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This article was published on June 14, 2022

TNW Conference talks not-to-miss: Greenpeace CTO Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa

Without local expertise, Big Tech will keep failing the Global South


TNW Conference talks not-to-miss: Greenpeace CTO Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa
Thomas Macaulay
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Thomas Macaulay

Writer at Neural by TNW Writer at Neural by TNW

Silicon Valley is a curiously parochial place.

Despite having users around the world, tech giants often overlook or misunderstand regions beyond their home turf.

This myopia isn’t solely confined to companies. We all view tech through a localized prism — which is why I’m excited about Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa’s talk at TNW Conference.

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The Greenpeace CTO has led digital transformation and ICT4D strategies across 50 countries and five continents, at organizations including the UN and ActionAid, and in both emergency and development contexts.

These experiences have given her uniquely international insights into tech’s power and perils —particularly in the Global South.

At TNW Conference on June 17, Chomba-Kinywa will explain how to deliver inclusive tech to all communities. 

Ahead of her talk, I spoke to Chomba-Kinywa about the broader shortcomings of Big Tech undervaluing local expertise —  to the detriment of the whole world. You can read about her thoughts below.

Big Tech can be small-minded about the Global South. 

Products conceived in Silicon Valley don’t always fit the needs and skills of Southern nations. Their launch can stymie homegrown competitors and fuel digital colonialism.

The need for expertise is particularly vital in data science and AI.

“If you’re looking at analytics, for example, getting a data scientist from the UK to come and integrate data in Senegal might give you insights that don’t take account of the local context, because they will miss certain nuances,” Chomba-Kinywa tells TNW. 

Her words echo those of Timnit Gebru, a computer scientist who was controversially fired from Google in 2020.

Born in Ethiopia and based in the US, Gebru now leads an independent AI lab whose researchers serve their own communities.

Gebru says the incentive structures in US industry and academia are too intertwined with tech giants. Her lab aims to take AI research into the places they neglect.

“Technology affects the whole world, but the whole world is not getting a chance to affect technology right now,” Gebru said last December

“If you want community-rooted research and you need to displace people from their communities, and they all have to go to Silicon Valley… That’s not the kind of thing I want to contribute to.”

Chomba-Kinywa’s career in IT for development has exposed risks of the inverse: sending tech experts from the US to other nations.

On the ground

Chomba-Kinywa recalls her spell as an innovation lead for UNICEF a decade ago. 

A team from New York had pitched using drones for medical deliveries in her home country of Zambia.

Somebody might shoot that thing down.

“I had to tell them, if you land a drone in my grandma’s village without telling anybody, somebody might shoot that thing down — because it will be seen as witchcraft,” she says.

“We had to add a project pillar around communication with local communities. These are things you can miss when you don’t have the local context or expertise to translate certain things.”

Chomba-Kinywa aims to mitigate this risk by expanding local capabilities.

At Greenpeace, this involves the network’s national and regional organizations completing their own digital maturity assessments, and local teams leading context-specific digital transformation journeys.

Some want to increase their data science skills; others prioritize a more collaborative culture. The objective is to mold strategies around their individual needs. 

Chomba-Kinya previously led digital initiatives at the UN World Food Programme and UNICEF
Chomba-Kinya has also led digital initiatives at the UN World Food Programme. Credit: TNW

Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa has worked on tech projects across over 50 countries and five continents.

Another Greenpeace group, Alternative Futures, explores emerging technologies with powerful potential, while taking into account varying cultural contexts in the organization’s 50-plus countries.

This approach can tap into localized innovations. In Kenya, for instance, mobile payments took off long before they became common in the US and Europe. 

While most Kenyans still don’t have formal bank accounts, an estimated 96% of households now have a mobile money account.

There would be many more technological breakthroughs in the Global South if internet penetration was higher.

Chomba-Kinywa points to Zambia as an example. The majority of the population derives its livelihood from agriculture, but agriculture contributes under 10% of the country’s GDP.

In contrast, the internet sector alone comprised around 10% of US GDP in 2018. If Zambia had the same level of internet penetration, the impact could be transformative.

Mutual interests

Big Tech can make the internet more equitable, but seems more committed to exploiting the international tax system. 

In 2020, ActionAid, Chomba-Kinywa’s former employer, found that 20 developing countries may be missing up to $2.8bn in tax revenue from Facebook, Alphabet, and Microsoft due to unfair global rules. 

That money could transform internet access and digital skills — which would be in Big Tech’s interests. 

Africa’s fast-expanding population and markets offer huge opportunities for businesses with slowing growth in their home markets.

Priscilla Chomba-Kinywa is speaking at TNW Conference on June 17. Check out the full list of speakers here.

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