with projects involving everything from virtual and augmented reality to robotics and the internet-of-things. The aim is to develop an upcoming cohort of fintech startups.

Mike Todasco, Director of Innovation at PayPal, described India as a hotbed for innovation with an evolving startup ecosystem and huge talent pool. In 2019, the company planned to hire almost 1,200 people in India – they recently hired experts in areas including AI and ML.

Even if we cast our minds over to low-technology, we can see that it’s impacting lives in the Global South. A journal article from 2009 analyzed the use of biomass fuels in cooking and heating – they are relied on by around 3 billion people worldwide – and innovation in the cookstove industry. The Barriers project – a three-year project funded by Disasters Emergency Committee, Department for International Development and Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – concentrated on Southern Africa, and why better cookstove technology hadn’t been taken up in the region to the same degree as in East Africa. 

One thing to be mindful of is that it would be easy to concentrate on high-tech innovation at the expense of the sort of basic developments that would, on a local area, really improve lives. 

As can be seen from the examples of PayPal in India and IBM and Google across Africa, many firms are looking to explore emerging markets across the Global South. In turn, these regions are starting to attract more attention. It helps that organizations like GST are getting involved, making strides towards an exciting and vibrant future. Hopefully, quality of life in these regions will improve as a result.

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