Digital equity and cultural awareness: Expose your biases when conducting research in West Africa

People walking around a street market in Ghana.

Article by Laetitia Sfez, Associate Director at intO

All good researchers understand the need to remain neutral and tackle every topic with an open mind to prevent tarnishing the validity of a study’s findings. At intO, because of our locally-rooted global distribution, we take this one step further. When our global team is designing methodologies with our Local Researchers on-the-ground, we must also take care to avoid bias when designing the processes and methods that will be deployed by our team.

Research considerations posed by the global digital divide

A few months ago, my team and I were conducting a research project in West Africa, exploring how users from Ghana interact with a particular global tech application. This was a very illustrative experience of how some research processes and methods — which tend to be designed and applied from a Western perspective — need to shift to accommodate localised habits and behaviours.

When approaching this piece of research in Ghana, we were conscious of conditions relevant to digital inequity — and how it can potentially affect the democratisation of innovation. As the National Digital Inclusion Alliance clearly explains, when people experience a situation of digital inequity, it can severely impact their civic and cultural participation, diminish their employment opportunities and lifelong learning, and it can even affect their access to essential services.

Most of us are probably under the impression that everyone accesses the Internet everyday, via their phones, tablets or on their laptops — but when you pay attention to the global data you realise the reality is completely different. Nearly 3 billion people in the world suffer from an uneven distribution in access to computing devices and the Internet, known as the digital divide.

In Africa, only 22% of the population has access to a stable Wi-Fi connection, making it the least connected continent in the world. 

As researchers, it’s crucial for us to be aware of this data, and to have an up-to-date and accurate understanding of local behaviours as well as economic circumstances that shape regional habits. They are all key factors to keep in mind when planning methods, particularly in emerging markets.

Here are some of the ‘assumptions’ we identified as potential risks when we designed our recent study in Ghana.

Driving through Accra, Ghana. Photo by Susanna T.

Assumption one: There is access to a stable Wi-Fi connection everywhere

Whenever we conduct remote research in regions like Germany, Brazil, Japan or the USA — and with the exception of rural communities — the majority of participants have access to the internet through their data or home Wi-Fi. 

In Ghana, even though a big section of the population owns a smartphone and uses apps daily, they don’t necessarily have easy access to a stable internet connection — which made us rethink our approach to conducting remote interviews. In this case, our solution was to book a venue where the participants could join the interviews online, which were moderated by a researcher based in Europe or the USA. 

If you are leading a research project and encounter a similar situation, I would recommend booking a space like a conference room in a hotel and making sure there’s an IT person on-hand who can ensure the internet connection is stable and help with the set-up for participants.

Assumption two: Participants can easily access a laptop or a PC

Only 25% of people in Africa are regularly accessing the internet using a laptop or a desktop PC – most of them go online using their smartphones. As many researchers would know, conducting online interviews via mobile phone doesn’t really provide an optimal experience for the participant or for the moderator.

For our project in Ghana, our initial plan was to conduct all the interviews remotely, expecting participants would join online from their homes via a laptop or desktop PCs. However, we quickly realised we had to be more flexible and adjust to the reality of the local context, and ended up taking a hybrid approach. We hired a local IT team who provided laptops and an extra router for participants to join the interviews from the venue we had booked. 

Assumption three: Digital solutions are always easier and faster

Another point to keep in mind is the digital literacy levels across a region may differ, especially for those who don’t have experience with tech devices like a laptop or a PC.

Someone who has never used a computer should not be expected to intuitively know how to provide an online signature or print a document to sign. And, even if these actions could be guided, it would not be fair to expect these participants to feel positive about engaging in a formal contract via means they’re not familiar with. 

To tackle this challenge, we resorted into creating an online form that we sent to participants, which they could easily access from their phones, and didn’t require them to provide an online signature or having to print documents.

As researchers, we need to always make sure that participants are comfortable throughout the process, and if that means we need to make certain changes to accommodate their needs, then we must find the way.

Labadi Beach in Accra, Ghana. Photo by Susanna T.

These were the key assumptions surrounding digital equity that we navigated with this piece of research. Of course, there were a host of other considerations, too. For example, Ghana has more than 50 indigenous languages, which means communication might need to be adapted. Also, transportation can be problematic in certain areas and, in this case, we had to build in more time and budget to help participants and our Local Researchers to travel to the different locations where we conducted our research activities. Also, when offering money incentives, some banks won’t be eligible for international transactions, and you would have to find an alternative for those payments.

These experiences prove that, when conducting research in emerging markets, working with a research partner who can help you navigate the local context can make all the difference — for everyone involved in the process. At intO, we approach these challenges as an opportunity to continue learning and improving, to ensure our research positively impacts future innovations and developments.

Headshot of Laetitia Sfez

Get in touch with me if you’d like to discuss how your organisation could benefit from our bespoke approach to design research, where we combine the power of local insights with a global perspective.

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