Exploring the Platform Political Economy of Self-Help in Africa

Informal savings group in Tarime district, Tanzania. Photo: Daivi Rodima-Taylor

Self-help groups can be found in many areas of Africa—including the chama groups of Kenya, isusu of Nigeria, and stokvels of South Africa (Ardener and Burman 1995). Their customary rotating credit arrangement is also popular among African diaspora communities (Hossein 2018; Ardener 2010). A significant rise has occurred in these groups at the wake of the neoliberal restructuring reforms of the 1980s-90s, with a decline in formal sector employment and state-funded producer cooperatives. At present, these mutual support groups are targeted by FinTech platforms as well as conventional banks with various financial products and software apps. My recent research explores of the contentious interplay between the formal and informal finance in these emerging digital interfaces in Africa. It studies the intersection of FinTech with the social economies of African mutual help groups in Kenya and South Africa, situating this dynamic in longer-term colonial legacies and present-day policies of extractive financialization (Rodima-Taylor 2022).

Informal mutual support groups with their saving-credit patterns have long served as an inspiration for the development industry. The initially successful Grameen micro-finance model drew on pre-existing reciprocities and mutually negotiated liability in largely informal contexts. However, as the microfinance formula shifted from socially situated lending towards ‘fast-scaling’ and universalizing group lending in an expanding range of localities, the industry was faced with repayment crisis (see Haldar and Stiglitz 2016). The recent conceptual shift from microfinance to digital financial inclusion foregrounds mobile payments and fee-based service delivery, with payment industry also experimenting with new sources of value such as customer data (Maurer 2015). Microloans have remained an important part of the digital financial inclusion enterprise, with poorly regulated lending apps fueling over-indebtedness. As informal savings groups and mutual support associations have become central in the livelihoods in many low-income communities, I suggest that more attention is needed to the intersection between the self-help groups and FinTech initiatives in the global South.

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Land, property, technology: interrogating an infrastructural promise

Land has served as a central means of sustenance, but also as a nexus of wealth and power for people throughout the ages. The World Bank has estimated that more than seventy percent of the world’s population lack access to legally registered land titles. Existing land registries are centralized databases, vulnerable to corruption and destruction. There is an increasing turn towards emerging technologies such as blockchain for recording the relationships between people and land, coordinating and synchronizing that data for efficient governance, and making the information publicly available.

This essay explores the abstraction of blockchain as employed for formalizing land rights in emerging economies. Behind the seemingly neutral façade of the technology, diverse aspirational claims and narratives guide its implementation in different societies, shaped by particular histories and socio-political contexts. This highlights the need to explore blockchain-based land registries as distributed knowledge infrastructures, uncovering their broader embeddedness in older, non-digital modalities, and the “peopled infrastructures” of informal networks with their histories and cultural repertoires. As digital technologies can facilitate an illusion of enhanced visibility of some elements while obscuring others, I argue that more attention is needed to the role of broader colonial legacies and enduring North-South inequalities that frequently remain backgrounded in the adoption of such technologies.

An increasing number of governments are investigating the prospects of transferring their land registries to blockchain (Graglia and Mellon 2018). Blockchain applications are explored as enabling the formalization of property rights in the countries of the Global South, as well as providing more efficient coordination of real property markets in the Global North. Blockchain registries have several advantages as compared to centralized digital or paper-based databases. Records on blockchain are distributed and verified by a multitude of nodes in a peer-to-peer digital network, affording them more transparency and resilience. As new additions to the chain of blocks are cryptographically time-stamped, this makes tampering or accidental data loss less likely. Auto-executing “smart contracts” that transform legal agreements into code could mediate contracts (De Filippi and Wright, 2018).

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