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Exchanging Insights on Locally Led Development: Participant Takeaways

Locally led development requires listening and learning from the organizations and communities that are closest to development issues. As part of our deeper commitment to locally led development, RTI convened its inaugural learning exchange of local organizations last month in Nairobi. Over 70 development practitioners from organizations, government agencies, and companies in East Africa met to share and discuss insights, challenges, and best practices for fostering and promoting local leadership and engagement.

We had a chance to talk with one of the participants, Mercy Kirui, who is the Senior Manager, Content at eKitabu, a Kenyan-based organization that makes education materials more accessible and lowers their costs. Below are her reflections and key takeaways from the event and what it means for the global development community.

Tell us about your organization. What is its mission and where does it work?

eKitabu supports inclusive and equitable quality education through learning materials that are used in over 2,500 schools across 14 countries in Africa. eKitabu’s core value is delivery. Since 2012, eKitabu has made educational materials more accessible through digital content, inclusive software, and educational programs that engage and impact children, teachers, people with disabilities, families, and communities.

We design materials and programs with these users as well as collaborators in the public and private sectors, such as local and global publishers, and build sustainable ecosystems. We are also a learning organization and believe in collaboration and sharing best practices to achieve greater impact, so this learning exchange was of particular interest. A common proverb in Kenya is “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

What did you take away from this learning exchange experience?

The exchange was a place to learn, share, and connect with colleagues, especially from neighboring countries. Since eKitabu works in the education space, it’s rare that we attend conferences with stakeholders from other sectors. It was interesting to learn from colleagues in other business sectors and to know that we share many common practices and challenges especially in the areas covered during the workshop, which included data ownership.      

The discussions on data ownership stood out to me. It’s top of mind as eKitabu has been working on data collection with the Kenyan government. I joined a breakout session at the exchange where we talked about some of the challenges to local data ownership and how to overcome them. Organizations often compete for data, with little incentive to release data collected despite the significant value that it has for informing decision-making.

There’s also no central dashboard for sharing it. One solution we discussed was how governments might own and manage a data portal that various stakeholders could feed into to ensure the data is useful and current.

What were some of the promising practices in locally led development that you heard about or shared at the learning exchange?

I enjoyed hearing from the BOMA Project, a Kenyan NGO, on their best practices for driving impact and building sustainability into their programs. They’ve co-created technology interventions with communities to the point that those communities are now customers. It’s incredible to see as the communities they reach are very remote and don’t have the same internet access that urban centers do. Nonetheless, the digital product the BOMA Project has created is so valuable to these communities that they’re subscribing to and purchasing it, which supports sustainability.

I also shared about the work eKitabu is doing with people living with disabilities as this area was of interest to many participants and some were struggling with how to ensure people living with disabilities were included in projects. “Nothing about us without us” is a common phrase used by people living with disabilities and this has been a driving force for us at eKitabu as we build solutions with and for this group. The phrase can even be applied broadly because if you are building a solution for someone, you need to design it with them. That shouldn’t be an afterthought.

What stood out to you regarding how the global community can effectively advance locally led development?

Better coordination and harmonization are needed across the global community to ensure development projects are well informed, not duplicative, and there is continuous sharing of best practices across organizations. It’s worth thinking about sustainability of such projects too, building local capacity for continuity of projects to drive impact.

Another topic that came up was the challenges that small local organizations face in retaining talent. An example given by one of the participants who mentioned a challenge where larger global organizations implement projects, they often hire local staff and, given their ability to pay more, can attract talent away from small local organizations. This isn’t the fault of the employees; they’re looking at how they can best support themselves and will go where the employment packages are strongest, but it’s a topic for global organizations to consider and be sensitive to when coming into a community or ecosystem.

Capacity building is also an important and valuable contribution from global organizations that can help local organizations match up with global standards. This opens the door for impactful solutions to be applied not just in one country but potentially shared with others as well.

Any final thoughts or reflections on the exchange?

It was great to meet people doing different work and learn about what they do and how that relates to us. There was so much rich discussion that two days didn’t feel like enough time! It was a mere snapshot of the conversations we need to have about supporting local leadership and locally led development. Now that the exchange is over, the task is to take those conversations and turn them into action. I’m curious to see what’s next.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Mercy Kirui to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.