iDT Labs - using technology to bring transparency in West Africa

August 1, 2016 Alex Delaney

Emergency workers in Sierra Leone waiting to have their identities confirmed by iDT Labs

iDT labs leverages technology to build and scale solutions to social issues in Sierra Leone. The company was co-founded by Salton Massally in 2013 when he was just 23, with a mission is to use ICT as a powerful medium of disseminating information and providing services to West Africans.

BITC and the international picture

The International Disaster Relief Award, supported by the UK Department for International Development, is just one of the many ways Business in the Community works, along with its members, for a fairer society and more sustainable future across the globe.  Throughout August, we'll be highlighting some of our international work.  Find out more on the pages about our international work.

Sustainable Development Goals:

Relates to SDGs 8 and 9 - Decent Work and Economic Growth; Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

Sustainable Development Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Sustainable Development Goal 9: Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

The team incubates ideas in-house, both commercially viable and impactful, and also partners with government, businesses and social enterprises to augment social impact in sectors like health, financial inclusion, labour markets, and rural agriculture.

 

iDT labs won the International Disaster Response Award for their response to the Ebola crisis. We spoke to Salton Massally about the challenges iDT Labs tackles, working in West Africa, open source software and being a young company.

What are the biggest challenges of developing IT in Sierra Leone and how does the tech sector differ from that in countries in Africa where it’s more established?

The extreme digital divide, information asymmetry, and general lack of information to support informed decisions are major contributing factors to the challenges of applying tech to many of West Africa’s social and developmental issues.

The biggest challenge when developing IT solutions in Sierra Leone is that the ecosystem is still at a very nascent stage, compared to the rest of the continent, with a dearth of local tech talent who have the necessary skill set and acumen to work on real-world IT projects.

Moreover, there is a lack of individuals and companies who are working on truly ground-breaking ICT4D (ICT for development) projects to alleviate some of the issues in the country; compared to other African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana, which benefit from a robust IT ecosystem that supports itself and is collaborating on very interesting open-source projects. We still have a long way to go before Sierra Leone can truly claim to have joined the “Africa Rising” revolution.

Does your position as a West Africa based technology company give you a different approach to tech development?

iDT Labs working out in the fieldCommon challenges we face with all our projects are a lack of technical capacity of our end users, poor infrastructure, and also limited access to research and development funding - we spend half our time undertaking consulting work to meet our short-term cash-flow targets. 

We depend a lot on open source technology and embrace a “Not Invented Here” policy, not only because of the associated advantages, but also because we simply can’t reinvent the wheel with the HR and time we have at our disposal.

Then, instead of upgrading the user interfaces of our solutions, we spend more time ensuring that they can gracefully degrade to meet the requirements of poor computing devices, right down to the 160 character constraint of SMS technology.

We aren’t necessarily more innovative than other companies but we often have to depart from technological trends so that we offer our services to our end-users via mediums more readily available to them.

Why is using open source software so important to iDT labs?

Given the environment that we are from, open source solutions have been vital for our growth.

People often talk about how the computer revolution is making it possible for people from across the world to benefit from an influx of new technologies and inventions. Unfortunately, the reality is that the economic divide between the first world and the third world is so stark that the majority of people and businesses in developing countries cannot afford to pay for proprietary software.

Open source technology ensures that businesses and individuals are not discriminated from the latest advances of technology simply based on their ability to pay. Rather, it enables everyone, from the largest enterprises in the USA, to a small bunch of tech geeks in West Africa, to use the same tools. We regularly contribute to a number of open source projects and regularly share our code bases with the larger open source community.

Inclusive finance and transparency are themes that are important to iDT Labs. What do you see as the role of technology in tackling these issues?

We are working on scaling the solution we developed to transparently distribute payments to Ebola Workers to one that can be used for any large-scale cash transfer program in the developing world context, and we plan on open-sourcing it once we reach a version fit for external consumption.

Greater transparency, along with increasing the financial net to capture the unbanked population in the country, are issues that are constantly being discussed in the context of improving Sierra Leone’s economy and making it sustainable.

In spite of the influx of aid since the end of the civil war in the early 2000’s, the underlying structural problems in the country have remained the same, if not actually gone worse. A major reason for this discrepancy between the resources being allocated and the results in the country’s economy is the systemic corruption. In a lot of aid programs, the financial incentives barely reach the intended people at the bottom of the pyramid. 

The ubiquitous usage of mobile phones among people of all income strata makes it possible to use mobile money for inclusive finance and transparency. We are working on scaling the solution we developed to transparently distribute payments to Ebola Workers to one that can be used for any large-scale cash transfer program in the developing world context, and we plan on open-sourcing it once we reach a version fit for external consumption.

Do you think the younger generation brings a different approach to problems?

The younger generation definitely brings a new and refreshing approach to solving some of the problems facing Sierra Leone. No disrespect intended to the older generations, since in a lot of situations, there is no substitute for experience. However, what sets apart the youth not just in Sierra Leone, but across the world, is their unbridled optimism and penchant for thinking outside the box. One might argue that this attitude might lead to these same young individuals becoming disenchanted once they realise how the world actually operates, but the fact remains that in today’s fast paced and technologically advanced world, the youth are well placed to take advantage of these technological advances and work for the betterment of their communities.

Unburdened by historical prejudices often taken as “fact” about what might and might not work in different contexts, the younger generation is actually able to come up with solutions and businesses that do end up being successful. I have seen a number of young Sierra Leoneans from my generation who are working on unorthodox business models, and against all expectations, are doing quite well.

iDT Labs working out in the fieldWhere next – what other big issues in West Africa do you see technology tackling for good?

We have a number of exciting in-house projects and proof-of-concepts that we are working on in health, financial inclusion, and agriculture.

We have developed a prototype for an interactive voice response based mobile application through which patients can get medical advice from doctors in real-time. Sierra Leone has a dearth of qualified medical practitioners, and the majority of the country is unable to take advantage of the healthcare system. Through this application, we aim to make it more accessible and affordable to get medical information.

We have also developed a prototype of an SMS based application that would provide real-time information about different products for farmers. Our hope is that this would help in reducing some of the informational asymmetries that currently exist in the rural agriculture markets. 

Read more about iDT Labs' Award-winning payments system for Ebola emergency workers in their International Disaster Relief Award case study.

Issues: 

iDT Labs working out in the field

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