A brief history

A brief history

What happened to Civic Tech in Africa?

Feb 21, 2024

Illustration by Neema Iyer

Civic Tech, eGov and Digital Public Goods walk into a bar…

…the bartender asks, “the usual?” then hands them one drink.

Terrible joke. I know.

Over the past few years, several names have existed for similar concepts: 

  • Civic Technology

  • GovTech

  • eGovernment

  • Digital Public Goods

  • Public Interest Technology

  • Smart Cities

Years ago, when I was trying to decide what Pollicy could look like, I turned to institutions like the Sunlight Foundation and FutureGov for inspiration. I was fascinated with how they conceptualised Civic Tech and the kinds of projects they worked on. Now, a little less than a decade later the terminology has changed but the vision remains the same. In this blog, I am joined by someone whose work and thinking I have admired for years and who I had the privilege to share one of Mama Rock’s infamously juicy burgers with - David Lemayian. You can read more about his work on his stunningly minimal website here.

What does “Civic Tech” mean?

Civic Tech, or civic technology, is any technology made for citizens that makes access to government services easier and more efficient. This could be a platform that enables public participation through a democratic process or one that facilitates access to government data for accountability or improves access to a government service such as benefits.

In Africa, the Civic Tech movement really blossomed at a time when an educated and conscious youth population were hungry to make a change in their countries - us included. This was the time! An important mix of factors such as increasing mobile connectivity and fintech such as M-pesa, coupled with the rising number of technology and innovation hubs and technology courses alongside a youthful, technology-fueled political movement in the United States under Obama seemed to herald in a new era of techno-optimism across the continent.

During this time, many civic tech initiatives blossomed. Some of those include:

  • Jamii Forums (Tanzania)

  • HarassMaps (Egypt)

  • Ushahidi (Kenya)

  • BudgIT (Nigeria)

  • SEMA (Uganda)

  • PesaCheck (Kenya)

  • Mzalendo (Kenya)

  • Barefoot Law (Uganda)

  • MOPA (Mozambique)

The Civic Tech Innovation Network has done a stellar job of documenting civic tech case studies from across Africa and the entire database can be found here. Pollicy also identifies as a civic technology organisation - but more from the perspective of building the movement rather than scaling a specific product.

Was this optimism short-lived?

Yes and no.

Firstly, many of the challenges that civic tech faced a decade ago in the African context still persist today plaguing both public services as well as entrepreneurship and innovation.

Despite many rapid technological advancements, low connectivity remains a significant barrier in many countries, limiting access to digital tools and platforms for a substantial portion of the population. This issue is further compounded by a pronounced digital gender divide, which disproportionately affects women's ability to participate in and benefit from civic tech initiatives. Additionally, poor user interface (UI) design and inadequate localisation of content and services negatively impacts user engagement and accessibility. Another issue is digital skills. This essentially means that those with access to the internet, devices and skills can get further ahead in how they engage with the government while those without are at an increasing disadvantage - travelling long distances, coping with long waiting times, and facing greater difficulties in accessing essential services and information. This digital divide not only exacerbates existing inequalities but also undermines efforts to foster inclusive civic participation and equitable access to government resources.

While several civic tech initiatives survived and thrived over the past decade, many no longer exist - either because they were successfully absorbed as government services or because they failed to sustain their operations due to financial constraints, lack of user engagement, or difficulties in scaling their impact. In the next section we’ll go over case studies that now function as regular government services, those that continue to function at the intersection of private-public and those that unfortunately didn’t make it. 


Of the successful civic tech initiatives we have seen across the African continent, some factors have stood out;

  1. Government Involvement and Responsiveness: Despite sometimes building civic tech to keep governments accountable, the presence of government leadership or partnership is a crucial success factor. This has ensured that civic tech platforms are not only used but also acted upon. This includes having structures in place to address reports from citizens effectively.

  2. Outreach and Engagement Strategies: Success hinges on the ability to mobilise and engage citizens through diverse communication methods. This includes leveraging both online and offline channels to ensure broader participation and awareness of the initiative. For example, in some of the most successful outreach campaigns we have witnessed on the continent, they involved radio and/or print media. Having clear and relevant outreach strategies have not only lent credibility but also met citizens where they are.

  3. Technological Accessibility and Participatory Design: In much of our context, SMS, USSD and voice are important channels of communication. Websites, not as much and more recently, WhatsApp. Additional consideration for differently abled peoples is important. Addressing the digital divide by ensuring technological access and designing civic tech initiatives that are inclusive and participatory from the outset is a success factor. This involves considering the varying technological capabilities of the target audience and incorporating their feedback into the design process.

A few years ago, my mother recounted the story about how the government had rolled out a digital platform for a certain service. As many (if not most) people could not figure out how to use or could not access the platform because they did not have phones/smartphones, a new industry cropped up outside the government offices, whereby someone with a laptop then helped citizens apply for the service at a small fee. The government agencies in their metrics had successfully gone digital and “paper-less” but this didn’t mean that people could access the service any easier and had to pay for a free service through a middle man. So, as in most of my blogs, we still have to ask what metrics are we using to measure success in civic tech?


In “Don't Build It. A Guide for Practitioners in Civic Tech”, Luke Jordan reflects on his time at Grassroot, a civic tech platform in South Africa. He argues that the central problem of software is that anything can be built, while with a physical structure, nature and physics puts some constraints on the space of ideas. He is not wrong. In terms of failure rates, a study found that 52.7% of software projects will cost 189% or more of their original estimates. Meanwhile, research by the Project Management Institute showed that the worst physical projects were, on average, 42 percent higher in cost, 49 percent slower in cycle time, and 29 percent slower in execution.

A look at the Civic Tech graveyard paints an equally sobering picture - from a sample of 70 cases that they collected, despite ample funding and noble goals, most civic tech startups have failed to achieve long-term success due to lack of ongoing user engagement, underestimating the difficulty of solving collective action problems, and inability to compete with major social media platforms.

From our experiences, here are a few reasons why civic tech projects failed to take off or remain viable:

  • Lack of funding: Sustainability remains a key challenge for civic technology initiatives in Africa. On one hand, reliance on donor funding can redirect projects to fit donor priorities rather than community needs. Projects beholden to donors risk losing autonomy and agility to adapt solutions to local contexts. On the other hand, adopting for-profit models can exclude organisations from grant opportunities targeted for non-profits. The conflation of sustainability with commercialization puts many civic tech groups in a difficult position.

  • Lack of Government Institutionalisation: “we have been designing civic tech (that is) badly suited to producing impacts because we have been measuring citizen uptake without looking at institutional response” - Prof. Beth Simone Novec, Civic Tech in the Global South: Assessing Technology for the Public Good. This is manifested in both sides of the divide; civic technologists do not seek audience with the governments in design and implementation of projects; and the governments, if you are not a wealthy foreign government, donor, or big tech, there will be limited support provided despite increasing frustration with foreign partners.

  • Mobilising Large Communities: Mobilising large numbers of citizens to adopt and actively use civic technology is extremely difficult. Awareness, digital literacy, building trust and relevance in local contexts, and sustaining community excitement all pose barriers to driving participation at scale. Without broad, enduring civic participation, promising civic tech pilots frequently fade in adoption after initial buzz or donor funding dissipates. Overcoming long-standing political disengagement to meaningfully mobilise large citizen communities represents a key obstacle to successful digital governance initiatives in the long run.

The In-Betweens

Some civic tech projects have found sustainability by developing business models that allow them to monetize their services without compromising their mission. This monetization, while occasionally criticised for veering towards exploitation, may require either payment from users for the value-added services or may enter a tender to provide these services to citizens by the government.

Meanwhile, other initiatives have turned towards a model sustained by grants and gifts, relying on philanthropic support from foundations, foreign governments and private donors who are invested in civic tech's potential in development. This reliance on external funding, as with any civil society organisation, puts these initiatives in a precarious situation whereby their sustainability is dependent on the fluctuating priorities and capacities of their benefactors.

What’s Next?

Civic tech entities can continue to filter into one of the three buckets mentioned above whereby they are subsumed by government or they continue to rely on external grants and funding or they pivot to more sustainable business models - either ethically or exploitatively. In this section, we want to consider a few other options that could emerge as well as considerations to take into account in the years to come.

Other models of civic tech to explore

  1. Hyperlocal Community-driven Initiatives: Projects that focus on specific issues within smaller communities, rather than larger city-wide or national projects may be able to get significant traction, while also acknowledging that some of these projects may only be needed for a short period of time. These initiatives may be impactful without the need to grow and scale. This approach leverages local knowledge and creates a sense of buy-in or ownership and engagement among community members. There is also the opportunity here to depend more strongly on open source technologies and run lean operations.

  2. Academic Collaborations: Bringing together civic tech initiatives and academic institutions could be mutually beneficial in terms of research and development to not only drive innovation but could also open up a pool of unconventional funding while at the same time providing a steady stream of enthusiastic young minds eager to contribute to societal betterment.

  3. Public-Private Partnerships: Collaborating across the public and private sectors can speed up both the development and implementation of civic tech solutions. By finding the sweet spot between private sector efficiency, innovation and funds as well as public sector reach and regulatory frameworks, civic tech initiatives could find a model for impact and reach.

Considerations to take into account for future building

  1. Embracing Privacy-by-Design: It would be revolutionary if civic tech initiatives could question the status quo by embedding privacy-preserving principles at their core. This means designing systems that protect user data by default, challenging the pervasive surveillance culture, and ensuring that digital rights are safeguarded in an increasingly connected world.

  2. Prioritising Inclusivity Through Localisation and Assistive Technologies: It’s 2024. We must move beyond a one-size-fits-all approach. We have the technical know-how, we just need the commitment. Civic tech must evolve to be genuinely inclusive, tailoring solutions to diverse linguistic, cultural, and ability-related needs. This means moving away from simply translating content to deep localisation, embracing multiple languages, and integrating design and assistive technologies that accommodate all users, if we are to make any progress towards lowering the barriers to accessing vital services.

  3. Organisational Maturity: Beyond the overall product idea, the resilience and effectiveness of civic tech initiatives hinge on the foundational strength and operational excellence of the organisations behind them. Just like any for- or non-profit, these organisations must have rigorous project management, design and user research skills, secure relevant certifications for credibility, and forge strong networks and partnerships for sustainable impact.

So, whether we call it civic tech or eGov or digital public goods, and whether you think they’re the same or different, we are still optimistic about what citizen-focused and citizen-driven technology grounded in inclusion and access can look like. This also opens the door to conversations on how these initiatives could be organised and governed rather than forcing all tech solutions to adopt stifling blanket regulations.

If you’d like to keep talking #civictech, send me a message here or David a message here!  

We hope to explore these questions further at mySociety's 7th Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in London and online on 12 and 13 June 2024. The Registration and the Call for Proposals are now open till the 22nd of March.