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ICTWorks Interview: Ritse Erumi, an African Technologist in the Diaspora

By Wayan Vota on February 4, 2011

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T. Ritse Erumi is an ICT professional interested in technology and international development. She writes the Bi-Weekly ICT4D Retrospective for ICTworks and we recently had the opportunity to interview her about her perspectives on ICT4D as a daughter of the Niger Delta in Nigeria.

You have a solid background in website design and development – what made you interested in ICT4D, that is using technologies like websites to further international social and economic development?

I started my career in web and software development but have transitioned into managing a wide range of technology projects. However, I am more broadly interested in knowledge-sharing and improving access to information. These are areas where information and communication technologies carry the potential to further social and economic development. In the field of ICT4D, I have found the perfect union of sorts — where I am able to combine hard, technical skills with the desire to do work that meaningfully impacts the lives of people.

The positive effect that ICTs are already having on health, education, human rights, political and civic participation, trade and economic activity is quite exciting. Yet, within our field, I am quite mindful of the tendency towards implementing technologies that subsume, rather than align with mission. In other words, the implementation of ICTs should normally be done within the scope of a comprehensive, programmatic framework and not vice-versa.

Your family is from Delta State in Nigeria. How do you think that gives you a different perspective on ICT4D?

When I see terms like “the working poor”, “the unbanked” or “the people at the bottom of the pyramid” tossed around, I see names and faces because I personally know people who would fit into these categories — I grew up with them, lived with them and see them whenever I return to Nigeria to visit with my family. Knowledge breeds responsibility. Therefore, I am compelled to consider their lives and the practicalities of a given technology.

While a project might sound great in theory, I try to dig deeper to find out whether it is attempting to introduce a solution that will serve to build some measure of capacity within the context of their lives. Additionally, the importance of taking a participatory approach when tackling a problem is something I take quite seriously but this is a conversation for another day!

In previous conversations, we’ve talked about your interest in the impact of ICT on minority languages and cultures. What do you think are the positive and negative impacts of ICT? And is a net positive or negative so far? What might we as ICT4D professionals do to make sure its a net positive in the future?

Tough questions, indeed! Because the field of ICT4D is still very young, I would say the jury is still out on whether we can characterize the effects of ICTs as a true net positive or negative. We’ve seen pockets of innovation pop up all over the landscape and this is, in my view, a very good thing. However, I would like to see many of these pilots scale up to a degree where they cause some sort of tipping point within their respective fields (think M-Pesa).

With regard to minority languages and cultures, one of the inherent weaknesses of many ICTs is that they tend to assume a certain degree of literacy. This is one reason why I have become interested in information access and knowledge-sharing, particularly in the area of non-formal education. As an Itsekiri (one of the minority ethnic groups in Nigeria), I wonder how minority languages and cultures will survive within an increasingly digitalized world.

Is there a place for ICTs within these language groups and cultures? Can ICTs penetrate and help preserve these cultures? If so, what would that look like? What will happen to non-literate and non-numerate members of these communities? I could go on with the questions but what becomes immediately apparent is that the prevailing notion of the “digital divide” splinters in variety of ways. Simply providing access to a smartphone or laptop will not cut it. Yet, these nuanced challenges create great opportunities to innovate and foster significant and appropriate change.

As ICT4D professionals, we would do well to continue to keep these types of marginalized communities — their needs and aspirations — in mind, since one-size solutions will not fit all.

Secondly, the generational differences we encounter in the developed world (e.g., digital natives vs. digital immigrants) hold similar parallels with some of the challenges we are currently encountering in the developing world. With over 40% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 15 (according to the Population Reference Bureau), it seems imperative that we not just focus on ICTs for education (ICT4E) but on preparing this subset of society for meaningful participation in the global information economy.

Thirdly, we should continue to work towards the creation of information-based services that are localized and relevant to the societies in question. And finally, I would encourage practitioners to seek out ways to provide information in formats that can be easily and freely consumed.

Mobile technologies are all the rage these days – it seems we need you put an “m” in front of anything to get funding. What m-thing have you seen that cuts through the hype and impresses you? How might other projects learn from that example?

I’ve been quite impressed by Steve Vosloos’ mLiteracy project, Yoza. This is an example of a project that is circumventing one significant problem, a lack of books, by cultivating a digital appetite within its target market (the youth). While developing a culture of reading seems to be the main goal of this project, it is simultaneously introducing and normalizing participation within the information society for many of its readers.

Last but not least, who do you think we should be watching in 2011? Is there someone or some organization that you see doing impressive work that more people should know about? Hopefully its not the same as the answer to the previous question – I would think we have at least 2 innovators in our field.

Last year saw a fair amount of experimentation and, as Ken Banks would argue, debate. In 2011, I would like to see us build on and build out some of the ideas we have discovered in the last 2-3 years.

M-Pesa has experienced significant penetration in southern and eastern Africa and is therefore not a newcomer. However, I mention M-Pesa (and its competition) because I would like to see mobile-banking become the norm across sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Secondly, a program created by Tostan’s Jokko Initiative teaches basic literacy and numeracy skills using mobile technology. As with M-Pesa, I would like to see this program (and variations on this idea) become more widely implemented in the developing world. Could 2011 be the year?

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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One Comment to “ICTWorks Interview: Ritse Erumi, an African Technologist in the Diaspora”

  1. Mark Oppenneer says:

    Great interview! Thanks for providing these for all to read. I would love to see more extensive interviews with folks you’ve chosen to highlight here. Folks like Ms. Erumi have so much to offer!