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Spirituality, being human, and how to change the world.

“Despite all of the ghastliness in the world, human beings are made for goodness. The ones that are held in high regard are not militarily powerful, nor even economically prosperous. They have a commitment to try and make the world a better place”Archbishop Desmond Tutu

I’ve been home for about three weeks since leaving the Unreasonable at Sea ship in India. I spent just over a month helping mentor eleven technology startups which, if that was all I’d done, would have been a fantastic experience. What really stood out for me, though, was the interaction with the hundreds of students aboard, and a stronger sense than ever of how important it is that we encourage, engage, support and mentor the next generation of planetary problem solvers (something I’ve written about before). As if that wasn’t enough, the trip gave me the chance to re-immerse myself in the kinds of environments that were responsible for starting me on my own journey back in 1993. Witnessing suffering and hardship, and countless young children denied a childhood in India, Myanmar and Vietnam, reminds me that there’s still much work to be done.

Spirituality plays a large part in what drives me, and I’ve tried to capture some of this before. It’s not just a subject I find incredibly interesting, but one which puts humanity and purpose back at the centre of development (something which has become increasingly cold and institutionalised). I’ve never thought of helping people as a career. For me it was a way of life, a deeper purpose. So it was a huge honour to be invited to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to talk about “how we change the world” aboard the MV Explorer. A big thanks to Tori Hogan (who was also on the panel) for inviting me to take part.

I’ve had something of a crazy time over the past few years, finding myself in all sorts of places I felt I had no right to be (National Geographic and No. 10 Downing Street, for example). Having the chance to chat with the Archbishop on a number of occasions during my time aboard the ship is another highlight, and the one hour discussion in front of a packed auditorium was the icing on the cake.

This video is also available (in larger format) on the main kiwanja website, and via Semester at Sea (hosts of the Unreasonable at Sea programme). It can also be downloaded on Vimeo.

Here’s to making the world a better place. For all of us.

April 2, 2013   1 Comment

After twenty years, time to turn the page.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new end”Maria Robinson

Things happen for a reason, and I’ve had my fair share of things ‘happen’ to me over the years. It’s been one heck of a journey. I’m now into my twenty-first year in international development, and eleventh in mobile-for-development. I’ve lived with, worked with and met many incredible people along the way. And I’ve seen first-hand how telecommunications have transformed the lives of communities across the developing world.

I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs. It’s fair to say I was drifting in 2005 when FrontlineSMS came along. If the software has helped save anyone in the developing world then it’s fair to say it saved me, too.

Despite the twenty-year journey, some of the bigger life-changing moments have happened over the last two. The loss of our mother was a big blow, and the one person who had supported and encouraged me to follow my dreams for so long was no longer there. I’ve had a son, Henry – who my mother never got to meet – who has changed the way I see the world in ways nothing else has. And on a professional level I’ve stepped back from FrontlineSMS after making an honest assessment that it could do better in fresh hands. It’s been an absolute honour to have worked on that project.

I write this from a ship docked in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m in the middle of perhaps one of the craziest things I’ve done for a while. Described as a radical experiment in global entrepreneurship, Unreasonable at Sea is made up of “20 Mentors. 100 days. 1 ship. 13 countries. 11 ventures. 1 belief that entrepreneurship will change the world”. I joined the ship in Hong Kong, and depart when we get to India. It’s one month to help and mentor eleven socially-focussed ventures, and to share what I’ve learnt over the past twenty years with both them and many of the students also on board.

I’ve also had plenty of time, for the first time, to reflect – not just on what I’ve done, but more importantly on where I’m headed.

Of course, I could continue as I have done for the past twenty years and see where my journey ultimately takes me. But that feels too uncertain, not to mention the challenges of raising money for a salary year-on-year. I now have responsibilities, and a journey which has largely been just about me is now about others, too. I’m no longer travelling alone.

I often highlight in my many talks that back in the beginning my ideal job didn’t exist, so I had to create it. My passion for technology, anthropology, conservation and development are enshrined in everything I’ve done with kiwanja.net for the past ten years, largely based on my experiences over the previous ten. Looking back, I probably wouldn’t change a thing. Now I feel it may be time to make better use what I’ve learnt, and take it forward somewhere else. I’m not entirely sure what or where that ‘somewhere else’ might be, but I have until the end of 2013 to find out.

What might I offer that ‘somewhere else’?

  • Twenty years experience working in emerging markets, mostly across Africa
  • Twenty-five years experience in the IT sector
  • Ten years at the forefront of mobile-for-development (m4d)
  • A wide variety of multi-industry and non-profit contacts
  • Deep understanding of innovation and (social) entrepreneurship
  • A track record of speaking at international conferences
  • A track record in blogging and writing for websites, books and magazines
  • Mentoring
  • A solid understanding of appropriate technologies
  • A track record in the successful development and rollout of FrontlineSMS
  • Various competition judging and Advisory roles
  • An inherent belief that technology, designed and implemented appropriately and sensitively, can have a profoundly positive impact in the world
  • Ridiculous amounts of enthusiasm and a ‘can do’ attitude
  • (Full bio and list of achievements here)

What does the ideal opportunity look like?

  • It has a mission I can believe in
  • It gives me freedom to think
  • And freedom to write
  • And freedom to be creative
  • And opportunities to share and learn

Where might there be a fit?

  • You’re a charitable foundation looking for someone to drive your technology-themed grant giving
  • You’re a large technology company needing someone to manage your CSR programme
  • You’re a design company working on developing or implementing technologies or services for emerging markets
  • You’re an education establishment in need of someone who’s spent a lot of time getting stuck in on the ground, with a strong interest and understanding of technology and development
  • You’re a startup in need of a helping hand to get your technology or service off-the-ground
  • Or you may just like what I’ve been doing over the years and have the resources to support kiwanja.net so it can carry on doing it, and build on it. I continue to do a lot for free.

There are no doubt many other options. I’ve always quite fancied politics, too. Or a career in documentary film making. So anything and anywhere are on the table right now.

For the time being I’ve got 2013 planned out and will continue to write, speak, mentor, travel (a little) and work on Means of Exchange, a project I’m incredibly excited about – and committed to – for the long term. I’m in no hurry for the page to turn, and think the right next step is out there somewhere. It just might take a few months or more to find it.

If you have any ideas, would like to chat, or know anyone else who might be interested in talking feel free to share this post with them, or drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.

February 16, 2013   1 Comment

Nokia next in line for an about-turn?

Two years ago Nokia had a global smartphone market share of around 29%. That number has fallen to around 3% today, despite the smartphone market more than doubling over the same period. Nokia’s CEO, Stephen Elop, bet the family silver on a Windows-based strategy and gave it two years to pay off. Well, two years have passed and sales of 4.4 million Lumia’s have disappointed analysts and markets, and likely him.

But it’s not all bad news. In the same period Nokia sold almost 80 million ‘dumb phones’, down on the previous year but clearly a market where they remain strong. What are the chances Nokia will drop it’s Windows strategy and put everything into lower-end devices for emerging markets? The Asha is doing pretty well there, and may be it’s saviour. Telecom TV have a great analysis of Nokia’s options – “Is Asha the future for Nokia?” – which you can read here.

Big tech companies have made embarrasing U-turns before. In 2011 Hewlett Packard announced it was going to sell its PC and tablet manufacturing units only to change it’s mind later. And last summer Apple decided its withdrawal from the EPEAT environmental ratings scheme was probably not all that clever and decided it wasn’t going to leave after all.

Nokia look like two businesses at the moment. At the high end of the mobile market they’re clearly struggling with little to cheer about. At the low to medium end they’re in a totally different position. Overall, Nokia are struggling, and it’s sad to see. If they’re to survive they may need to be brave. Perhaps a U-turn is what they need. And if they decide they need one, they won’t have been alone.

January 29, 2013   1 Comment

Time to meet the real M-PESA?

m-Pesa? m-PESA? mPESA? MPESA? mpesa? Putting the actual spelling to one side for a moment, there can be few more talked about yet least understood mobile services than M-PESA (yes, that’s how you’re supposed to spell it. I think). Misunderstanding, misinformation and, in some cases urban myths abound – everything from its roots and implementation to the percentage of Kenyan GDP now passing through the service. Despite this, M-PESA has come to dominate discussions in the ICT4D and m4d communities (despite arguably not being a development tool at all. But that’s another debate).

M-PESA has become so dominant, in fact, that we’re now at the stage that in increasing numbers of meetings, workshops and conferences I attend, any talk of it is banned.

M-PESA is an undeniable Kenyan success story, but not for the reasons many people think. The technology component of M-PESA was developed far away in Cambridge, England (my home town) with UK Government and Vodafone money. M-PESA is not a Kenyan or African innovation if you measure it in technology terms. But technology is often the easy bit, and what does make M-PESA a Kenyan success story is its implementation. Key ingredients like graft, determination, luck, naivety and a receptive population starved of any meaningful access to bank accounts or financial services created a perfect storm for the launch of the service. A storm, let’s remember, which is yet to hit other countries with the same intensity, many of whom have struggled to adopt M-PESA or related platforms as successfully. So far, anyway.

The very idea for M-PESA is also disputed. Despite the technology being developed in the UK, some believe that it was indeed a Kenyan who had the original idea. This “Is M-Pesa really Kenyan or British?” post on humanipo goes into a little further detail. You could argue that none of this really matters, of course. Another debate.

On top of all that, barely a week goes by when my Twitter stream isn’t hit with a claim that 10%, 25% or even 50% of Kenya’s GDP passes through M-PESA. The number – whatever it is – is astonishing. The one I’ve quoted more recently is “50% by the end of 2013″ – heard at a conference in Amsterdam last autumn. I have no idea whether it’s right or not, but going by the percentage range in the tweets very few other people are either.

If, like me, you think it’s time to debunk some of these myths and inaccuracies and get the inside story of how M-PESA came about, then we’re in luck.

A couple of weeks ago Chris Locke, Managing Director of the GSMA Development Fund, gave me a copy of a book I didn’t know existed. “Money, Real Quick: Kenya’s Disruptive Mobile Money Innovation” is a great read if you’re one of the few people new to M-PESA, or you’re one of the majority who thought you knew it. The book covers everything from the seed of the idea, the importance of the human network of M-PESA agents (often forgotten in the technology-dominated discussion), what mobile money means to Kenya’s finance and banking industry, it’s impact, and what the future may look like. The book also touches on innovation more broadly, and how M-PESA speaks of the new-found appetite for innovation in the country.

I’m not sure if this book did come out in 2012 as Amazon claims, but regardless it’s incredibly useful if you think, after six years, it’s time to meet the real M-PESA. If you do you can find it on Amazon here.

January 22, 2013   10 Comments

Our networked society: In numbers

Until recently, getting your hands on good mobile data was something of a challenge unless you had a couple of thousand dollars to throw at a market research company. Things suddenly got a lot better over the summer with the launch of the GSMA’s Mobile and Development Intelligence website (covered on my blog here). Now, Ericsson have picked up the baton and published one of the most comprehensive mobile/information society reports for some time.

The Ericsson Mobility Report provides up-to-date information on a range of indicators including mobile subscriptions, mobile penetration, breakdowns of adoption by technology, breakdown of traffic (voice vs. data) – with predicted growth for the next five years – and population coverage. There’s also interesting insights on speed, video and apps. To help visualise the data there are well over a dozen images and graphs throughout the report.


Mobile subscriptions by region (click for larger image)


Mobile penetration (click for larger image)


Summary table (click for larger image)

Ericsson have performed in-depth data traffic measurements since the early days of mobile broadband from a large base of live networks covering all regions of the world, and this rich source of information provided much of the data for the new report.

You can download the full Ericsson Mobility Report here (27 pages, PDF, 3Mb). Highlights are available on Slideshare, with a useful set of images and graphs made available on Flickr.

November 26, 2012   75 Comments

Means of Exchange at Pop!Tech

Last month I returned to the US for one of my favourite annual events – Pop!Tech. It’s generally an opportunity to be re-inspired, meet old friends and help out as a Faculty member on the Social Innovation Fellows Program. This year I had the added opportunity of giving the first public talk on my latest project, Means of Exchange.

You can watch the eleven-minute talk here, or on the Pop!Tech website.

For further details, and to receive updates as we roll the project out, check out the Means of Exchange website, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

You can watch more talks and listen to a selection of radio interviews on the kiwanja.net website.

November 5, 2012   20 Comments

Smart mobs, flash mobs. Meet cash mobs.

A couple of months ago I wrote about my new initiative – Means of Exchange – which focuses on how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use. It’s been a busy few months, culminating in the launch of our first project this week. And here it is.

You’ve probably heard of smart mobs, or at least flash mobs. Welcome to the brave new world of cash mobs.

Cash mobbing takes its name from “flash mobbing”, a craze which started way back in 2003 in Manhattan, New York. In a flash mob, a group of people mobilise over social media and arrange to meet in a predetermined place. According to Wikipedia, when they get there they “perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression”. Flash mobs were themselves inspired by “smart mobs”, a term coined by Howard Rheingold to describe a group that, contrary to the usual connotations of a mob, “behaves intelligently or efficiently because of its exponentially increasing network links”.

Continuing the theme, a “cash mob” takes place when a group of people arrange to meet at a local shop or store. When they get there, instead of dancing, singing or carrying out other “pointless acts”, they spend a predetermined amount of money. Cash mobs are generally organised by people who enjoy the fun, excitement and novelty of a cash mob, or others who are concerned about the plight of local businesses and want to do something to help.

A number of websites have sprung up over recent months encouraging people to cash mob their local stores, and a number of Facebook groups and Twitter feeds have been created to support their efforts. So far, people have either been given a few pointers and then told to go and figure out the social media bit for themselves, or they’ve been asked to propose local venues to local group ‘owners’ to choose from. We think people want to create their own cash mob, not settle for someone else’s, and they want to be able to seamlessly push it out through their existing social media, not fiddle around creating new accounts. So we built Cash Mobbers.

To coincide with the launch of the Cash Mobbers website we’ve organised what we believe to be London’s first cash mob at an independent bookshop in Hackney this Thursday (9th August).

Further details are available, naturally, on the Cash Mobbers website.

If the idea of driving business back to smaller, locally owned shops and stores is something that appeals to you, there’s a few things you can do:

1. Tweet about this post or the Cash Mobbers site to help spread the word
2. Follow @CashMobbers on Twitter
3. Tweet about the London cash mob, and “Like” the event
4. Let any friends in or around London know about it
5. Organise your own cash mob. Find full details and pointers here

My ethos with Means of Exchange remains the same as it has with much of my work over the years. The main objective is to build and gather a suite of engaging tools to help people help themselves, whenever they’re ready. Sometimes that can take a while, but I’m in no hurry. After all, build it, and they will come…

August 6, 2012   28 Comments

From text messaging to economic resilience

Three weeks ago we announced that I was stepping down from day-to-day operations at FrontlineSMS to hand over to a new senior management team. It’s clear from the success of the global launch of version 2 of the software over the past week that FrontlineSMS is in safe hands, and the reworked software, outreach and launch were all handled by the team with little involvement from me. It was great to see all their hard work come together, and I congratulate everyone on a job extremely well done. \o/

Photo: Laura W Hudson

As I mentioned in my recent post, I’ll remain involved with the project and will continue to support innovation and entrepreneurship in the developing (and developed) world, will continue to write about technology and Africa, and will continue with mentoring and speaking. The ICT4D and social innovation fields continue to fascinate and inspire me as much as they did all those years ago when I started out, and I’ll remain involved as long as I continue to add value.

Introducing “Means of Exchange”

So, what else will I be working on? Well, for the past two years I’ve been taking an increasing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology might help buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started my research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level.

As we all know, in times of hardship people tend to become increasingly innovative. As Greeks have found themselves with less and less cash in their pockets, many have turned to bartering. It’s how communities react to economic shocks that I’ll be focussing on, and how tools like bartering, swapping, LETS schemes and local currencies are applied and deployed in response.

We pay too little attention to the reserve power of the people to take care of themselves. We are too solicitous for government intervention, on the theory, first, that the people themselves are helpless, and second, that the government has superior capacity for action. Often times both of these conclusions are wrong

Calvin Coolidge

It’s only when things go wrong that we question the systems which regulate, control and dominate our lives. We enter 2012 at a time of great economic uncertainty. Millions of people around the world have lost jobs, homes, businesses, independence and purpose. Millions more face growing uncertainty and insecurity. Many hard working people have been hard hit. In the greater scheme of things they’re simply collateral damage in the rebalancing of a larger, broken world economic system.

While it’s impossible for most of us to remove ourselves entirely from the world economic system, there is a lot we can do to lessen our dependence on it. Funnily enough it’s something our ancestors managed to do pretty well. It’s called self-sufficiency.

For the majority of people, self-sufficiency conjures up images of grow-your-own vegetables on village allotments, but more meaningful economic self-sufficiency is possible if people are creative in how they earn, trade and share with one another. As money has taken over as our primary means of exchange, other more traditional methods have been lost.

What we’ve been left with is an economic system we have little control over, a loss of community and a drift away from the consumption of locally produced goods and services.

But all is not lost. This can be halted, and by using the very technologies which enable us to take part in a globalised society, it can be reversed. If you’re interested in learning more about methods of economic self-sufficiency, or you’re interested in tools and resources to make it happen, then Means of Exchange is for you.

Firstly, the website will focus on how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use.

Secondly, if they don’t already exist, we’ll build you the tools so you can make it happen wherever you are. Our first flagship “app” will be released within the next few weeks.

To keep up-to-date with new releases and latest news, check us out via:

See you on the other side.

June 18, 2012   41 Comments

Closing mobile’s data divide

Good mobile data is hard to come by. Much is either speculative, out of date or – if based on more recent research – expensive. And what is freely available is often spread far and wide across the Web. If you’re into mobiles for development then today your life is set to become a lot easier with the launch of “Mobile and Development Intelligence” (MDI), a new open data platform from the GSM Association which aims to “educate and unite all who want to harness the power of mobile for good”.

A key objective of MDI is to help increase investment and activity in the mobile for development field, and in turn amplify the social, economic and environmental benefits the technology can bring. That positive impact has already touched a wide range of development sectors from education and health to financial services, government transparency and democracy, and agriculture. With mobile phones now in the hands of the very people the development community have historically tried to help – billions of them, and counting – exciting new opportunities have emerged. According to the GSMA:

The mobile phone’s ubiquity is uniquely well-placed to drive economic and social development in emerging markets. Investments in the mobile and development sectors are rising yet there is limited data on which to base these decisions. MDI is designed to bridge this information gap.

These gaps include:

  • The lack of data for business cases, product strategies and programmes
  • Limited visibility of organisations and communities
  • Limited understanding of the impact of mobiles on development
  • Fragmentation of platforms and limited cross-sector convergence

In line with these challenges, MDI aims to provide:

A freely accessible, online repository of data and analysis
MDI will aggregate, cleanse and categorise data from multiple internal and external sources into a single, centralised data repository. Users will have the ability to manipulate, visualise and export the datasets (below: the ratio of total mobile connections to total population, 2009-2011).

Visibility of organisations, products and services and community
MDI will provide an online directory where users can access information about organisations and their products, services and initiatives. It will provide the “who, what, where and how”.

Clarify the impact of mobile on development
Develop impact pathways for each specific sector to find and map evidence of socio-economic benefit, and host impact metrics from other GSMA departments e.g. the impact of mobile on GDP.

Thought leadership on technology convergence
Working outwards from user needs to design common platforms to deliver them.

Future functionality will include an investor hub, document repository, online community and coverage maps making MDI a one-stop shop for NGOs, international NGOs, government departments and the private sector interested in leveraging the power of mobile technology for development.

You can visit the MDI site here.

Congratulations to the GSMA team, partners ThoughtWorks and PwC, and investor the Omidyar Network.

June 13, 2012   117 Comments

Back at National Geographic

I was no different to many other children my age, taking every opportunity to get my hands on a National Geographic magazine and flicking through each colourful page in wonder and amazement. I’d get most of mine cheap from jumble sales back then – I can afford to buy them full price these days – but that sense of fascination remains.

Thirty years on and I find myself back in Washington DC attending my second National Geographic Explorers Symposium. I’ve packed quite a lot in over those thirty years – school building in Zambia, hospital building in Uganda, a degree in Social Anthropology, carrying out biodiversity surveys in Uganda, running a primate sanctuary in Nigeria, various trips and visits to a host of other countries, most on the African continent and, of course, the development of FrontlineSMS.

It was 2003 that my career took its most significant turn when I started working in mobile, and until very recently FrontlineSMS took up most of my time. It was that work which caught the eye of the panel at the National Geographic Society, culminating in my Award in 2010. I’m back again this year to moderate a panel, help mentor the 2012 Class of Emerging Explorers, and share news of my growing relationship with the Society.

It’s not every day that you find yourself randomly sharing a lift with people behind some of the most famous discoveries of our time. This is a very special place, and it’s always a huge honour to be here. If you’d told me thirty years ago that I’d be walking these corridors today, I’d never have believed you.

June 11, 2012   9 Comments