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.

1995. 2005. 2015. Two decades of code

Precisely ten years ago this morning I sat down at a kitchen table in Finland and started coding. Armed with a Visual manual, a laptop and GSM modem, a couple of SIMs and a Nokia 6100 and cable – and plenty of coffee – I delved into the world of Windows programming for the very first time.

I’d already done a fair amount of professional software development over the years, designing and building a membership/fundraising system for Jersey Zoo, and a range of accounting and amortisation systems for a legal firm, but that was ten years earlier in the mid-1990’s when QuickBASIC was my weapon of choice. Ten years had passed, and I’d never written anything event-driven before. I was on a steep learning curve, but was motivated.


I’d already figured out earlier that year that I could drive a mobile phone by sending it a series of Hayes commands through a cable – that was my epiphany moment, so-to-speak – so my task that summer was to try and build a nice user interface around it. It sounds almost crazy now to think that a lot of this was new, but back then very few people were building messaging platforms, and even fewer building messaging platforms aimed at grassroots non-profits in the developing world. After two years working across South Africa and Mozambique it had already become blatantly clear to me that there was a growing need there that nobody seemed willing, or able, to meet.

One of the big advantages I had back in 2005 was that it was easy to hide away and be left alone to focus on a project like this. Anyone with no team, no money and a big project idea knows all too well how important it is to be able to get away and focus. Thanks to the luxury of being unknown in the ICT4D world I was able to hide well enough to write a working prototype of FrontlineSMS in just five weeks.


Designing the ContactManager form


Coding ContactManager


The finished, compiled article


The first FrontlineSMS website, built in a day. The field banner was the view outside

Fast forward to today, I once again sit hidden away taking on a new coding challenge (my decades of code seem to take me from 1995 to 2005 to 2015, which may or may not be significant). In a similar vein to my attempts to tackle Windows programming in 2005 – which didn’t turn out too badly, I guess – today I’ve started work on my first iOS app. With a long list of ideas it’ll hopefully be the first of a few. Not surprisingly, they are pretty-much all based on improving how we interact and engage with the people, causes and world around us. I’m close to securing angel investment for the first app, which is another first. And it has a solid business model, which is another.

Interestingly, my brushes with code seem to have taken me through each of the key platforms of the past twenty years – MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows and, now, iOS. And, like 2005, I find myself with a window of opportunity to hide away and code as I continue my summer sabbatical. Watch this space for more.

Gazing into development’s crystal ball

It’s a sector that famously likes to look and plan ahead. So what does the development professional of today think it takes to be a professional development worker of tomorrow?

In partnership with the USAID Global Development Lab and PSI, Devex recently conducted a survey of development professionals to see what tools, skills and approaches they think the next-generation of development professionals will need to thrive ten years from now. Last week they published a report of these findings. And it’s enlightening on a number of levels. From the report:

“The results paint the picture of a well-rounded, flexible professional who takes a holistic view of development work. Just as likely to be a venture capitalist or high-tech whiz as your traditional aid worker, the future development professional will need to be agile, collaborative and constantly learning new skills.”

A few elements of the report particularly stood out for me. For a start, the fact that only 10% of respondents felt that disrupters would play any significant role by 2025. Perhaps today’s emphasis on disruption is a passing trend, or we’re just over-estimating its significance? Or perhaps development professionals are blind to what’s going on out in the real world, and they choose to not recognise it?


There was some recognition, though, that the traditional top-down approach would decline, although I’m not quite sure how the target communities will be able to meaningfully engage in the debate that replaces it. I guess the survey respondents assume that by 2025 we’ll have finally nailed those tricky little feedback loops.


It was also interesting to see where the respondents felt most of the ‘development professionals of the future’ were going to come from. We’re already seeing a blurring of boundaries between aid and business (i.e. Facebook and Google’s approach to last mile connectivity issues), and perhaps that trend will continue. If this forecast does turn out to be true, I’d argue that they shouldn’t be called ‘development professionals’, though (in the same way we don’t call Facebook and Google’s work in Africa today aid or development).


Last but certainly not least, this was one of the most revealing slides for me. Lack of empathy is already a huge problem as people by-pass time in the field and opt to develop solutions far away from the problems without speaking to anyone. It’s great to see empathy on the list, but it should be higher. After all, none of the other skills matter if you don’t understand the people you’re trying to help, surely?


So, what was missing? Well, I’d loved to have seen a breakdown of responses from aid workers in the developing world vs. aid workers from the developed world. I’m sure some of the attitudes would have been quite conflicting and, in turn, revealing. And I’d love to see a similar survey carried out among aid recipients – their thoughts, concerns and hopes for the sector – something that will be increasingly important if they do, quite rightly, begin to have more say in how ‘their’ aid is spent and administered.

You can download your own copy of the survey findings here.