Biography

Eleanor Marchant is the ConflictNET Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, where she works primarily on research around the politics and practice of the internet and social media in generating or preventing conflict in East Africa, including such topics as hate speech, misinformation, internet connectivity, and the role of international technology companies in the region. This research is part of the ConflictNET project, a multi-year ERC grant-funded endeavor run by Dr Nicole Stremlau to examine the implications of increasing access to the internet in delicate conflict-prone contexts.

Eleanor received her PhD from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in April 2018, where her supervisor was Dr John L. Jackson Jr, the incoming Dean of the Annenberg School. Professor Monroe Price, Dr Guobin Yang, and Dr Jonathan Donner also served as committee members and mentors.

Her research brings a deep-dive anthropological perspective to the relationship between the internet, rapidly changing new technologies, and the African societies that shape and are shaped by them. Eleanor’s doctoral work illuminated the experiences of those at the forefront of shaping the modern technological landscape in East Africa. It is an empirically rich anthropological exploration of the experiences of the entrepreneurs, investors, and programmers designing, building, and funding new communication technologies in Nairobi, Kenya. For it, she conducted an extended multi-year ethnography of Nairobi’s tech sector, based out of the most well-known technology community hub in Africa, the iHub. Her thesis provides an insightful analysis of the internationally engaged nature of technology production on the African continent, and the technological and cultural narratives that shape, and at times inhibit, that work.

Prior to joining CSLS, Eleanor has been a research fellow at the Center for Global Communications Studies and the University of Pennsylvania, the Annenberg Research Network on International Communication at the University of Southern California, and both the iHub and the Media Institute in Nairobi. Eleanor also brings a practitioner’s perspective to her research, drawing on six years working as a media investment and development practitioner with a focus in the West and East African regions for both Media Development Investment Fund and Freedom House, and through consultation work with organizations like UNESCO and the World Bank.

Education:

BSc., Economics and Politics, Bristol University, Bristol, UK.

MA, International Relations, New York University, New York, USA.

MA, Communications, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

PhD, Communications, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA.

Twitter: @ermarchant

Publications

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  • ER Marchant, 'Anyone Anywhere: Narrating African Innovation in a Global Community of Practice' (2018) University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons
    The last eight years have seen rapid growth in the number of technology startups emerging in urban centers around Africa, from Lagos to Nairobi to Bamako. The growth of annual investments in African startups – rising from $12 million to $560 million between 2013 and 2017 (Kazeem, 2018) – is an indication that many, including investors abroad, believe the trend in African involvement in international technology innovation practices is just beginning. Yet while these changes are promising, this dissertation encourages critical reflection on them and asks: To what extent are Africans really able to fully participate in the production of the new technologies shaping their experiences of the modern information economy? To attempt to answer this, from 2013 to 2016 I conducted an ethnography of one of the centers of innovation in Africa that has received the most media attention, a “technology hub” based in Nairobi, Kenya called the iHub. I spent a year as a participant observer on the iHub’s communications team, conducted numerous focus groups, site visits to other tech hubs, participated in dozens of events and interviewed over 80 members of Nairobi’s tech community. With this data, I built an analytical lens that brings a critical communications perspective to communities of practice theory. By integrating narrative theory, this lens draws attention to the potential for conflict and hierarchies of legitimacy in transnational communities built around shared practices. In the pages that follow, I argue that the actors around the iHub are engaged in a Global Community of Technology Innovators in which their participation, and the community’s larger narratives are mutually constructed. One such narrative about how “Anyone Anywhere” in the world can become a successful technology entrepreneur helped attract Kenyan entrepreneurs, while others restricted their ability to be taken serious, often leading to their being pigeonholed as “social entrepreneurship”. By the end of 2016, the discrepancy between narratives and lived experiences led many to reject certain global practices – like the pressure on startups to scale globally – and focus instead on building a Kenyan community in which they had greater legitimacy and power to construct narratives and shape future practices.
  • ER Marchant, ' Organizational Culture and Hybridity: The hybridization of non-profit and for-profit organizational culture in the Kenyan tech sector' in Bitange Ndemo and Tim Weiss (eds), Digital Kenya: An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making (Palgrave Macmillan 2017)
    Back in 2014, a debate swept through the Kenyan tech sector about the value of grant funding for start-ups based on new technology. Swirling around the blogosphere, among Kenyans on Twitter, and entrepreneurs in the thick of it, the debate seemed to boil down to the question of whether grants from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and donor organizations interested in funding social enterprises in Kenya were a benefit or a hindrance. Put in less secular terms, many asked: Is grant funding a blessing or a curse? Key figures, like Nikolai Barnwell, at that time the manager of the technology business incubator 88mph, and Sam Gichuru, the manager of Nailab (a competing tech incubator), landed on one side or the other of the debate. Even now, more than a year after the debate peaked in social media, its question still lingers over Kenyan entrepreneurs.
  • ER Marchant, Interactive Voice Response and Radio for Peacebuilding: A Macro View of the Literature and Experiences from the Field (Center for Global Communication Studies 2016)
    Initially used for customer service and public health survey work in the United States in the 1970s, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technologies in more recent decades have come to play an increasingly important role in international development efforts around the world, including in peacebuilding work in post-conflict contexts. IVR technologies—the broad term used to describe automated systems that allow humans to interact with computers through phones using voice—range from traditional automated messages to newer talk-to-text applications on smartphones, like Siri on Apple phones or Cortana on Windows phones. Alongside continuous technological advancements, IVR is being deployed in increasingly innovative and constantly evolving ways, ranging from connecting diaspora communities to their home countries to supporting Ebola awareness in Sierra Leone. In a wide range of development work, IVR is most often used in conjunction with radio—a key medium in post-conflict and developing regions—and particularly by NGOs working with community radio stations to help improve interactivity with their listeners and to reach remote and illiterate audiences. This report offers a review of the existing literature about IVR applications in non-Western contexts, supplemented by primary research based on interviews with practitioners who are using or designing IVR systems in the field. Many of the individuals interviewed work at organizations that have conducted their own impact evaluations of the new technologies they are using. This study aggregates these assessments. We identify some of the key IVR systems, highlighting the unique nature of post-conflict peacebuilding settings and briefly contextualizing the evolution of IVR in developing countries. While our focus is on a particular kind of technology, we are careful to avoid a techno-functionalist or techno-utopian approach that often pervades research about ICTs for development. Instead, we are interested in contextualizing how IVR is used in practice based on the experiences of those who are implementing different systems, including NGO workers, radio station employees, and those designing and developing new IVR applications.
  • ER Marchant, Who is ICT Innovation for? Challenges to Existing Theories of Innovation, a Kenyan Case Study (Center for Global Communication Studies 2015)
    Kenya, along with countries like Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana, is leading the way on the continent in innovating new applications and programs that enable developments in the information communication technology (ICT) sector. This growth has not gone unnoticed. It has attracted substantial international interest, not just from non-profit organizations focused on development, but increasingly from for-profit actors interested in investing in the country. In this environment, understanding how tech innovation happens in Kenya – the roles played by these many different international, local, for-profit, and not-for-profit actors – is a big part of understanding the shape of new technologies that will emerge. Yet many of the theories that exist to explain technology innovation were developed to describe processes in Western contexts, like Silicon Valley, far removed from the reality of innovation in Kenya. This paper uses the technology innovation sector in Kenya to illustrate where existing innovation theories fall short. If we hope to understand the growth of these sector and help shape its development, ICT, communication, and management scholars need to work together to develop better theories to explain the unique context of innovation in African countries.

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Research Interests

  • Technology and society in East Africa
  • Internet & conflict
  • Internet policy and policymaking
  • African technology innovation
  • Entrepreneurship & startup culture in Africa
  • ICTs and Development
  • Modern technological work and the gig economy in the developing world
  • Ethnographic methods

Research projects