Doing good? Or do-gooder?

We all like to think our work makes a difference, even if we’re not really sure if it does. I’m well known for ‘doing good in the world’ yet even I question what that really means, or who precisely where might be better off in some way because of my chosen career path. For many people, feeling like they’re doing good is likely enough. For me, it’s not.

I’ve worked hard over the years to ground everything I do in some kind of reality. All those years working with grassroots NGOs across Africa, all that time trying to understand their problems and realities – being able to see, live, taste, smell and experience them – has given me great insight, but also made me incredibly impatient for change. In the technology-for-development sector, where donors always seem hungry for the ‘next big thing’, I like to drive home the point that we need to be solving problems today, for people suffering today, with tools available today. For some people there is no tomorrow. For others, no next year. Others may be living longer, but they’re living in poverty for longer. I see little worth celebrating in that.

Anyone that knows me will know I’m always challenging and questioning global development, and always challenging my own role within it. I feel I’ve been fortunate to have spent the vast majority of my career working independently, giving me the freedom to be open and honest, and to pursue the things that I see as important, not things which suit a particular trend or political agenda. Sadly too much of the wider work that goes on suffers because of the very reason that it does.

Susan, the subject of Pete’s post (photo courtesy Pete Vowles)

Earlier this week I read a post from Pete Vowles, Head of DFID in Kenya. Pete has been instrumental in the ‘Doing Development Differently’ movement, and in his post he shares his experiences ‘living’ with a family in Kenya for 24 hours, a family living well below the poverty line. It’s a harrowing read, and something everyone working in global development should print off and stick above their desks as a reminder of what development was meant to be about.

One thing that struck me, and moved me most, was Susan’s lack of hope and how, in Pete’s words, she felt physically and mentally broken every night as she locked herself and her children in their huts. Dignity and hope, two things a healthy human spirit really can’t do without, have never appeared as key performance indicators in any development project I’ve worked on. What does it cost to give someone hope?

A photo I took in India a few years ago, and used recently in a talk about development and dignity

Pete’s post more than anything I’ve read recently has given me a real jolt, forcing me to be more critical than ever about the work I’m doing, and whether or not I’m really doing good, or just feeling good. For me, development has always been personal. It’s not about scale, metrics, KPIs or log frames, but about connecting with real people with real problems. I’m proud that I’m still in contact with, and friends with – and supporting – many FrontlineSMS users years after I stepped back from the project. Friendships outlast any development timeframe, as should our desire to be there for the people we seek to help. Perhaps this, more than anything, should be my own personal KPI, and how I judge whether my efforts have ultimately been worth it or not.

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.

An SMS “kickstart” for Kenyan farmers

In this, the fifteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Rita Kiloo – Customer Care Executive at KickStart in Kenya – describes how their use of the software enables them to extend and improve their outreach efforts among rural farmers in the country

“KickStart’s mission is to help millions of people out of poverty. We do this by promoting sustainable economic growth and employment creation in Kenya and other countries, and by developing and promoting technologies that can be used by dynamic entrepreneurs to establish and run profitable small scale enterprises.

In 1998 we developed a line of manually operated MoneyMaker Irrigation Pumps that allow farmers to easily pull water from a river, pond or shallow well (as deep as 25 feet), pressurize it through a hose pipe (even up a hill) and irrigate up to two acres of land. Our pumps are easy to transport and install and retail between $35 and $95. They are easy to operate and, because they are pressurized, they allow farmers to direct water where it is needed. It is a very efficient use of water, and unlike flood irrigation, does not lead to the build up of salts in the soil.

Photo courtesy KickStart, Kenya

With irrigation, farmers can grow crops year-round. They can grow higher value crops like fruits and vegetables, get higher yields (the Food and Agriculture Organization reports that irrigation increases crop yield by 100-400%) and most importantly, they can produce crops in the dry seasons when food supplies dwindle and the market prices are high. Because of the long dry seasons and growing population, there is potential for many thousands of farmers to start irrigating without flooding the market. There are local, urban and even export markets for the new crops.

A few months ago we decided to start using text messaging as part of our outreach efforts to farmers, and had heard good things about FrontlineSMS. Basically, we now receive lists of mobile numbers of prospective clients from our sales teams – these are clients who have visited our dealer shops countrywide, and who have shown an interest in our irrigation pumps. They usually leave their contact details with the sales people at the shop.

At the end of every month I receive a copy of the contact lists from at least 70 sales people, which may total about 5,000 contacts. I randomly pick around 500 to 1,000 mobile numbers and put these into an Excel spreadsheet. Once this is done, the numbers are uploaded into FrontlineSMS and we send out a uniform SMS to prospective buyers of the pumps. Here is a sample of the kinds of messages we send out:

Kumbuka kununua pampu ya kunyunyiza mimea ya MoneyMaker. Kwa maelezo zaidi, piga simu kwa 0725-xxxxxx

(“Remember to buy the MoneyMaker pump for irrigating your crops. For more details, kindly call 0725-xxxxxx”)

The texts are scheduled for every week of the month, and are categorized into territories, allowing us to keep track of the areas where the interest is coming from. There are a number of advantages in using FrontlineSMS, one of the main ones being that I am able to reach more farmers through SMS than I would be able to by calling them one-by-one. We are also able to keep in more regular contact with interested farmers, and remind them about the pumps. Not all of them buy pumps straight away”.

Rita Kiloo
Customer Care Executive
KickStart Kenya Program