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Low-Cost Technologies and Inclusivity - Theo Papaioannou

9 April 2015

Theo Papaioannou

How inclusive of African people and places are low-cost technologies from China and India? To answer this question we first need to clarify the concept of inclusiveness. Inclusiveness describes relational processes of equalisation of resources, welfare or capabilities which enable people to meet their basic needs and therefore prevent them from becoming marginalised and deprived. From this it follows that low-cost technologies from China and India – as well as other emerging models of innovation – cannot be branded as inclusive unless there is good evidence of equal satisfaction of basic human needs in specific developmental contexts – in this instance, in those of Africa.

This evidence should not only concern the diffusion of the innovations but also their generation. It might be argued that the inclusiveness of the former depends on the inclusiveness of the latter. This argument reconstructs Marx’s position that essentially any distribution of innovative goods is a direct consequence of the conditions of production. If the conditions of generating innovations are not equitable and participatory (i.e. bottom-up conditions that involve the poor equally and take on board their needs) then the final products, such as Asian Driver technologies and farm machinery, no matter how innovative, will be exclusive of the poor and their basic needs.

The possibility of inclusive innovation in 21st-century capitalism, then, depends on whether the very generation of new products and services allows bottom-up processes of equity and participation to determine the basic needs they will satisfy. Take, for example, the technologies mentioned in the blogposts of Atta-Ankomah, Agyei-Holmes and Botchie below. While it is true that they are more labour intensive, but allow poor entrepreneurs to start their own businesses and to meet some consumption needs, and that they may diffuse better than more advanced technologies, their main driver is the demand for cheap products. The technologies do not necessarily meet basic needs – the fact that there are differences between lower- and higher-income groups in terms of demand for them is mainly due to price constraints rather than to basic needs. The determining role of cost is also reflected in the cheap modification of existing technologies. The objective is not widening access per se, but profit from low-income markets via economies of scale.

Given this fact, the argument that demand for frugal innovations reflects basic needs is only partly correct. Some basic needs for better-quality products can simply not be met by 'low cost' and 'low tech' or by modified innovations. Inclusiveness is a multi-dimensional concept that cannot be realised if people are offered low-quality products. This might explain why in particular developmental contexts people resist being included as consumers of cheap and low-quality innovations.

Theo Papaioannou is Deputy Director of IKD and Reader in the Politics of Innovation and Development. His main research is in the area of public policy and political theory with a specific focus on innovation and development. His Leverhulme Trust-funded project, Unpacking the Role of Industry Associations in Diffusion and Governance of Health Innovations in Developing Countries, gets inside the black box of innovation and politics, researching whether and in what ways biopharmaceutical associations in developing countries promote technological capabilities and effective governance of health innovation.

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