The Innovation/Permission Paradox

On a recent trip to Dar Es Salaam I got talking to an entrepreneur at one of those many technology pitching events popping up across the continent. After a few minutes of the usual small talk (which, of course, included a full review of the English Premiere League season ahead) I asked him what idea he and his team were working on.

He explained to me that he was the CEO of a Tanzanian start-up that had developed a new gamification technique which, integrated within a new mobile app they were building, helped tackle childhood obesity. “Is that a problem here in Tanzania?” I asked him. He told me that it wasn’t and that it didn’t matter because their app was aimed at the American market, where it was a growing problem. They were going to focus on the West Coast initially, where they hoped to get enough traction to attract investors and then scale it across the rest of the USA.

I asked if he had a medical background at all, and whether he’d been to the United States and seen the problem first hand. He answered no on both occasions. Again, he didn’t see this as a problem, nor that none of his team, or Tanzanian-dominated Board, had ever been to the USA either.

This all struck me as a rather odd, rather strange approach, and I couldn’t help but wonder why he was doing this. “People in the United States will think you’re mad”, I told him. He didn’t seem to mind and said they were going to do it anyway because they wanted to work on a big problem that was meaningful, somewhere far away, and that could scale.

They didn’t win, but were given credit for their ambition and for taking on such a big first world problem.

Now, let’s flip this story another way.

On a recent trip to Washington DC I attended a pitching event at one of the many start-up accelerators in the city. I ended up sitting next to an entrepreneur who told me he was building a mobile app to help African farmers get better access to market information, helping them produce better yields and get better prices for what they grew.


I asked him if he knew anything about farming in Africa, or agricultural markets, or if he’d ever been to the continent. “Not really”, he replied, “but plenty of other entrepreneurs I know have won pitching competitions in the past, regardless. So I think we’ll get by”. None of his Board, or Advisory Committee, had any experience either, “but they are successful US-based entrepreneurs and know technology inside-out so we’ve got some great people behind us, and they think we’ve got a great idea with great potential”, he added. They picked this problem because they wanted to help poor people in Africa.

They didn’t win, but secured three interviews with technology and innovation news sites, and have a follow-on meeting with an investor who was in the room and who thought their idea was great.

Why is it that the first idea comes across as crazy or odd, yet the second one doesn’t – despite them being the same thing? And perhaps more crucially, how did we ever get to the point where an American solving an African problem is par for the course, yet an African taking on an American problem isn’t? Or even an African solving an African problem?


Thanks to CARE colleague Mark Malhotra who inspired this blog post during a conversation earlier today in Dar Es Salaam.

Happy birthday to me: On half centuries and legacies

This time tomorrow, fifty years ago, I came into the world and spent the proceeding twenty-seven years trying to figure out what the hell I was doing here. With the summer of 1993 came something of a rebirth, one that put me on the path to where I am today. But the years before were dominated by prolonged spells of frustration, searching and disappointment. It feels, at times, that I’ve only lived half a life, which is probably why I don’t feel anything like the fifty I’ll be tomorrow.

Birthdays with significant numbers often bring with them periods of reflection, although reflecting is something I tend to do on a regular basis. I’m my own worse critic, always challenging and never allowing myself the opportunity to feel comfortable, or develop any sense of achievement in what I’m doing. I’m ridiculously driven and, because of that, tend to see the glass half empty most of the time, reflecting on things I’m yet to do rather than the things I’ve done. There’s never been room for complacency in my life. There’s always more to be done.

In the twenty-three years I feel I’ve actually ‘lived’ a life I’ve certainly crammed a lot in, even if it doesn’t always feel like enough. Living and working across eight African countries, getting a degree, building out one of the more successful mobile messaging platforms, speaking all over the world, winning numerous prizes and awards, publishing two books and building out my spiritual home on the web – – into a well established social innovation/development site. And none of that includes the more recent addition of a young family – something I thought I’d never have given all the time that had passed me by.

If anything, having children has had the effect of driving me even harder, if that were at all possible. What I see happening to other families around the world compared to the peace and stability of life at home tears me up in ways I struggle to describe. Life is cruel. The refugee crisis is a bigger reason as any to not become complacent. There is plenty more to be done.

Uganda 1995

Uganda 1995: A photo which would face much derision today given the growing ‘white savior complex’ debate. Yes, I have made some mistakes along the way.

Birthdays with significant numbers also put more of a spotlight on legacy, but in this case not mine – more the people who have been instrumental in shaping the last twenty-three years of my own life. People like Freddie Cooper, who let me tear into his Commodore PET computers in the early 1980s, an act not as destructive as it sounds but one that built the foundations of all my later technology-based work. Or Karen Hayes and Simon Hicks, who called me up from my sick bed in the autumn of 2002 offering me the chance to explore an emerging technology – mobile phones – and their potential for development.

And, of course, there was my mother, who encouraged and supported me the whole way, and who thankfully lived long enough to realize, as my work took off, that all her efforts and sacrifice were worth it. Sadly she never got to meet Henry, our first child, who was born four months after she died. She would have made a brilliant grandmother.

In an early school report I was described as ‘too sensitive’ and, if I’m honest, a vast majority of the things I choose to do are a reaction to that oversensitivity. Empathy, something that seems to be lacking in many, exists in abundance and I have no problem identifying with the suffering of others, whatever and wherever it may be. One of my favourite films of all time is The Green Mile, and one of the stand-out quotes from John Coffey, the central character, resonates for that very reason:

I’m tired, boss. Tired of bein’ on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we’s coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?

zero-degrees-empathyFiguring out how we might use technology to raise levels of empathy, compassion and understanding is close to the top of the list of things I’m yet to do. It’s one of those ideas that’s been gently burning away in the background for years, but now feels like a good time to focus on it a little more. This weekend I started reading a new book.

I’ve been very fortunate over the years to develop a way of working which allows me to write, speak, consult and earn money and then use excess funds to subsidise many of my own personal projects. In each case I’ve done most of the work myself to keep costs down, and used WordPress to develop the websites. Ideas I’ve managed to work on the past couple of years or so include two books, Donors Charter and Everyday Problems. Right now I’m working on a new mobile giving app called altruly, another app with a working title of For My Children, and a wider thought-leadership piece going by the name of Hacking Development.

It’s for others to judge how significant, meaningful or impactful my work has been but, whatever the outcome, I’ll continue on as I have for the past twenty-three years. I still have a distant dream of opening a community cafe, but am saving that for the end.

The biggest challenge for me is going to be knowing when that is.