Ghana: Catalyzing innovation ecosystems through impactful collaborations
Engaging local innovators to develop technology solutions as DPGs to address issues most relevant to their communities
In a world of fast-moving innovation trends, UNICEF has long maintained that the most reliable path to innovation – and perhaps, the biggest innovation itself – is the open-source approach. UNICEF co-founded the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), a multi-stakeholder initiative aiming to accelerate the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in low- and middle-income countries by facilitating the discovery, development, use of, and investment in digital public goods (DPGs). It is crucial for UNICEF Country Offices to lead the way in DPG discovery and development, with a key position in identifying local challenges and the ecosystems that can solve them.
The Pathfinder in Ghana was based on two streams of DPG discovery and development. To engage local startup ecosystem, the Country Office built activities around its UNICEF StartUp Lab, an accelerator and training program for early-stage, tech-enabled startups that develop social impact products. To promote large, country-level open-source platforms, UNICEF built on partnerships and relationships with government and academic stakeholders. While the latter brought several learnings and achievements, it is the former that truly highlighted the DPG potential.
UNICEF used its StartUp Lab 2021 cohort of twenty-two companies to evaluate interest, limitations, and opportunities to develop and discover DPGs among youth-led startups and young entrepreneurs. During the training, startups reported knowledge gaps and limitations preventing them from applying for a DPG status. The most prominent were the lack of understanding of open-source licensing; the lack of understanding of open-source business models; and the lack of rapid funding to support open-source product development (including converting existing proprietary software to open-source). Startups also reported the need for dedicated technical support during the nomination process.
To address these issues, the Country Office and DPGA arranged informational webinars to highlight the basics of open-source licensing and business modelling. Dedicated technical support was made available for those companies who submitted the DPG form. Most importantly, Prototyping Funding was made available to those startups which expressed interest in registering as a DPG. Availability of rapid disbursements between $1,500-$5,000 per startup increased the number of DPG candidates five-fold (500%). In total, of the twenty-two 2021 cohort startups, eleven (50%) expressed interest in registering a DPG. Of those, two startups have registered a DPG and another seven have submitted or are on track to submit their applications. The Country Office is expecting to register a minimum of five DPGs in total out of the 2021 cohort (over 20%). The process highlighted the importance of DPG advocacy, modest but rapid and flexible funding, and commitment to guide DPG candidates over extended period of time.
Outside of the startup ecosystem, the Pathfinder in Ghana focused on advocacy among open-source academic community and government stakeholders. The Country Office collaborated with the Ghana-India Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT (AITI-KACE). Together the two organized Software Freedom Day celebration with DPGA as the main partner. In addition, UNICEF supported AITI-KACE in registering their EduNOSS open-source educational operating system as the first DPG from Ghana. Within the government, UNICEF has been working with the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Protection to register their Social Welfare Information Management System (SWIMS) as a DPG. This process is currently ongoing. Finally, UNICEF has been in conversation with the National information Technology Agency (NITA) – the government’s main IT regulator – to adopt the DPG Standard as the default for all open-source solutions developed or procured by the Government of Ghana. Liaising with the government stakeholders highlighted a substantial need for advocacy, as well as open-source capacity building among IT civil servants.
"Adoption of the DPG Standard by pro-open source government IT regulators would strengthen DPGA’s case for the more skeptical policymakers, and it might be an advocacy target for DPGA Secretariat to consider."
- Identifying pro- open source government ministries and IT regulators is key – Ghana CO initiated a conversation with NITA (the government’s main ICT regulator) on building open-source capacity among IT civil servants and government staff, and adopting the DPG Standard for all open-source products procured or developed by the Government of Ghana.
- Unpacking a multi-pronged approach for a longer-term DPG Country Office engagement is advised. This could include outreach to national ICT regulators, open-source capacity building among national IT civil servants, and DPGA and DPG Registry advocacy among startup and entrepreneur communities.
- Conducting a rapid assessment among startup and government prospects to find out who already has open-source expertise and inclination. Those who are open-source inclined should be nurtured towards DPGs immediately, as experience shows it could be a much quicker win than those who are not open-source inclined, it would take much longer to develop their interest and case towards a DPG. In this case, the best opportunities lie within the early-stage startups who are still figuring out their business model and identity as a company.
- Enablers needed on the country level to help support the advocacy, discovery, and development of DPGs among entrepreneurs and startups include availability of DPGA open-source licensing training, availability of DPGA technical assistance during the nomination process, and availability of financial support for open-source developers.
- A clear roadmap for DPGs post-registration is essential. If registered DPGs fail to see business value behind their DPG status, there could be similar assumptions for DPG candidates.