Making New from Old

By Antonin Milza

Information and communication technologies can be useful to help countries develop themselves. But, are the newest and the more sophisticated technologies required? Is there a link between the age of technologies and there potential utility and impact on developing societies? Is a new technology always ‘better’ than an old one to help people and societies to develop themselves?

For every technology there is a gap between the moment of its emergence and the moment of its effective use in societies. This is what is called in economics the cycle of consumer adoption (or product life-cycle management). A new emerging innovation can grow for a very long time before have been adopted by a majority of the population. Of course the percentage of adoption (and the growth of this percentage) can be very different according to regions and countries, and the poorest countries are often late regarding the more developed countries. For this reason, if in a country (developed or not), two technology T1 and T2 have a percentage of adoption respectively of 70 and 7%, their potential utility on the population at a moment t are radically different. Indeed if an innovation can work only on the innovation T2 (thus affect only 7% of the population), its impact on development will be very weak, even if this technology T2 is the newest and revolutionary.

This percentage of adoption is very important to evaluate the potential impact of a technology on development. To a first approximation, it seems that the more a technology is distributed in a country, the more useful it can be. Taken as true this assumption, it would mean that if we can increase artificially the percentage of citizens that have access to this technology, we can also increase in the same way its potential. If we think that smartphone is a fertile ground for innovations and development, the last assumption means that we should distribute smartphones to some people, in order to help them increase their income and get employment. Unfortunately we know that things are not so simple: the adoption of a product or a technology is not only about having it in your hands. Even if you have access to it and you can afford it, it doesn’t mean that you can use it. Sometimes there is not the national infrastructure needed and it is obviously useless. But there are a lot of other reasons for a technology not to be adopted, and it is not always about money. Sometimes technologies are just not suited to your needs; sometimes you need a learning to use it efficiently. ICDT4D projects, even with the best intentions in the world, can’t really work if they are just about products delivery without what we can call “after sell services”.

Maybe the newest is not always the greatest and the good old technologies can be more suited to the situation of development? In other words, we should consider also the degree of mastery of a technology. The more somebody is mastering a technology, the more he is able to use it deeply to meet his needs, and the more he can innovate himself. There is a huge difference between having something in his hands, knowing how to use it, and knowing how to create innovation with it. The advantage of ‘old’ technologies is that people had have more time to become familiar them a so have a higher degree of mastery than for the newest technologies. In Japan, when smartphone have emerged, a lot of people didn’t want them because they mastered so well their old feature phone, that it was virtually like a regress for them. In a lot of companies in the word, computers still use very old version of software and operating systems because employees master them perfectly and a change for the newest versions might decrease the productivity a lot. This phenomenon is exactly the same in developing countries; people are sometimes not ‘ready’ for the newest and the more sophisticated technologies.

Maybe, rather than wait for new infrastructures and big percentages of adoption for new technologies, we should focus on existing and fully adopted and mastered technologies. It is my firm conviction. ‘Old’ technologies like basic phones with only SMS and phone call have three advantages in comparison with smartphone with 3G in developing countries: the infrastructure and the network is well implemented, the product life-cycle is very advanced (with 650 million units, Africa has overtaken the United States and Europe in terms of mobile phones) and a lot of people master them perfectly.

Source: Informa Telecoms & Media

Thanks to these three advantages, mobile phone is a great fertile ground for innovations and development both from the top and the bottom of the pyramid. The case of mobile money transfer is a good illustration. Today, a large number of Africans live in big cities and send money weekly to their parents remained inside the country. Because they don’t have any bank account, they have to bring the money themselves or entrust a wad of cash to a bus driver that can put it back to a relative, once the bus arrived at the village. To overcome this difficulty, Safaricom (a leading mobile network operator in Kenya) launched M-Pesa in 2007 (pesa means money in Swahili) with the help of Vodafone and the British government. Today for example, 90% of Kenyans have an M-Pesa account. This allows them to pay for vegetables at the market, the electricity and school for their children. It also facilitates economic dynamics. According to Gallup (a research-based, global performance-management consulting company), 66% of money transfers in Kenya are mobile (2% by banks) and the African continent is leading for this kind of transaction.

Mobile phones are also a source of resourcefulness for the bottom of the pyramid, i.e., for the local populations themselves. For example, a Senegalese called Abubakar Sidy Sonko is the inventor of the platform Mlouma that connects producers and buyers of agricultural products through SMS. Senegalese onion industry was the first to launch. The idea is to make direct contact with the producer groups and wholesalers, without intermediaries. More than 3,000 onion growers have already taken advantage of this service, which will allow them to better sell their products and avoid losing a portion of their crops due to bottlenecks in the traditional distribution channels. Another interesting example is the innovation of a Ghanaian social entrepreneur called Bright Simons with mPedigree. This service allows Africans to verify the authenticity of a drug through the code written on the box and a free SMS sending. This project was tested for the first time in Ghana in January 2008. It is currently being deployed in Niger, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Cameroon.

Classic mobile phone and SMS mean to be sometimes very powerful for the development of developing countries. Nevertheless, I think that mobile phone can’t do everything. If mobile technologies have the ability to change the way people communicate in developing countries, these effects are not uniformly distributed. Women, and in particular, women who live in rural areas, appear among left behind in the mobile revolution. The most vulnerable family members do not always benefit from new technologies, which often remain controlled and owned by the head of the family. If mobile technology offers some women a greater social and economic freedom, for others, it also confirms the supremacy of social relations and inequity. Equipping people of poor countries with mobile is not a solution to poverty or gender inequality. Therefore mobile phones can’t replace all natural communications between people. There are social and cultural barriers that prevent some populations from accepting the phone as a legitimate means of communication. In many oral cultures, face to face is very important, and mobile phone can’t replace it. In conclusion, mobile phone and ‘old’ information technologies can assist in the development, but they are not *the* development, and they are not automatically synonym of social progress. Financial capability and education become paramount to take advantage of phone's capabilities and to enable a sustainable development for everyone.


  1. Great blog post Antonin! These issues were part of our discussions in the ICTD seminar course last fall at UCB. Typically, applying new technology to ICTD endeavors does not work very well unless a complete usability study is undertaken. Tap's (Tapan Parikh - faculty at UCB) research highlights how usability studies and needs assessment impacts technology as an enabler in ICTD projects. Here is a short video of Tap talking about mobile and voice based technology for developing economies:

    1. Thanks a lot for your comment Ruchita, the video is very interesting. Is there a website or something for this seminar course? It interested me a lot.

  2. That's a great post, Antonin!

    Your argument reminded me a lot of Toyama's idea of technology as an amplifier that we read in class ( According to him, technology relies on underlying development interventions and cannot make a difference by itself.

    I agree with you that a technology can only make an impact if it reaches scale. You also make the clear case that SMS-based technologies are actually faring better than the newest technologies such as smart devices. This is definitely backed up by many industry studies including this one from the I-Hub based in Kenya who investigated which ones of their apps scaled successfully:

    Another point you make that I find intriguing is the “mastery of technology,” which really depends on how you define this mastery. In reality, I think that technology is usually developed to cater towards existing skill sets (at least in the West). But on the other hand, “mastery” could refer to technology design gaps such as language. So what I am trying to suggest is that if we designed new/revolutionary technologies better for the BoP, I don't see why they would not be adopted. In fact, I’m curious how you reached your conviction that people in developing countries might not be “ready” for newer technology innovations. Your example of an office worker who might be averse to adapting a new software version makes sense, but when I think about my interactions with increasingly young and tech-savvy individuals in developing countries, especially in cities, they are more than eager to try out new technologies! The real issue for them is the cost rather than consumer adoption.

    I'm curious what your experiences are!

    1. Hi Christina, thanks a lot for all your comments. I am glad that my post interested you.

      Actually, I don't really have any experience in ICT4D, it is a all new subject for me. In France I have studied Cyber security, economics and information theory, so it is very different for me. My only 'experience' is the fact that I have traveled a lot since I am a little boy, so I have seen people way of life around the world. I don't have any ICTD experiences but I am very curious and glad to be with all of you in class to learn from your experiences and knowledge.

      You must be totally right about "mastery of technology" it was just a personal idea and I don't really have academic knowledge about it. That being said, I think that someone can be very curious about a new technology, but it doesn't mean he understands perfectly how it work. I think that to create innovations, you have not only to be very curious (and you are right, today a lot of, often very young, individuals are eager about IT) but you also have to understand the technical complexity. Because technologies are often proprietary it is difficult to understand how it work at the beginning. Nevertheless, over time people (power users at the beginning) understand it more and more and spread their knowledge progressively.

      Even if you have both (curiosity and understanding) it doesn't mean than the others do (older individuals, etc.). And because information technologies exhibits network effects (the utility of these technologies depend of how many people use it) it is sometimes a very long process before a technology can be massively adopted. It what I mean when I wrote "ready", but it concerned every country in the world, not only developing ones.

    2. Thanks for your detailed response, Antonin! I appreciate your experience in Cyber security, economics and information theory which I believe are exactly the fields we have to draw on in the field of ICT4D! I don't claim at all to have any more experience and was curious to hear more about what (and where) your experiences were.

      Yes, the mastery of technology at a purely technical level is immensely important and the best interventions probably combine all of these aspects--curiosity and understanding).

      I also totally agree with you that adoption takes time in every context, be it in the Global South or Global North.

      Thanks again for this post--very enlightening!

  3. Thanks Antonin for the very good analysis and analogy. Your title by itself is very insightful. I am really impressed by the examples. You made a very good argument that we need to start innovating based on what we have on the ground rather than lingering around the new and expensive ones. I will love to hear more examples from other posters too.

    1. Thanks a lot for your encouragements :) The thing is, of course new technologies are also very important, and you can't do everything with old ones, but I think it is better to use at 150% what you already have either than wait passively for new things and new technologies.

      That being said, I think it is something we can also think about in our developed countries. I remember the first year of high school, I bought a all new and super sophisticated TI-89 calculator with so much memory and stuff. One guy in my class used to have "only" a basic and old calculator. Not only he was faster than me to use his calculator, but he was also able to do things with his simple calculator I even don't know the existence on my super awesome TI-89. I mastered my calculator at maybe 10% of its capacity, this guy mastered his calculator completely.

  4. Great post, Antonin! It was very informative and interesting reading. Thank you for sharing it.

    I agree pretty much on everything you state, and I'd like to add that -in my opinion-, the "answer" to the question of "old vs new technology" is better found on analizing on case by case basis.
    For instance, you make a pretty solid case in favor of non-smart mobile phones by describing the current african context -you describe even further the situation in Kenya.
    In a different scenario -such as the techie community that Christina mentions- you might conclude that bringing in new technology might be beneficial.

    1. Hi Gustavo!

      I totally agree with you. Sometimes old technologies can't do the job and new ones become necessary. We have to think each case separately.

      Therefore, to criticize my own blog post, it can even happen that new technologies are more suited, and adoption much faster than old technologies. It is the case in all the developing countries about the old Public switched telephone technology and the mobile phone technology mainly because of the cost of the infrastructures.

  5. Hi Antonin,

    Very interesting blog post indeed. The topic and visuals made the reading all the more interesting and even more engaging. I share most of the same sentiments when it comes to the spread of technology.

    One of my biggest challenges with the spread of technology is that I often feel that people are not given the choice whether to adopt or not to adopt (well theoretically they are), but technically I feel they are not. I will use your example here, let's say there is a mother who is anti cell phones and chooses to not have a phone. She would have to get one if not having a phone means possibly letting her sick child take the wrong/fake medicine. This is not an ICT issue though, it is a result of globalization and other issues (fraud in particular for this example).

    I also believe that a much deeper level of education should be carried out hand in hand with the spread of these devices. I know of so many individuals in Swaziland who have cell phones but only use them to receive calls and send messages because they do not know how else to use them.

    Great post! Now, I have to think of something else to blog about.

  6. Hi Antonin,

    I agree with your main point - sometimes I wonder if in trying to always innovate, innovate, innovate! people are cheated out of the benefits that come from long-term, stable projects. If new techniques are regularly abandoned for even newer techniques, the intended users are always stuck on a learning curve and benefits are not able to accrue.

    Still, your graphic makes me wonder about the case of cell phones. It looks like the number of new smart phone users is projected to grow by about 745% and the number of conventional cell phone users is projected to grow by only 44%. Even though it may be a while before the total number of smart phone users equals the number of conventional cell phone users, it is clearly heading in that direction and heading fast. In this case, do you think it might be wise to develop smart-phone specific technologies in Africa, to have them ready for this new generation of users? Or do you advocate sticking with SMS for conventional phones? It seems most practical to me to move forward with both paths, developing new useful apps for smart phones without forgetting the needs of those who use non-smart phones or still do not have access to cell phones at all.

  7. Antonin, I loved this article! The mPedigree video was brilliant. Between that and Ruchita’s video of Professor Tapan Parikh explaining his “agriculture Q&A” software, it sounds like ICTD has been particularly useful at closing gaps between high-up knowledge institutions and BOP communities. BOP communities can experience extremely high rewards from receiving expert, bite-sized, and timely knowledge.

  8. Hi Antonin, this is truly insightful for someone who claims to have little ICT4D experience. Or maybe that might be the actual reason why the insights- too many ICT4Ders come into the field from the tech background, or are government/institutional people influenced by the coolness of new tech, and so tech becomes the logical focus of any project, leading to the dismal success rates reported so far. The best projects are the ones that respond to needs and uses appropriate technology, which most often include SMS, and even radio and TV. As I shared in class, one of the most successful projects I have seen is a radio DJ surfing a public policy website occasionally and repeating what he is reading, and then soliciting for listener feedback which he would then in turn input into the website. :) Good post!

  9. Hi Antonin,

    Great Post about how older technology can be more effective than new technology and it depends on how it's being used. I think it's relevant at the university level when it comes to collaboration projects. Even though we all have access to computers and a google doc, it's simply easier to brainstorm around a traditional whiteboard by jotting ideas down versus debating over it through a google doc. That clearly shows the relevance of the old versus the new.