1 October 2013

Africa: Focus On Gender - Innovators Should Consider Local Customs

A leader of the UN Development Programme's innovation team recently said that the development community needs to move away from what he perceives as its focus on top-down innovations.

In addition to this, it is vital that local opinions and beliefs surrounding technologies are taken into account.

Nowhere is this clearer than with women. For example, development agencies are fond of trotting out the mantra that women suffer from 'time poverty', meaning they have insufficient hours in their day to fulfil all their tasks. [1,2] How about the Hippo Water Roller Project? This produced an ingenious device that enables women to roll 90 litres of water along the ground inside a plastic-barrel wheel, thus saving them the onerous and time-consuming task of walking long distances carrying smaller amounts of water on their heads.

On the other hand though, 'appropriate technology' introduced to save womens' time sometimes turns out to be rather inappropriate.

One example is the Zimbabwe Bush Pump, which is used to extract water from borehole wells. This is the standard hand pump in Zimbabwe and is also used across large parts of Africa.

Yet a worker for the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has noted that if the well is bored or the pump used without first consulting a herbalist or spiritual healer known as the nganga, the well in question is considered 'dead' and women will not use it. [3]

There are other examples. Compatible Technology International, a US-based NGO, introduced a simple corn sheller to Guatamalan women, only to discover that they would not use it. When asked why, the women replied that the device made their work too fast to spend time discussing men, school and children. "Not everyone in the world is intent on doing things faster and easier," they said. [4]

The importance of socialising for women whose mobility is often restricted, or who rarely leave the confines of their own home, must not be undervalued. Hours spent together on time-consuming tasks is often their only opportunity to swap ideas, air complaints, ask advice or counsel each other. Preserving this opportunity may be more important to them than saving time for other chores.

User-led innovations certainly deserve promotion. Yet top-down innovations can work too, but only if they are designed with a thorough understanding of the beliefs and customs of their users - especially when it comes to women.

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 15 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting the economic opportunities for poor women.


[1] Journal Statistique Africain 11, 16 (2010)

[2] Lawson, D. A Gendered Analysis of 'Time Poverty' - The Importance of Infrastructure (Global Poverty Research Group, May 2007)

[3] Social Studies of Science 30/2, 225 (2000)

[4] Thilmany, J. Out of Their Design Comfort Zone (Progressive Engineer, accessed 30 September 2013)

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