Africa: Why Can't the West Approach IT Delivery Like Local HIV Treatment?

Gertjan van Stam lived in the bush for 12 years with his HIV researcher wife and young children. In 2004 he facilitated the setup one of the biggest rural ICT networks in Zambia, and for the last five years has been involved in Africomm, a conference that takes a truly local approach to African IT.

Gertjan van Stam lived in the bush for 12 years with his HIV researcher wife and young children. In 2004 he facilitated the setup one of the biggest rural ICT networks in Zambia, and for the last five years has been involved in Africomm, a conference that takes a truly local approach to African IT. Kathryn Cave catches up with him to learn more about African culture on the ground… and why so many IT initiatives fail.

“BMW is a German car, made by German engineers; when it’s driven in Germany it fits perfectly within the culture of the place. But take that same BMW and drive it in an African town, you’ll find that the suspension really doesn’t work… I mean, it looks nice but it is not applicable. [In fact] in Africa you find most people travel in communal buses. It makes economic sense of course, but it also makes cultural sense; we’re together so we’ll gather together in the same transport.”

I’m talking to Gertjan van Stam on the telephone and he is explaining that “I” is simply not a concept in African culture. This is virtually impossible for Westerners to fathom. Yet it is one of four key cultural traits - along with an oral culture, community economy and the complicated truth that whilst inequality leads to domination it also ultimately leads to forgiveness - that define the pan-African mentality. 

Van Stam believes that a fundamental lack of comprehension in African thinking, and its subsequent lack of application to Africa’s problems, is precisely why so many western-led tech initiatives fail. This can be seen in a raft of different context, like the failure of most South African rural tech initiatives, yet in a lot of ways is bizarre in the extreme: “In our environment IT is an expression of culture. The same technology gives a completely different message in [Europe, say, or] in the African environment,” explains van Stam.

“In health, [for example] it is normal to start with the anthropological and demographic context. How do we go into a rural health clinic? How do we take that [cultural fact] into account for [local] HIV treatment? But in engineering that doesn’t happen at all. All people say is that it works very well in the West so let’s bring it in [to Africa]. They forget the economic and cultural circumstances and sometimes even get their priorities completely wrong.” 

Van Stam knows what he’s talking about. He is of Dutch heritage but has lived in rural Africa for 12 years. This included 10 years in rural Zambia and prior to that, two years in rural Zimbabwe.  His wife is a medical doctor in HIV research and his children were raised out there as “real third culture kids” so that he is “not sure if they are Dutch, African, or something in between; attending local schools and roaming the local area with their friends.”

The Macha Village Project

Van Stam is also an engineer, with a special interest in wireless technologies. Yet as he explained at a recent keynote, living in rural Zambia forced him to recognise the fact that IT starts and ends with people and thus his interest has shifted more towards applied, critical and performance ethnography. In a clear example of putting his money where his mouth is, van Stam facilitated the set up one of the biggest rural networks in Zambia. This applied gradually learned local thinking to wider sociological problems and ultimately provided internet access to the remote village of Macha situated 50 miles from the nearest town.

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The project proved extremely successful and was featured in the BBC Click program in 2011. As the BBC explained:“What makes the difference here is [it shows people] how the net can help with them.” Set up in 2004, the project has been systematically developed in line with the local market conditions and expectations. It is linked to the health and schools, but more crucially has made a bid for sustainability by setting up a voucher system so that “when the generous foreign donors leave this village [it will] be able to pay for itself.”

Van Stam is very self-effacing about his achievements. He is clearly extremely passionate about the area and wants to make a difference; but unlike the quick-burn zeal demonstrated by many, is conscious how easy it is to do more harm than good. He tells me “I sat under a tree for half a year just looking, trying not to do the wrong thing,” I ask him what things he got wrong at first: “My sentences would start with ‘I think’ – that is already wrong,” he explains, “I would judge. I would think I know. Then you become humble and you realise these people are smart and are in an utterly complex environment; this is as complex as any environment and then you start to get things right…”

“That is a very joyful process,” he tells me “but also very painful, because in the meantime people die of HIV. This gives things a sense of urgency.” Yet you can’t rush the process of understanding a completely different culture. “You have to accept the status quo. It is important not to make mistakes as it is a fragile environment. Everything is fragile. The community has found a way to survive… and if you do something wrong, people die more.” 

4 Core Things Which Define the African Mentality

Living in a western city where food, education, health care… and technology are fully taken for granted, these vast extremities of life and death are hard to identify with. On top of this, the African culture on the ground is also fundamentally different to any western mindset, which makes it difficult for the western mind to readily understand. These glaring cultural features are especially prominent in rural communities, but they also leach over into relatively new urban areas, albeit more subtly. However, as more foreign companies look to an Africa of booming growth rates and a large young workforce, it is becoming increasingly ludicrous that westerners fail to comprehend the the native culture.

Strangely we grasp this in western marketing. “Everybody knows a certain product works in a certain market, but when it comes to Africa we take a paternalistic approach,” says van Stam, “I was working with the Dutch Telecom industry years ago and we went to Belgium, which is only 180km away, but it is a different culture, a different language, a different context and if we’d tried to do it the Dutch way we’d have failed, you had to do it the Belgium way. Everybody knows if you have a product and you want to go to a new market you have to adjust your product.  The market is leading not the product… but when we go to Africa we forget that.”

At the heart of these differences are four core things which define the African mentality and could account for the litany of failed projects that have dogged Africa's past:

 1) Group Over the Individual

“You are defined by the community not the other way round.  If you position yourself as an individual ‘I want this’ that doesn’t work at all. It will be seen as very disrespectful to others in the community,” says van Stam. This has numerous positive sides and in a lot of ways puts western selfishness to shame, however it also has core disadvantages. 

“If you come in as a foreigner and you want to do something people will all support that. [But] when you’re gone it will collapse because it was you that wanted, not necessarily what the community wanted. [Most likely the community] just tried to connect with you and come alongside what you wanted, but since you haven’t really been working on what the community itself wanted, once you’re gone the community is like: ‘why did we do this anyway?’”

“The whole thing of someone coming in and saying this is the solution is already an individual point of view,” he continues “The community will say, I want to be together with this person, so let me try to please them and then the person leaves and the whole reason for being is not understood.  The western person is always looking at the functionality [of a project]; the African community is [fundamentally] looking for a relationship and functionality is not necessarily understood.” 

2) Oral Culture

In Africa everything is achieved by talking about it. “If it isn’t discussed it doesn’t really exist,” van Stam explains. “[This means] literacy not as important as the West tries to make it.”

More fundamentally van Stam tells me, “in African environments people tend to look to the past.” This totally goes against the grain of our culture, especially corporate culture; “the west are very fixated on the potential for the future. Yet in environments which are focused on surviving and dominated by whatever happens around you; naturally you look to the past because you survived then and you hope to survive again tomorrow.”

 3) Community Economy

This ultimately ties in with the community mentality and is especially prominent in rural communities. Fundamentally is means the distribution of goods is also tied up with human relationships. It is hard to separate this out into cold non-human economics, but basically it reverts back to a community culture of reciprocity and familial ties.

4) Domination & Forgiveness

“Inequality results in domination; white against black, west against south,” explains van Stam “yet in daily practice most people live in harmony and mutual acceptance, because the only way we can deal with all this is forgiveness.” This is something that van Stam sees the west as very jealous of and ultimately relates to a sense of community and togetherness which is impossible in an individualistic culture.

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Van Stam stresses that these cultural systems, whilst more prominent in rural settings are just as pertinent in towns. “Leadership in towns is based on traditional African setting, but like everywhere in the world you have dumb and smart people; [there are] many smart people in town and they are very able to reflect and show the face that a western person would like to see. Because of course the Western person has resources but the only way to please them is to talk in a way that the Western person wants to hear but that is not necessarily what I think is in their hearts.” 

“Technology is the Amplification of Human Intent”

This is the reason for Africomm, an event which will be running for its fifth year in Malawi at the end of November. This conference aims to take a real look at African IT from an African perspective. “Most literature and publications are very western,” explains van Stam. “If you don’t play according to the Western rules you don’t get published. It is very difficult to do that from an African context. Africomm is an exercise to try and focus on what is happening in these counties from an IT perspective.”

 “It is small scale,” he says “but this year we got about 55 papers. And many of them are coming from local students trying to publish for the first time. The papers are difficult to understand from a western point. They are certainly not in line with what we normally get at conferences in a western setting. It is an exercise in where cows go, what research should be from an African point of view; along with a mathematical model for ad hoc networks [in community orientated countries]. We’re trying [to put things in a local context]. Most conferences don’t try. They could be satellite conferences based in new New York or London.”

Gertjan van Stam’s zeal and passion for the continent is admirable. Not many people would go and raise their children in the poorest part of the world, observe first-hand the hardship poverty and illness… and constantly strive to gain enough understanding to help. “It’s an amazing humbling experience how people smile every day and greet you,” he tells me “you start to respect the people in Africa very much. I have utter respect for them. Everywhere in the world you meet people, you can either be in awe or disgusted by them… it is the same in the rural areas and the towns of Africa.”

Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect