Building Blocks for Funding Digital Infrastructure – East Africa

First published on SimplySecure

Digital infrastructure is the foundational free and open-source code that underpins much of the software we use every day. Whether you are a funder interested in starting to support digital infrastructure, curious about refining your approach to funding open source projects, or looking to better connect with your grantees, this toolkit is for you. Learn more on BuildingBlocks

Regional Context

The definition of digital infrastructure is evolving for most funders with the new United Nations (UN) led approach to digital public goods, digital building blocks (UN Foundation), Foundational vs. Fundamental Infrastructure; Principles for Digital Development; Digital Public Infrastructure and others are the prevailing trends. Overall, the UN Secretary General’s Road map to Digital Cooperation is influencing the definition and approach for larger global funders while the regional-based funders are yet to connect with the global Agenda.

Digital Infrastructure Funding Landscape

  • Funders in East Africa are keen to refine their definition and align them to global approaches and funding streams. They consider fundamental aspects such as affordable access to broadband to be more urgent in terms of digital infrastructure.
  • To ensure success and impact, some funders in East Africa use a holistic approach by allocating part of their project funds to feeding and housing programs that support the objectives and are based on lessons from implementing their health information system project. This is the case for Partners In Health (PIH) support OpenMRS and the District Health Information Software (DHIS2) in Rwanda.
  • There is a general concern that many open-source projects will be unsustainable due to the tendency by funders to fund novelty (new headline-grabbing ideas) over sustainability.

  • There is concern by funders that open source projects lack an ‘authentic public’ or ‘community-driven character’. A review of project governance structures is required to ensure they remain ‘open-source and community-driven with less control by a single or corporate license holder. Another proposal to maintain public/community character for open-source is to encourage ‘co-funding’ by a pool of funders rather than a single funder supporting a single maintenance firm or license holder.
  • Most of the funder activity and active open source community was apparent in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda.

Funding programs

  • Funding programs have varied motivations, processes, and principles depending on the specific funder or type of funder.
  • The reasons for funding digital infrastructure (DI) or open-source systems (OSS) vary from applying them as enablers of their organization’s mission to ensuring increased use of OSS in general.
  • Budgets for digital infrastructure are generally not specifically allocated but are drawn from budgetary allocations for social impact sectors such as maternal healthcare, sanitation, or education.
  • The flow of funding to digital infrastructure projects in East Africa is limited by global funding systems e.g. Stringent requirements for applicants who can handle large sums of money. This results in multiple levels of subcontracting that deplete funds targeting final grantees.
  • In some cases, the restrictions arise due to the political agenda of the countries of the foreign government-funded development agencies (eg. USAID, NORAD).
  • There has been a shift from grants/aid to trade and sustainability models that have made funding to be more competitive.
  • The ongoing global economic downturn and the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted funding programs negatively by having funds for digital infrastructure used elsewhere. In a few cases, COVID-specific projects have seen an increase in available funding.
  • The inward-looking foreign policies of traditional funder nations have resulted in limited access to funding and a change of funding practices. These policies include America First (USA) and Brexit (UK)
  • Remittance systems have limited availability in the region or maybe expensive to use hence funders such as Interledger Foundation are seeking a solution that will arise possibly via Web Monetization.
  • Other funders are exploring alternatives that enable collective funding pools and micro-funding of small projects to mitigate the stringent requirements that act as barriers to funding in East Africa.
  • Some funders proposed that there is a need for local/indigenous funding for OSS/DI projects that may be spurred if the risks and opportunities are marketed better. This may address the funding challenges from foreign sources.
  • Applicant selection processes and principles applied are evolving for most funders with the exception of the ICT Authority in Kenya that feel confident about their clearly defined government-sponsored processes.
  • Most respondents did not consider themselves funders in the traditional sense and are not restricted to OSS in particular. Some are partners in the sense of collaboration, co-funding, and investment in social enterprises. Others are grantmakers and implementers who compete for funding to support county projects

Monitoring and Evaluation

  • Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) processes have yet to be implemented and where they have, the results do not satisfactorily measure impact eg. Africa Mradi, LPI, ICT Authority (Kenya), Interledger Grants for Web.
  • Some funders felt that their general M&E strategy and process is clearly defined but not specific to DI/OSS and they apply it on all projects.
  • Most funding programs that fit the definition of OSS funding are relatively new (less than 2 years of activity) but those that have been active longer such as within the UN have a new approach tied to the UN SDG, DPGA, DIAL definitions.
  • The funders gave varied criteria for the projects they considered successful. The most common criteria were the achievement of project objectives. Some were keener on the social impact in the region while others the cost-efficiency and sustainability of OSS projects as the criteria for success. Others were keen to identify with the strong and clear governance structures of projects (OpenMRS/DHIS2 Rwanda); the wide reach of the (DHIS2 Uganda) or the many emerging innovations due to the project (DHIS2 Kenya).
  • The application of an open-source project initially designed for one sector (health) for use in Education in Uganda and Tanzania was also an indicator of success.
  • Some listed examples were OpenMRS, DHIS2, MojaLoop, and MOSIP.

Research, Policy, and Publications

  • Not all programs are based on specific DI/OSS research since many are responses to available funding programs or responses to a social good within the funding streams of health, education, climate change, etc.
  • The global funders have access to digital infrastructure research some of which is not yet public but may already be influencing decisions of the DI funder roundtable.
  • Government policies that are research-based and relate to innovation or opensource technologies play a role in countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, and Kenya. In Kenya, the National ICT Policy commits to prioritizing open source in government procurement.

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