Geographies of gold farming: New research on the third-party gaming services industry

Gold farming, game labour, playbor – these terms are used to refer to the harvesting of online game items, currencies, and characters with a view to selling them to earn income. As part of a new research project on online work, my colleagues Mark Graham, Isis Hjorth, Helena Barnard, and myself are conducting new research on this intriguing shadow industry. This post summarizes some initial findings, particularly pertaining to the international divisions of labour in the industry.

Screenshot from ArcheAge, a massively-multiplayer online game by Korean developer XL Games. Virtual goods in ArcheAge are among the most traded on PlayerAuctions today.

Screenshot from ArcheAge, a massively-multiplayer online game by Korean developer XL Games. Virtual goods in ArcheAge are among the most traded on PlayerAuctions today.

We know from earlier research that the “third-party gaming services industry” is geographically segmented by function: much if not most production takes place in China, while customer-facing functions are performed especially in the Philippines. This is despite the fact that this is a highly “virtual” industry, in the sense that all of the products and production processes are based on information and communication technologies, and could in principle be carried out from any place that has suitable connectivity.

Our new initial findings suggest that production in this industry is further geographically segmented by product category: China dominates in game currency and game item production, but most game characters (accounts) are produced elsewhere. Moreover, the findings help explain why we see these particular geographies in the industry. Besides shedding light on the gaming services industry itself, these findings contribute to our understanding of the geographic structuring of “virtual” industries and forms of online work more generally.

I have previously published findings and analysis on the third-party gaming services industry in a World Bank report and my recent book. In this new project, my colleagues and I collaborate with a marketplace called PlayerAuctions to obtain market data, and conduct interviews with managers and workers in the industry. As I write this initial summary, we are just finishing fieldwork in the Philippines. Next we will focus on other countries, and continue data collection for several months more. But as promised, here are some initial thoughts and findings.

Production in China, support in Philippines: Geographies of value chains

Figure 1. Biggest seller countries on PlayerAuctions in January 2014, by share of total market volume (excluding non-verified sellers)

Figure 1. Biggest seller countries on PlayerAuctions in January 2014, by share of total market volume (excluding non-verified sellers)

Earlier research has noted that the third-party gaming services industry has largely moved from its initial locations in rich Western countries to various low- and middle-income Asian countries. Our initial findings support this claim. Figure 1 shows the top supplier countries in PlayerAuctions in January this year. China dominates, with United States on the distant second place.

The overall shift to Asia is easy to explain through increasing Internet connectivity and cheaper labour costs in Asia. But why did production move specifically to China, rather than, for example, the Philippines? And why did production and customer-facing functions move to two different places in Asia (China and Philippines)? Furthermore, does this mean that as Internet connectivity improves in other regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, some or all parts of the gaming services value chain could move there next?

I will address these questions in turn. Earlier research has identified some possible explanations why production moved specifically to China. Producing game assets naturally requires gaming skills. China has a long tradition of online gaming of the sort implicated in the gaming services industry, while India doesn’t. This would explain why production moved to China rather than India. But Philippines also has online gamers – why didn’t production move there?

A manager whom we interviewed in the Philippines suggested that the reason might simply be the cost of electricity. Relative to many other “virtual” industries, gaming services are particularly power-hungry, as games require powerful CPUs and graphics chips. In many parts of China, one can buy reliable electricity at low, state-subsidized prices, whereas in the Philippines, electricity can be many times more expensive, reliable electricity even more so. The cost and reliability of electricity production and delivery in Philippines may be exacerbated by the fact that the the country is an archipelago of 7,107 islands. This simple material factor may have shaped the global geography of gaming services production.

Farming in China, leveling in America: Geographies of virtual production

However, our analyses suggest that the geography of game asset production is actually more complex than previous research and Figure 1 suggest. Although China dominates the overall production of third-party gaming services, a country breakdown by product/service category reveals that China is much stronger in some product categories than in others.

Table 1. Top seller countries’ market shares on PlayerAuctions in January 2014, by product category (excluding non-verified sellers)

Currencies Items Accounts Powerleveling
China 60.3 % 63.5 % 5.7 % 50.6 %
United States 12.8 % 10.8 % 79.0 % 41.2 %
Canada 8.9 % 4.4 % 1.7 % 0.9 %
United Kingdom 7.9 % 0.7 % 0.6 % 0.6 %
Singapore 1.5 % 11.1 % 0.0 % 2.6 %

Besides game currencies, items, and characters (accounts), the industry also provides “powerleveling” and “boosting” services: that is, hiring someone to play your character, or to play alongside you, in order to advance in the game faster. Table 1 shows that China dominates currency and item production in PlayerAuctions, but produces only about half of powerleveling services, and only a small fraction of game accounts. Most accounts by far are produced in the United States, and 41 percent of powerleveling services by value are also produced there. Given the higher U.S. labour cost, much of the U.S. supply may come from hobbyist gamers engaging in it as a side activity rather than from full-time game labourers. Why do the geographies of production differ so much between product categories?

Our findings suggest two possible explanations. First, accounts and powerleveling are more service- than product-like. They are highly differentiated and customized for the buyer, in contrast to currencies and items, which are pure commodities. The production and delivery of accounts and powerleveling necessarily involves communication and interaction between the buyer and the producer (for example, dealing with account security questions). Most Chinese producers lack the language skills and cultural fluency to successfully communicate with buyers from North America, Europe, and Australia, and are thus disadvantaged in account sales. This does not prevent them from successfully dealing in the virtual commodity markets, where communications can be limited to a few standard phrases.

Second, account and powerleveling services involve a higher risk of intervention from game publishers than virtual commodity sales. When control over an account changes hands, the publisher can see the player’s IP address changing, whereas with commodities, no such IP address change happens. Our informants believed that Chinese producers might incur a higher risk of detection than Western producers. Chinese producers might also ill afford the financial impact of a lost account, in contrast to better-capitalized Western producers. Due to lack of access to Western legal identities and payment systems, it would also be more difficult for Chinese producers to acquire fresh accounts, the raw material of account production. Differences in the geographies of production in different product categories could thus be explained by differences in communication ability, cultural fluency, and access to legal and payment systems.

An institutional approach to the geographies of virtual industries

We examined similar questions in the first conference paper to issue from this project, titled “Online labour markets – leveling the playing field for international service markets?”. In this paper, we examined geographic patterns in online labour trade on oDesk. Following institutional approaches in studies of international trade and development, we theorized communication ability and cultural fluency as “embeddedness in informal institutions”. We likewise theorized access to legal systems as “embeddedness in formal institutions”. Payment systems also fall under formal institutions. Our conclusion was that although the Internet can eliminate physical distance, it cannot do as much to reduce the institutional distances between trade partners. As a consequence, geography will continue to structure even purely “virtual” industries.

Customer support staff of a virtual goods marketplace in Manila, Philippines.

Customer support staff of a virtual goods marketplace in Manila, Philippines.

Consider the customer-facing functions of the third-party gaming services industry. These functions consist of marketing, customer support, and risk management. The latter refers to, for example, preventing credit card chargeback fraud. While production moved in large part to China, these parts of the value chain moved instead to the Philippines. China’s formal institutions, including the legal and banking systems, are relatively unique to that country. Philippines, on the other hand, has more Western-style formal institutions, so much so that one informant’s previous work experience as a Filipino loan agent now helps him lead global risk management at PlayerAuctions. Filipinos also tend to be more embedded in America’s informal institutions, more so than some other relatively skilled English-speakers, like Indians. Many Filipinos buy the same grocery brands, eat in the same fast food chains, and watch many of the same television series as Americans. This probably makes them more fluent in dealing with American customers and understanding their preferences.

What prospects, then, do newly connected regions like Sub-Saharan Africa have for capturing a slice of the third-party gaming services market? The least we can say is that connectivity alone does not predict much: infrastructure, skills, and the compatibility of formal and informal institutions will play crucial parts. One interesting aspect of this market in this regard is that there is significant domestic demand for gaming services in China’s rich cities. Currently this demand is being served by domestic Chinese producers. But China is in the process of strengthening both formal and informal linkages with many of Africa’s newly-connected countries.Our interviewees believed that the global third-party gaming services market is still growing. Perhaps we will see Sub-Saharan virtual gold farmers yet.


New publication: Geographies of Connectivity in East Africa: Trains, Telecommunications, and Technological Teleologies

source: Mombasa-Victoria (Uganda) Railway and Busoga Railway, The Director of Surveys, Nairobi Government Printers, B.E.A (1913)

I’m very happy to announce that a paper that I co-authored with Casper Andersen and Laura Mann has been accepted for publication in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers:

Graham, M., Andersen, C., and Mann, L. 2015 Geographies of Connectivity in East Africa: Trains, Telecommunications, and Technological Teleologies Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (forthcoming).

The paper analyses and compares two transformative moments of technologically-mediated change in East Africa, the construction of the Uganda railway between Mombasa and Lake Victoria (1896-1903) and the introduction of fibre-optic cables that landed into the ports of Dar Es Salaam and Mombasa in 2009. 

It uses discourse analysis to examine how technologically-mediated connectivity has been represented by political and economic actors during these transformative moments. In both cases, we explore the origins of the expectations of connectivity and the hope and fear associated with them. 

Building on Massey’s notion of power-geometry and Sheppard’s concept of positionality the paper focuses on power relationships in discussions of connectivity and asks how people understand the abilities of transformative technologies to modify positionalities and alter relational distance and proximity. Ultimately, by examining historical and contemporary expectations of connectivity in East Africa, this paper allows us to work towards creating more grounded and historicised understandings of the coming-together of technology and connectivity.




IT Sourcing and Development?

Last week I attended an insightful workshop “IT sourcing and development: New Drivers, Models and Impacts” at the University of Manchester. The idea of this workshop was to revisit IT outsourcing which has become a significant industry and employer in some countries. This particularly comes in the context of growing interest in ‘impact outsourcing’, the idea that IT outsourcing can be designed to include substantial social as well as economic goals.

Here I wanted to summarise what I saw as some of the key discussions, and what it implies for our future work on outsourcing and micro-work in sub-Saharan Africa.

New models?

???????????????There was a number of different models around impact sourcing presented. For firms such as Digital Divide Data and Datamation, models, recruitment and activities are noticeably different from conventional outsourcing industries, linked to their goals in achieving social impact amongst staff. In other cases, impact related to firms locating in demanding or rural areas as outsourcing destinations, as outlined in a number of presentations on the struggles to build an outsourcing sector in Palestine (by Paul Tjia & Nick White; Yossi Lichtenstein; and Jerry Marshall).

Clearly, impact is liable to be context sensitive, so it should be no surprise that models vary. However, this also focusses questions on what the key drivers of ‘impact’ are in impact outsourcing, and what the best way for firms to identify themselves as ‘impact firms’.

In this respect Andy Haxby’s work on ‘Fair Trade Software’ was one interesting attempt that could allow firms to embed social goal as a brand. There was also discussion around how other standards bodies might be able to assess and signify socially impactful firms. Finally, leading firms are forming communities of practice, which will likely to be vital in identifying and supporting firms undertaking best practices in this emerging sector.

New impacts?

Of course this still leaves the vexed question as to what are the key ‘impacts’ these new models bring.

As Fareesa Malik and Sandeep MS outlined in rural outsourcing case studies from Pakistan and India respectively, employment and economic gain can be important in rural locations. But, consideration needs also be made into how firms integrate within local cultural norms and activities. For example, where firms are not incompatible with family requirements this can limit their viability. Modern IT firms in rural settings can also lead to suspicion and integrating into rural activities and practices is also crucial.

There were also questions as to what the ultimate goal of working in IT outsourcing should be. This was emphasised for example by Michael Chertok discussing Digital Divide Data’s structure for employees. Working in this firm is seen as part of a long-term training program, where staff will eventually graduate to continue their careers elsewhere.

As Nobuhiro Takahashi’s presentation on Japanese firms outsourcing IT work to China showed, there are also macro-level implications to IT Sourcing. When working well, technology use and learning in outsourcing can transform practices, not just of the individuals trained but also the outlook of a sector. Such elements of ‘impact’ are currently less considered which look at supporting technology diffusion and best practice.

New directions?

This work has implications on our upcoming research on outsourcing in sub-Saharan Africa (which Mark has outlined in a previous post).

It should be noted that case studies from the workshop were strongly skewed towards the Asian context, with less analysis of cases in sub-Saharan Africa, so it is important to examine the potentials and limitations around such regions more closely. (For instance our research examining the BPO policies in Rwanda and Kenya suggests that it has been a struggle for firms to even establish outsourcing partnerships in these lesser known BPO destinations).

The workshop particularly highlighted the importance to maintain a critical perspective on IT outsourcing activities that claim to be impactful, and to remember that there are many dimensions by which one might consider impact – not only in terms of economics, but also micro-level social and macro-level sector outcomes.

The workshop also pointed towards emerging research areas which we think will be particularly relevant for our work in sub-Saharan Africa. Niels Beerepoot interesting research on online microwork platforms and their use in the Philippines opens up questions around new forms of outsourcing. Online platforms have potential in less established outsourcing destinations through the ability to offer online work more flexibly and based on individual skills and reputation. Yet, as Niels showed they also suggest a potential individualisation of outsourcing and a ‘race to the bottom’ as many people complete for increasingly low value work.

There are also policy elements that could further be examined, given that several African nations have spent much time promoting BPO with less sucessful outcomes than anticipated. Camilla Bellini’s presentation empirically analysing one of ATKearney’s reports on best practices for attracting outsourcing, highlights that there are still research to be done on understanding how countries best encourage growth of their IT outsourcing sectors.



Fieldwork in our Development and Digital Labour Project

IMG_20141018_125815 IMG_20141018_125558 IMG_20141018_131414

The photographs above come from a conference for online freelancers that Isis, Vili, and I attended in Manila a few days ago. The conference hall was packed with freelancers and potential freelancers looking to hear about ‘the future of work.’

We were in Manila to interview workers, managers, and policy makers as part of our research project on virtual production networks. Over the course of a month, we managed to speak with over 40 people. The work will all be published in papers and reports, but in the meantime we wanted to give a short overview of what we’re doing.

The interviews with policy-makers were intended to get a sense of how government and regulatory authorities conceive of the development potentials of digital work. Who do they think it will benefit, and how will it benefit those people.? Here, we learnt, for instance, that the government expects significant benefits to accrue to the country from digital work.

The interviews with managers were intended to understand how the companies the mediate digital work (i.e. the marketplaces) and the companies that contract digital work describe networks and geographies of value in the industry. Why is work flowing from and to specific places? And why is it being captured and created in specific ways? Here we learnt about some of the international divisions of labour of digital work (we will post more on this topic very soon).

And the interviews with workers were intended to understand the effects that digital work is having on the lives of people doing the work. It is here that we had some of our more illuminating conversations.

On one hand, most workers spoke about the freedom that online freelancing afforded them. They are able to work from home, look after children, and avoid Manila’s horrendous traffic (it is not uncommon to hear call centre workers speak about daily commute times of 2-3 hours). Many spoke about the relatively high pay they receive (compared to other work trajectories that they could see themselves embarking upon). Others spoke about the high barriers to entry in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector that left them able to find freelancing work, but not BPO work. Some workers are particularly enthusiastic about their careers: inviting friends, family, and acquaintances to the platforms and projects that they are already enrolled into. Some attend conferences like that one I mentioned in the beginning of this post, and one person went so far as to make a YouTube video to encourage others to sign up.

On the other hand, most workers spoke about the tedium and loneliness associated with their profession. Labour is alienated, and many people have never been told (nor do they understand) why their clients want specific tasks completed. Job security is almost non-existent; as are benefits such as health insurance or pensions. Even worse is that fact that some workers feel compelled to take on highly problematic contracts. One young worker (who told us that we were the first foreigners that he had ever spoken to in-person) spent two weeks doing image tagging at a rate of 0.2 cents per image. Because he did not fully understand what the client needed, and because the client established an unfair rejection rate for the work, he ended up earning 80 cents for the two weeks of his life that he invested in the project. Many others spoke of waiting for many months to find their first contract and being willing to do extremely low-wage tasks just in order to establish themselves.

More structurally, it is also important to point to the ways that clients (usually in high income countries) are able to absolve themselves of risk. Much of the risk is placed onto workers who benefit in some ways when work is available, but are highly exposed in moments when work dries up.

There is much more that we still need to learn about flows of value in the sector; about who creates it and who captures it. And our findings will undoubtedly evolve as our research now moves to focus on Malaysia, then Vietnam, and then Sub-Saharan Africa. But in the meantime, we wanted to share some of our initial approach and our initial reflections.


Beyond Connectivity: Understanding Rwanda’s BPO Sector

This is the final of a three-part series that summarizes recent outreach meetings in Rwanda for our ESRC/DFID-funded project on changing Internet connectivity in East Africa (part 1; part 2).

In this article, Nicolas Friederici discusses the outcomes of the meeting for the business process outsourcing sector. We thank kLab for hosting our workshop in Kigali, Claude Migisha K (ICT4D consultant) for local facilitation, and our participants for an insightful and active discussion.

BPOWhen we think about business process outsourcing (BPO), we think about tens or hundreds of “knowledge workers” with headsets on, or keyboards in front of them, sitting in cubicles or at long lines of connected computers and phones. We think about call and contact centers, or of software development houses. In a way, we imagine these places to be the modern equivalent of factories and assembly lines, synonymous with efficiency of scale, division of labor, and mass production—and mass employment. As we thought of inputs and outputs as physical materials in the industrial age, we now think of information, knowledge, and digital goods that are produced and exchanged through BPO.

As a near friction-less transporter of digitized information, Internet connectivity is seen as a leveler of the global geographical playing field for BPO. Accordingly, developing countries find the concept of BPO sectors as employment generators within local knowledge economies an appealing idea: BPO work is mostly commoditized and does not require high levels of skill, and so BPO customers in developed countries should pick the BPO suppliers that offer the lowest cost of labor, no matter where on the planet those are located. And for some places, there has been some truth to this hypothesis: countries like India and the Philippines are often referenced as nations where BPO and digital mass production for customers in the US and Europe have resulted in large-scale economic activity and job creation (an argument which other OII colleagues will further explore over the coming months).

Rwanda and Kenya were two countries that wanted to be the African equivalent of India, and use BPO as a job creator and platform for an emerging ICT-adept workforce. Through a three-year in-depth research project based on discourse analysis of media and policy documents and over 100 interviews with people from the two countries’ BPO sectors, an OII team led by Mark Graham has investigated the hopes and realities of BPO in East Africa.

A workshop we held in August at kLab in Kigali marked the closing of the project. We wanted to corroborate our findings and present our recommendations to an audience that mainly consisted of Rwanda’s BPO professionals. In this post, I won’t go into the details of a comprehensive report that we will publish shortly on this website; a preliminary executive summary and slides are already available. Instead, I will share an overview of the feedback we received. Mostly, it confirmed what we had already written up, but our workshop participants helped us make a few additions and further nuance some of our findings.

In a nutshell, our discussion found that the realities of local BPO companies were much more complex than the simple proposition that the Internet lets low-income countries seamlessly tap into global demand for BPO services. In fact, given the many obstacles that our participants pointed out, it wasn’t all too surprising when ultimately some told us that actually there still is not much of a Rwandan BPO sector to speak of, and that mass employment in this field remains elusive. Clearly, the country’s improved Internet connectivity had not single-handedly catalyzed local BPO business.

We highlight three important factors that the group identified as necessary to be in place in addition to Internet connectivity for a local BPO industry to emerge.

Skill Gaps on Many Levels

A crucial outcome of the group conversation was that our report needed to further emphasize the role of skills for BPO, and that “skills” come in a greater variety than one would imagine. The practitioners described how the policy and media rhetoric, but also managers themselves, often underestimated that even for “low-skilled” BPO jobs workers in fact need a whole set of competencies. It was to be expected that certain technical skills (especially in software development) would not always be on par with levels common, say, in Europe, but also the soft skills, attitudes, and work ethic of BPO workers turned out to matter.

For instance, Rwandan workers are diligent and reliable, motivated by the common cause to rebuild the country, but some of the participants complained that they also often missed time and task management skills. Software developers were described to have sufficient coding skills, but lack broader management and contextual knowledge; they are “coders but not software engineers.” The people in the room thus agreed that, going forward, it would be essential for BPO businesses to learn about the skill levels of Rwandan workers, and how they affect the value that can be extracted and created. One participant made a pithy remark, saying that “human capital is the key asset” for his business, and Internet connectivity alone thus wouldn’t enable him to thrive.

The conclusion of this part of the discussion put the burden mostly on higher education institutions that were seen to miss equipping workers with skillsets that would be relevant in the (BPO) workplace. The gaps implied that BPO providers had to train their employees themselves, adding to their cost. This, in turn, led several of the workshop participants to argue in favor of government subsidies for trainings. Another idea was that trainings could be offered in partnerships between education institutions, private training companies, and BPO providers, so that “theoretical knowledge” could be combined with work experience and development of a work ethic.

Multiple BPO Learning Curves

Another finding in the category “reality is more complex than the BPO vision” came out of our participants’ descriptions of BPO subsectors. For instance, in Rwanda, software development is subject to very different skill gaps and market demands compared to data entry and call centers. This affects the competitiveness of Rwandan businesses, irrespective of their cost advantage: while the per-hour wage for a software developer is lower in Rwanda compared to most other countries, the limited quality and project scale that Rwandan BPO firms can deliver

A complex picture: Stylized production network of an East African BPO company

A complex picture: Stylized production network of an East African BPO company (click on image for higher resolution)

still precludes them from accepting well-paid deals. For example, a participant mentioned that kLab receives 7-10 requests per month from companies from outside of Rwanda that seek software development outsourcing, but the tech hub is not always able to match these customers with local BPO suppliers.

As for skills, our participants outlined how local BPO suppliers and customers (which included government agencies) lacked a good understanding of such more complex BPO market dynamics. In the eyes of our participants, managers in the past suffered from a “gold rush” mentality, while branches of government (apart from those agencies actually dealing with ICT) had yet to grasp the potential of BPO to improve their services, for instance, in the context of digitization of documents and processes.

Social Connectivity and a Narrow Market for Local Businesses

Other points brought forward were in line with what we had found earlier, but the group highlighted a few opportunities of how the Rwandan BPO sector could be brought forward. For instance, social connectivity and a better understanding of the BPO sector could both be improved if the government, industry associations, or development organizations hosted focused workshops, conferences, and other gatherings. Bringing together BPO providers and customers from the domestic and international markets for face-to-face meetings was seen as an essential requirement for more transnational BPO deals to be struck and for learning to happen.

Another interesting proposition was to learn from South Africa, where the government had set up a BPO fund, but because of a narrow understanding of “BPO” and management problems, the fund had not had the desired impact. In other words, incentivizing local BPO sectors can be a good strategy to bolster an industry, but policymakers and funders need to be shrewd and carefully evaluate market bottlenecks and opportunities for local companies when designing investment instruments. Smaller local BPO businesses also felt that they were disadvantaged by rigid tendering requirements for big contracts from government and corporations. Often, the space for Rwandan companies was more in the small projects, while the larger ones would still be snatched up by Indian competitors.


Digital Labour and Development

Pasig City

The picture above was taken in Pasig City in the Philippines. The poster advertising free wifi is symbolic of the changing connectivities of a country in which more than 30 million people are now Internet users. Whereas the advert on the the left is symbolic of how many in the country have harnessed those new connectivities: setting up business process outsourcing (BPO) firms and performing digital work.

This, however, is a relatively old story and there are millions of people around the world working in the outsourcing sector.

But, in the last few years, we have seen some important changes. The rapid growth of online freelancing, digital work, and microwork is undoubtedly changing the landscape of digital work: creating jobs in people’s homes and internet cafes rather than in the kinds of offices full of BPO firms in the photograph above.

These changes could be seen as an important moment in the trajectory of global development: offering millions of skilled and unskilled workers in low-income countries access to jobs. But many concerns also exist. Not only are workers placed in potentially precarious positions, they also are potentially enrolled into new digital sweatshops with little opportunity to upgrade their positions.

It is in the context of those very different ways of understanding the intersections between digital labour and development, that my colleagues Helena Barnard, Vili Lehdonvirta, Isis Hjorth, and myself are embarking on a 30-month project to understand contemporary virtual production networks.

We are focusing on three countries in Southeast Asia and three in Subsaharan Africa, asking the following questions:

  • What is the overall landscape of virtual production networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia?
  • What factors explain the network structures that we see?
  • How are these networks changing over time?
  • Who benefits from SSA’s and SEA’s virtual production networks?
  • How do observed changes differ from public, political, and academic discourses surrounding potential effects?

We are using a combination of quantitative (using log data from work platforms) and qualitative (six months of fieldwork) methods and plan to regularly release and share our findings.

Changing connectivities are undoubtedly profoundly influencing the landscape of digital work: enabling new flows, new networks, and new geographies. By studying virtual production networks in some of the worlds economic peripheries, we hope to ultimately understand who benefits and who doesn’t from these new forms of work.


Connectivity and Tourism in Rwanda

This is the second part of a three part series that discusses the outcomes of recent outreach meetings in Rwanda for our ESRC/DFID-funded project on changing internet connectivity in East Africa (part 1, part 3).

In this article Chris Foster (OII) and Claude Migisha K (ICT4D consultant) discuss the outcomes of an outreach meeting in the tourism sector.

Broadband and ICTs can contribute to economic growth and help improve delivery in many sectors. Tourism is a growing service sector in Rwanda, frequently targeting foreign customers, so we wanted to explore how relevant new connectivity has been to firms positioning in the global market.

Globally, ICTs and the internet are transforming tourism, and in Rwanda virtually all firms in the tourism sector use ICT in some form. However, successful use of specific technologies were often only undertaken by one of two firms in the sector. This workshop was set up as an interactive session to allow some of these successful practices to be shared, which could lead to wider improvement.

The workshop was organised in hand with the Rwanda Tourism Chamber – an umbrella association for all private companies in tourism-related business and the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) – Tourism department. The session was introduced by Telesphore Ngoga, Community Conservation and Development Manager, RDB and attended by hotel managers, tour operators, travel agents, tourism destination managers and policy makers.

1) Using internet to improve operations

The tourism sector in Rwanda includes a range of firms (see below) and activity often involves firms bundling tourism services, and organisation of these services. In the meeting we discussed how we found that the internet is being used to help firms improve their organisation and internal planning, reducing time spent on management and internal communications.


Firms linked to the Rwandan tourism sector.
Firms towards the right of the image may bundle together services towards the left for tourists

However, online interaction is frequently email-based with lower use of information systems and online services amongst smaller firms.

We did find interesting use of ICT apps and online services, but this was not widespread. Interesting use of apps and services we found included some Rwandan tour operators using Dropbox to share high bandwidth multimedia with international tour firms, improving their presentation of tour itineraries. Some hotels and guest houses were also adopting online booking systems such as Expedia, Hotels.com and Airbnb which simplify payment from customers.


A growing number of hotels are using online services such as Expedia to increase bookings. They also allow more simplified payments from customers improving operations.

There is still work to do though. For instance, we identified coherent internal information systems and skilled management as crucial to more dynamic firms in the tourism sector. In many firms a lack of internal systems and clear management meant that connectivity was not being best exploited

2) Using internet to reach customers

Websites and social media

There is a tendency for tourism firms in Rwanda to outsource online websites and social media to external web firms, for which they are often overcharged. In this meeting, successful firms stressed that it is crucial that content writing and updating are kept in-house to ensure that firms keep control of online resources.

A number of questions in the workshop were also posed around how best to manage and promote websites (and ultimately attract customers). For instance, new online platforms and using SEO (Search Engine Optimization) to attract more clients were two areas mentioned as areas of low knowledge.

successful firms stressed that it is crucial that content writing and updating are kept in-house to ensure that firms keep control of online resources.

Social media use in Rwandan firms was also an area of discussion. In our research we found that sometimes social media is seen by managers as a time-sink with unclear benefits. Yet, it is an increasingly important online resource – in how customers find, share and decide on tourism experiences. For those directly involved in social media, key issues discussed in the meeting included how to deal with bad reviews and what types of information are best to present on social media.

Markets and branding

Going online is often not a matter of reaching ‘more of the same’ customers. Firms in Rwanda who have been successful have been those who have reached specific demographics or targeted segments of customer online.


Some tour firms in Rwanda have undertaken online market segmentation strategies, using variable online branding to reach different customer demographics

There were successful cases of firms who strategically push into niche areas (i.e bird watching, community tourism, and regional customers) and were successful. In discussions it was felt that online activities are a key element of marketing and branding approaches – in looking for niches, and ensuring that niches reach a critical mass of customers.


In conclusion, our key research findings in the wider project were echoed in this meeting. Many firms in tourism have adopted and are actively using digital connectivity. But, digital connectivity alone has not lead to transformation. Rather, one can see a set of wider barriers to transformation.

digital connectivity alone has not lead to transformation. Rather, one can see a set of wider barriers

Barriers can relate to skills in using available technologies within businesses. Online resources and services were also found to be difficult to integrate effectively and this can limit viability. Finally, existing firms may already be in well-established relationships with international tour firms which can make it difficult for new firms to grow to significant scale.

Some firms have resources to overcome barriers and feel the transformational benefits of connectivity, but many others are still searching for best use of connectivity. The goal should be to tackle these barriers to effective use of connectivity to drive improved benefits.

We released a short summary report on Rwandan Tourism sector and connectivity as part of this meeting which is available here. We will also be releasing a comprehensive report in late October that summarises this research.

We would like to thank those who attended the session and contributed to the lively discussions. We would also like to thank the Rwandan Tourism Chambers and RDB for their support in hosting this session.



Introducing GEONET: studying Sub-Saharan Africa’s knowledge economies

I’m happy to announce the launch of the new GEONET project: studying ‘Changing Connectivities and the Potentials of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Knowledge Economy.’

This five-year project, funded by an ERC Starting Grant, aims to understand the difference that changing connectivities are having on Sub-Saharan Africa’s emerging information economies.

For a full introduction of the project, and associated team members, please head over to the Geonet site to take a look: geonet.oii.ox.ac.uk

We have a great group of researchers assembled, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish over the next few years.



ICT, Connectivity and Rwandan Agriculture

This is the first of a three part series that discusses the outcomes of recent outreach meetings in Rwanda for our ESRC/DFID-funded project on changing internet connectivity in East Africa (part 2 , part 3).

In this article Chris Foster (OII) and Claude Migisha K (ICT4D consultant) discuss the outcomes of the outreach meeting in the tea sector


Agriculture is the backbone for many African countries economies. The East Africa region has a population of approximately 135 million with more than 50% of the population living in rural areas undertaking farming and agriculture as their main source of revenue.

kLab Main LogoWe wanted to explore how our research on the internet/ICT use in East African tea production could provide insight into improving agriculture. Specifically, we felt this research could provide in-depth knowledge on information flows (and lack of) that could be useful for technology developers involved in ICT4Ag (ICT for Agriculture). With this goal in mind, the outreach meeting took place in Kigali’s kLab innovation hub, who have been supporting the ICT4Ag agenda in Rwanda.

Present at the workshop were ICT solutions providers, prospective ICT4Ag developers, farmers, and brokers.

Outline of discussions

In this research on the tea sector we took a ‘value chain’ approach. This explores the relationships between firms involved in production of tea (from farmer to retailer) and analyses the ‘value’ that each ‘actor’ in the value chain is able to extract from their involvement in production.

The value chain approach was particularly useful in that it provided insight around information flows in two areas: it highlighted under-considered actors in the value chain; and it revealed post-processing and marketing processes which are often underplayed in ICT discussions.


The tea value chain for Rwandan tea production, based on our research (click for full size)

Firstly, by mapping production in tea in a systematic way, we were able to highlight important elements of agriculture and primary production which have been under-considered by ICT developers and ICT solutions.

For example, in the tea sector, co-operative associations play a vital role in supporting smallholder farmers, they are also likely to be a source of more innovative technology use. Yet, ICT developers and ICT solutions rarely consider them. Indeed in the Rwandan tea sector new ICT solutions, such as automated field weighing technologies, could potentially marginalise co-operatives.

We discussed such actors with meeting delegates who felt that the same under-consideration also applied in other sectors of agriculture. There may be other farmer-supporting ‘intermediaries’ in these sectors, such as government extension workers and NGOs who are also important, but they are rarely the focus of new ICT4Ag solutions.


Co-operative associations in the tea sector play an important role in information provision and support for low income smallholder farmers, yet their key role is rarely supported by ICT4Ag solutions.

Secondly, mapping value chains also highlighted new opportunities in post-processing and marketing in agriculture which have hardly been considered by ICT developers.

Examples from the tea sector included evidence that better provision of global tea prices and market intelligence in tea (i.e. competition, end-market analysis) would be a valuable service for tea firms and co-ops, something poorly provided for at present.

The growth in the importance of quality and standards as part of post-processing and marketing also potentially offers new opportunities, where information flows are rarely digitised.

In the outreach meeting, discussions suggested that much of the focus in agriculture has been on farmers involved in production for local markets, where export-orientated sectors such as tea, coffee and horticulture might be more closely considered in the future.


Kinyarwanda guidebook for RFA (Rainforest Alliance) certification. Information flows around standards is still decidedly analogue, but this is likely to change in the future

These examples give a very brief flavour of some of our discussions in this meeting, and give an insight into how we identified and shared our research.

For those interested, we have an executive summary of our findings and we will be releasing a full report on the Rwandan tea sector in a few weeks.

How do we make ICT4Ag research relevant to developers?

Some of the most interesting discussions we had actually happened before the meeting in informal discussions with developers in the kLab. For these developers, academic research was seen as having little relevance to their everyday work of developing technology solutions. Research results are often presented in obscure ways with complex theories. So, beyond our research findings we wanted to also discuss the question– what is the point of research for ICT developers?

1)  New ways of thinking about a sector – New ways of thinking can highlight new opportunities. For example, our ‘value chain’ approach in the tea sector can highlight surprising outcomes that ICT4Ag developers might look to tackle.

2)   Moving beyond speculation –  It is often said that the first step to creating a viable technology solution is to ‘know your problem’ and research such as our work in tea (based on over 100 interviews  – from farmer co-operatives to some of the worlds’ largest multi-national tea firms) is a valuable resource to be able to understand the activities going on in agriculture.

Moreover, in-depth research can often question conventional knowledge. For instance, our research in tea questions the idea that growing internet use will remove ‘inefficient’ middlemen. So, research can provide developers with new directions and clear knowledge

3)   Beyond the generic ICT4Ag solution – As Chris has outlined before in discussing our research, one thing we have found in ICT4Ag is that developers may be pulled toward developing quite generic solutions. Often ICT4Ag solutions revolve around providing information on market prices for farmers or systems which improve access to markets.

In some cases these types of solution can be useful, but one needs to make close consideration to contexts and needs. For instance in our tea research, market access systems have little potential where farmers are already part of global markets for tea (selling via the Mombasa tea auction). ICT4Ag solutions in such cases require more creative and evidence-based solutions if they are to have value.

What can we say about connectivity in agriculture?

In outreach meeting, participants concurred with the fact that there are opportunities for the development of ICTs that improve flows of information and knowledge to tea farmers and cooperatives. Potential opportunities include information provision in terms of sharing agricultural research (fertiliser types, bushes), pest and disease control, provision of global market data and better co-ordination for cooperatives.

However, this work also suggested that connectivity (internet and mobile access, appropriate ICT applications) is not the only barrier to efficient agricultural sectors. During the session, farmers mentioned that they still lack skills to be able to identity appropriate ICT tools all along the farming cycle. Crucially there was also discussion about how many of the actors in Rwanda, particularly farmers are still in subservient relationships with global producers.

Whilst connectivity and well-focussed ICT applications can support improved ability and relationships, it may be that ICTs do not overcome more difficult barriers around skills, uneven relationships and power.

We would like to thanks those who attended the session and contributed to the lively discussions. We would also like to thank kLab for their support in hosting this session.

Please see our summary report on Rwandan tea for more details. We will also be releasing a comprehensive report in late October that summarises this research.


Inclusion in the Network Society workshop

Chris Foster and I have just returned from the inspiring meeting on ‘Inclusion in the Network Society’ that was put together by IT for Change in Bangalore, India. 

The meeting brought together a diverse activists and scholars from every corner of the world to critical think through who (and what) increasing digitally-mediated connectivity is actually empowering. The contributions were often heartfelt and inspiring, and grounded in deep domain knowledge and research.   

The final day also led us to attempt to think through what a shared research agenda might look like. We split into four groups and were tasked with attempting to congeal our efforts into only five questions. My group’s efforts are listed below (thanks to Sumandro Chattapadhyay for making sure we noted them all down). This is our first draft, and will be both reworked by the IT for Change into a more coherent form and combined with the questions produced by the three other groups (who were all tackling somewhat different issues)

  • what is [X] in the context of an inclusive network society?
  • who creates, controls, captures, and gains social and economic value in digital networks?
  • what systems and structures, at different scales, constrain or enable communities and individuals living the lives they have reason to value?  What transformations count as emancipatory inclusion? How do we transform systems and structures to achieve those goals? And how do we ultimately work towards something that might look like an inclusive network society?  
  • what are the power structures, configurations, and geographies of voice and representation; and under what institutional conditions do these voices and representations lead to claim-making?
  • what do the institutional landscapes of data regimes look like, who control them and how are they controlled? How can these regimes be made accountable, and under what kinds of ethical frameworks?

The full agenda should be published soon, and many of the papers can already be accessed at IT for Change website (Chris and I have uploaded ours). The organisers will also soon be uploading videos of presentations and subsequent discussions for people who weren’t at the meeting.