You might not change the world. But you can make it a better place.

One of the perks of my job is that I get to meet some of the most talented innovators and entrepreneurs from all over the world. I even get to mentor and support some of them. But they’re the exception, not the rule. Not everyone who sets out to make the world a better place is going to come up with a new, groundbreaking, innovative idea that achieves their goal. Not everyone is going to end up running their own social venture. Not everyone is going to win prizes for their efforts, and not everyone is going to have huge, global impact.

And that’s fine.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked, particularly at student events, is what young people can do to help make the world a better place. Many realise that the chances of becoming the next Muhammad Yunus are slim, and instead they look for something more achievable and realistic they can do.

During my time as a mentor with Unreasonable at Sea, I had the honour to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in front of several hundred students hungry to find out how they could help make the world a better place. It was a wide-ranging conversation which you can see in full below. (The Archbishop later wrote the Foreword to my first book, which you can read about here).

The advice that I always give can be broken down into four complimentary actions. These only work if done together.

1. Take an interest. Read widely. Watch documentaries. Make an effort to meet like-minded people. Take time to understand the world, to understand the context of the problems we face as a people and a planet.

2. Empathise. Take time to understand what life is like for those less fortunate than yourself. Try to spend time with them. Travel to the places they live if possible. Be open to learning. Empathy is key. Empathy + knowledge is invaluable.

3. Pick something big. Get behind a major global campaign that addresses a major global challenge. Don’t let the enormity of the task put you off, or the fact that you may never know the impact you, individually, may have.

4. Pick something small. Get behind a local organisation addressing a local problem that you’re passionate about. Volunteer your time. Get involved. See, experience and feel the impact you’re having, and draw comfort that you’re making a difference.

Most of the innovators I get to meet didn’t come up with their ideas or solutions overnight. Many were already taking an interest, and spending time with the people they ended up helping. The most important lesson you can learn from this? If you immerse yourself, anything is possible.

Joining CARE as their Entrepreneur in Residence

This post first appeared on the CARE International ‘Insights’ website and is republished here with permission.


Welcome to CARE International’s first ever Entrepreneur in Residence, Ken Banks. Ken will be spending time with us over the next year to help make sense of the increasingly complex world of social innovation and technology-for-development.

So, what exactly is an Entrepreneur in Residence, and why might we need one at CARE? Ken provides some answers.

You’d normally find an Entrepreneur in Residence (EiR) at a venture capital firm, law firm or commercial business. They’re usually brought in to provide support and expertise not available internally by giving the firm wider access to the entrepreneurs’ field of expertise. The EiR may offer mentoring support, or help develop policy, or advise on the viability of projects and ideas.

EiRs in the NGO sector are less common, despite many NGOs struggling with the same issues as the private sector, particularly on the technology and innovation front. Staff in both sectors are being increasingly encouraged to think innovatively about the products, projects and services their organisations offer, and to develop new ideas and strategies to keep them one step ahead, or to increase the impact of their work among the communities they serve.

Today, everyone seems to be thinking more about social value, how to be innovative and how to build for sustainability, yet few staff have first-hand experience of all or some of these disciplines. Having a simple sounding board in the shape of an EiR can make all the difference, giving staff the resources and confidence to pursue their innovations or ideas without needing to worry about how to make use of, and budget for, external expertise and resources. The EiR is, in effect, a member of the team.

What do you hope to be doing?

I’ve already had meetings within CARE with teams who are both using technology in their work, and with those who are not and would like to better understand the opportunity. Over the first couple of months I’ll be making time to listen to everyone’s ideas and needs, and by the end of the year we plan to have identifed a couple of larger initiatives I can offer particular support to.

Whilst we’re aiming for two or three key deliverables during my time at CARE, I will remain available for meetings or phone calls at any time with staff who want to discuss technology and innovation, or to understand how things like mobile money, 3D printing, big data or drones work. I’ll also be available to review project proposals, and sense check ideas. The remit is wide and varied to reflect the need. It’s an exciting role at an exciting time within an exciting organisation.

What’s your background?

My background is a bit of a mixture. I’ve been working with technology since my early teens when I taught myself to program computers. I took a strong interest in international development in the early 1990s, and since then have spent many years living and working across the African continent on everything from school building in Zambia and hospital building in Uganda, to technology research in South Africa and Mozambique, to running a primate sanctuary in Nigeria. My degree is in Social Anthropology with Development Studies, and since 2003 I’ve been focused specifically on the use of mobile phones in conservation and development work.

In 2005 I designed and wrote FrontlineSMS, a text messaging platform aimed at the grassroots non-profit community. I ran the project for the first seven years and today it is being used in over 170 countries benefiting tens of millions of people. Interestingly, CARE International were one of the earliest users, deploying it in Afghanistan to send security alerts to staff and fieldworkers. I now run a number of initiatives through my own organisation,, including book writing, mentoring, consultancy and other technology-focused work.

On the subject of books, I’ve just finished a follow-up (to be published March 2016) to my first, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”, which came out in late 2013. With a foreword from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “The Rise” profiles the work of 10 unexpected ‘reluctant’ innovators, and touches on work in many different fields from all around the world.

Over the years I’ve also been fortunate to pick up numerous awards from PopTech, Ashoka, National Geographic, the Tech Awards, Curry Stone, the Pizzigati Prize and Cambridge Business News, among others. Today I sit on DFID’s ‘Digital Advisory Panel’ and am Sussex University’s ‘Ambassador for International Development’. I’m excited to be working at CARE and look forward to sharing the work we do through CARE’s Insights website over the coming months.

What technology-for-conservation might learn from technology-for-development

Although the majority of my more recent work has sat in the ‘global development’ bucket, much of my early interest lay in conservation. Before I stumbled into the world of mobiles-for-development (m4d) I was helping with biodiversity surveys in Uganda and running primate sanctuaries in Nigeria, and focusing my academic studies on the role of anthropologists in the creation of national parks. My first m4d project looked at the potential of mobile technology in conservation, and it was my work around Kruger National Park over 2003 and 2004 that lead to the idea behind FrontlineSMS.

Conservation is still one of my biggest passions, and I returned to my roots a couple of years ago when I was asked to speak about the potential for, and use of, emerging technology in the global conservation effort at the 2013 WWF Kathryn Fuller Symposium. You can watch that talk below (it’s also available, along with other talks, in the Audio & Video section of this website).

The following year I was invited to an event at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and gave a similar talk at their inaugural Digital Conservation event on how the sector might draw lessons on technology use from global development. Following my talk, I was invited by the organisers to join them in co-authoring a paper for a forthcoming special edition of Ambio Journal focusing on “Digital conservation: Understanding the impacts of digital technology on nature conservation“. One element of the paper proposes a rework of kiwanja’s Donors Charter for the conservation community.

Late last month, that special edition hit the shelves. Here’s the summary of our paper, which was proudly co-authored with Georgina Maffey, Hilary Homans and Koen Arts:

The application of digital technology in conservation holds much potential for advancing the understanding of, and facilitating interaction with, the natural world. In other sectors, digital technology has long been used to engage communities and share information. Human development – which holds parallels with the nature conservation sector – has seen a proliferation of innovation in technological development. Throughout our paper, we consider what nature conservation can learn from the introduction of digital technology in human development. From this, we derive a Charter to be used before and throughout project development, in order to help reduce replication and failure of digital innovation in nature conservation projects. We argue that the proposed charter will promote collaboration with the development of digital tools and ensure that nature conservation projects progress appropriately with the development of new digital technologies.

You can download a full PDF of the paper from the kiwanja website here or via the Ambio website here.