Wrong model. Wrong place.

If conventional wisdom were anything to go by, this is what might typically happen to a social entrepreneur with an idea:

Said entrepreneur comes up with an idea. Entrepreneur puts together a sample budget and an early-stage business model. Funding is sought for a pilot or prototype. Said pilot runs and impact/results are measured. If the signs are good, entrepreneur goes back to his or her donor, seeks increased funding, then scales. Said project becomes financially sustainable (or not) during the new funding period. Based on proven impact, sustainability and/or long term investor interest, said project either remains and grows or joins others in the giant “failed business ideas” graveyard in the sky.

Although this approach may be fine in the wider world of social entrepreneurship, it begins to struggle whenever there’s a strong ICT4D component, or where the individuals with the ideas aren’t social entrepreneurs at all but technologists or development workers out in the field. Despite making little sense applying the same model to both scenarios, this is precisely what often happens. Welcome to the world of “one size fits all”.

The realities of innovation in ICT4D are often very different to those elsewhere. For a start, the best ideas are not necessarily seeded in a lab, or a business school, or the global headquarters of a large international company. Workers on the front lines of conservation, human rights, disaster response or agricultural development often have to adapt and innovate based on the realities of their experiences in the field. Ideas that end up “sticking” don’t benefit from the process and order of the conventional “social entrepreneurship” approach. Business models and impact metrics all come a distant second to developing an appropriate solution to a very real problem, whatever and wherever that may be.

In reality, this may be a more sensible way of going about things. Only people who show initiative – and ideas which show promise – rise to the surface, and only then do others put time and money into figuring out how to best build on them. But as if there weren’t enough to do, inflicting foreign entrepreneurship models on a technology innovation which is at best a bad fit simply adds to the confusion. It’s time we recognised that adopting an approach based on “scale, sustainability and impact” doesn’t always make sense. One size doesn’t fit all, and ICT4D warrants a new approach.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few weeks thinking about this. Despite the promise, there are still far more mobile pilots than fully fledged, long term projects. Far more failed and lost projects than successful, ongoing ones. And too many people assessing success or failure based on potentially flawed, misleading or irrelevant metrics.

In short, we need to acknowledge three new (hard) realities in our field:

  1. Not all projects will have business models
  2. Not all projects will be financially sustainable
  3. Not all projects will be able to measure impact

So, where does this leave us? Well, we can at least acknowledge that applying conventional entrepreneurship models to mobile-for-development might be decreasing rather than increasing our chances of success. That financial sustainability may or may not be possible. And that figuring out precise impact may or may not be realistic or achievable. “Failure” on these fronts does not make a bad project. If it did then there’s a very large number of bad projects out there.

For me, this “ongoing failure” more likely indicates a flawed model, and a bad way of measuring success. We need a new model, and one of our own. Because – as the advert reminds us – we’re worth it…

50 thoughts on “Wrong model. Wrong place.

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  17. Jake says:

    Very interesting post, Kenny. Don’t think I’ve heard many people write about challenging the model before, and it makes sense. Maybe you plan following up with other posts — sustainability, scaling, measuring impact etc are all topics in themselves. Hope to read more!!

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  19. kiwanja says:

    @Jake – I’m more than happy to be talking about this stuff since it’s a real challenge. I do have plenty of other thoughts and will likely write about them in further posts. This one was really more of a brain dump on the wider need to be having this discussion.

    Just taking impact aside, we’re sometimes expected to just know how to properly measure this, and it’s rarely the case. Taking reforestation as an example from a different sector, everyone knows that replanting trees is generally a good thing – it provides better watershed management, forest products (food, materials), helps combat climate change and soil erosion and so on. But if you were asked to fully measure the impact in numbers, how would you do that? Much will be very long term, for starters.

    Looking forward to continuing the discussion.


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  23. Ian says:

    Ken – great post. Just yesterday I was having an interesting chat with someone on the possibilities and difficulies to apply venture capital type models to development projects as a way of fostering greater innovation, and your post throws up a few of the challenges. BUT it seems to me your challenges aren’t as much about ICT as they are about “development” work in general.
    If an initiative is aimed at doing something for development then I’d agree – it’s not a given that it will ever be financially sustainable (or at least not a short term timeframe) – and that might still be acceptable.
    I’m not sure I’d agree you don’t need a business model – it’s just that its better if it comes from the bottom up rather than top-down and that the model (and its funders) are prepared to accept that it should evolve based on experience and feedback rather than being fixed.
    On “impact” – this might be really difficult – but I think you can’t escape it. It’s not clear to me why anyone would want to continue to fund something longer term, or to try to scale it up if there is not some indication of impact, even if partial and not precisely measured. The key might be what we consider impact and how we measure it (and educating funders about what they can realistically expect).

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  26. kamweti muriuki says:

    “applying conventional entrepreneurship models to mobile-for-development might be decreasing rather than increasing our chances of success” indeed ICT4D innovators will are at most times scratching their own itch and looking to benefit from the solution period. no metrics no long term sustainability plan,also I often fight the urge to apply conventional models to a totally different environment.I think most entrepreneurs ‘in the front line’ are missing the point and or not looking closely.

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  34. kiwanja says:

    @Ian – Thanks for your comments, and glad the post struck a chord. I’m working on a follow-up, so keep an eye on that! I’m totally with you on the challenges applying to “development” more broadly, but perhaps a final solution there will be slightly different to one based on the needs of ICT4D projects. Time will tell on that one. And with impact, I also agree that we need to know something good is happening out there with these tools and projects, but sometimes we may have to settle for anecdotal evidence. Not everything can be measured, after all. I’m totally with you that this is all tricky, and perhaps the starting point is to begin having the conversation.

    @Kamweti – Without a doubt there are ICT4D projects applying technology to a problem for technology’s sake, and largely failing, and these approaches don’t warrant wider support. My point is that when projects do show signs of promise, and those that have risen out of the mass of pilots, that we think about new ways of helping them grow and develop.

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