Ken Banks, Founder of kiwanja.net and creator of messaging platform FrontlineSMS, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. He has worked at the intersection of technology, anthropology, conservation and development for the past twenty-five years and, during that time, has lived and worked across the African continent. He is a PopTech Fellow, a Tech Awards Laureate, an Ashoka Fellow and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognised for his technology-based work. In 2013 he was nominated for the TED Prize, and in 2015 was a Visiting Fellow at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. In late 2015 Ken was appointed CARE International’s first Entrepreneur in Residence, and in 2017 was appointed Entrepreneur in Residence at DFID. He is also a published author, with his first edited book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”, self-published in late 2013 with a follow-up, published by Kogan Page, released in March 2016. More recently Ken was presented the Eugene L. Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions within Computer Science by the Association for Computing Machinery in the USA.
Long biography (click photo for a high resolution version)
Ken Banks, Founder of kiwanja.net, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change, and has spent the last two decades working on projects in Africa. His early research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text message communication system today powering thousands of social change projects in over one hundred and fifty countries around the world.
Following a management transition at FrontlineSMS in mid-2012, Ken has been focusing on a new project, Means of Exchange, which looks at how everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local community and promote a return to local resource use.
Ken graduated from Sussex University with honours in Social Anthropology with Development Studies, was awarded a Stanford University Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship in 2006, and named a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008. In 2009 he was named a Laureate of the Tech Awards, an international awards program which honours innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity. He was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in May 2010 and an Ashoka Fellow in 2011, and was the recipient of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest. That summer he won the Curry Stone Design Prize for his pioneering work with FrontlineSMS, and was selected as a member of the UK Prime Minister’s delegation to Africa. In 2012 the Cambridge business community presented Ken with a “Special Achievement Award” for his work as a social entrepreneur. Later that year he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. In 2013 he was nominated for the TED Prize, and in 2015 he was invited to RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, as a Visiting Fellow.
Ken represents Sussex University as their Ambassador for International Development, and is a founding member of the British Government Department for International Development’s “Digital Advisory Board”. In late 2015 Ken was appointed CARE International’s first Entrepreneur in Residence, and in 2017 he took on the same role at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). In addition to his own work, Ken mentors early-stage entrepreneurs through Pop!Tech and the Unreasonable Institute, and more seasoned entrepreneurs in the Ashoka network.
Ken is also well known for his writing and blogging on Africa, technology and innovation and his work has been published online by CNN, the BBC and the Guardian among others. He has also written for the print edition of Wired Magazine, and has had guest chapters published in a number of collaborative books. In late 2013 he published his first book. “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” is an edited volume on social innovation with a foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A follow-up – “Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation: International Case Studies and Practice”, which came with Forewords by musician and humanitarian Peter Gabriel and the Founder of Ashoka, Bill Drayton – was published by Kogan Page in March 2016. More recently Ken was presented the Eugene L. Lawler Award for Humanitarian Contributions within Computer Science by the Association for Computing Machinery in the USA. When he’s not working, Ken spends much of his time being bossed around by his young son, Henry, and twins Madeleine and Oliver.
Further details of Ken’s work are available on his website at kiwanja.net
The early years
One of four children, Ken Banks (second from right) has an older brother and two younger sisters, all born in Jersey, Channel Islands. His mother – originally from England – and father – originally from Wales – met on holiday there and returned a year later to make it their home. In April 1973 Ken’s father suddenly passed away leaving his mother to bring up all four children alone, the youngest only three years old.
From very early on Ken’s mother encouraged all of the family to become active readers and writers, and she bought him his first typewriter – an old, heavy Olympus – when he was just eleven. Within a few weeks he had produced his first piece of work – a carefully crafted and bound study on oil which survives to this day. Around this time Ken also began writing poetry, winning a number of competitions at school and Island level by the time he was thirteen. Through a local club, he also experienced his first taste of computing, learning to program a Commodore PET computer (eventually earning pocket money by writing teaching applications for the club). Despite highly promising academic reports from his teachers, Ken rarely felt settled at school and left with below average grades, this despite deciding to stay on and turn down a promising programming job at a local computer company when he was sixteen. A year later, after studying business at college, he finally left the education establishment behind him and started work in a local merchant bank.
An IT career is born
His interest there didn’t last long, and Ken moved bank before finally realising that the finance industry wasn’t the place for him. His interest in computers, however, remained, and a subtle offer to provide holiday cover on his new employers’ mainframe computer – a Burroughs B1900 – lead to his first taste of commercial computing. That summer – 1985 – brought about the first of a number of life-changing events when the full-time operator suddenly left the bank without warning. With only a couple of weeks experience, and with no-one else to turn to, Ken was offered the position on a trial basis. Within three months he was running the bank’s mainframe operations and an IT career was born.
Wrong place, wrong time?
It was several years later, in 1993, that the second life-changing event occurred. Having arranged to meet his then-fiancï¿½ in a certain town pub at a certain time, Ken mistakenly went to a different pub at a different time. During his wait he heard a story on local radio about a proposed tourist train which would run along his cycle route to work, a coastal ride which gave a magnificent view of Elizabeth Castle in St. Helier (pictured). Enraged that one of the few car-free places left to cycle was about to be used by a diesel-powered train, he got hold of a copy of the local newspaper – the Jersey Evening Post – to read the full story before writing a disapproving letter which ended up being published. On page two of that day’s edition was an advert from Jersey Overseas Aid seeking volunteers for a school building project in Zambia. Ken applied, and was accepted. That August marked the beginning of a journey which, exactly ten years later, would become kiwanja.net…
Ken returned from Chilubula, northern Zambia (where this photo was taken) with a completely different perspective on the world. Within a matter of weeks he had broken off his engagement and began to take a stronger interest in international development issues, reading widely and connecting with organisations engaged in overseas work. The following year he applied for another Jersey Overseas Aid project – although he was turned down this time around he was accepted again a year later, travelling to Soroti in Uganda to help complete a hospital building in 1995. During the earlier part of that year he had been in talks with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) about a two year posting in Africa, but was unsuccessful – a major blow to his plans. His reaction to the setback was to pursue an academic interest in the subject instead, and a year after his return from Uganda he sold up, left Jersey and accepted an unconditional offer from Sussex University to read Social Anthropology with Development Studies at the School of African and Asian Studies. During his second year summer break he took part in a three month biodiversity survey, living and working in Karuma Wildlife Reserve in Uganda while maintaining a strong interest in the application of anthropology in conservation – eventually the topic of his dissertation. Ken excelled at university achieving ‘firsts’ in a number of courses including Environment, Ecology and Development, where he specialised in the application of appropriate technology in Africa. Overall, however, he fell a fraction short of first class honours, graduating with an upper-second class degree in 1999.
After graduation Ken initially returned to the IT world, taking up a Team Leader position with Cable & Wireless and helping with the rollout of new digital TV services in Surrey, Manchester and Sussex. Under his leadership the Sussex area won the “Best Digital Franchise of The Year” award a year later, but he was soon to become despondent as merger pressures from ntl: (now Virgin Media) saw the gradual breakdown of team morale, and the departure of key personnel and friends. Around the same time he had begun to get emotionally close to a friend in Finland – she was eventually to become his wife several years later – so for the second time in five years he sold up and this time moved to Forssa, a small town in south-eastern Finland. During his time there he taught English at several language schools, and provided Cross Cultural Communication Skills training at the University of Turku and the Swedish Academy. After an attempt to study International Development Geography at the University of Helsinki proved unsuccessful, Ken decided to return to England after a year to ponder his future.
Making a little go a long way
With a year to fill before his girlfriend could join him in England, Ken stumbled on a vacancy at Cercopan, a primate sanctuary in Calabar, southern Nigeria. The date was September 11th, 2001. Despite having a deep interest in primate conservation he had no practical primate care experience – fortunately the position was for a Project Manager – although he was to quickly learn about primate rehabilitation (pictured with Agbani, an orphaned red-eared guenon). He flew out towards the end of 2001 for what was to be a tough but rewarding year. The time spent in Nigeria was invaluable, helping cement much of his future focus on grassroots conservation and development, something which now forms a large part of kiwanja’s work. Just $300 raised from friends back in Jersey paid for the total re-building of the education centre, with mains electricity and lighting (which Ken installed himself). How far such a small amount of money could be stretched did not go unnoticed, and this remains a strong theme of his work to this day.
Life-changing events – third time ‘lucky’
As the one year mark approached, Ken agreed to remain in Calabar for a further six months to help recruit and train a new Project Manager. It was at this time that his third life-changing experience occurred – perhaps the biggest of all – just before midnight on 30th August, 2002. After a night out celebrating his birthday with staff from the sanctuary, on his way home a car pulled out in front of the bike on which he was travelling causing all three passengers to come off. Chris, another volunteer from the UK, bounced furthest down the road but was miraculously unhurt. Jerry, the Education Officer from the sanctuary, travelled the least distance but broke his leg badly in several places. Ken ended up somewhere in the middle but, thinking he was okay, realised that this wasn’t the case when he tried to stand. Just over a week later, after spells in local clinics in Calabar and Lagos, he flew home with his ankle still broken. Considerably underweight and not in great shape, Ken arrived back in Jersey during the second week of September 2002 and was taken straight to hospital. Although he wasn’t to realise it for several weeks, being back in the island and available for work was to end up being the third – and biggest – life-change of all.
After a slow recovery – a time in which he also looked after his mother after she herself fell ill – Ken found a place to live, and his girlfriend finally joined him from Finland. Then began his search for work. It became a daily routine scanning the websites of conservation and development organisations, but little came up and little was of interest – too much was desk-based for his liking. Then, one rainy November evening came a call from Simon Hicks, former Trust Secretary at the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (now Durrell Wildlife) where Ken had previously worked on developing a new membership system back in the mid-1990’s. Vodafone were due to fund some work at a Cambridge-based charity where his wife was working. Fauna & Flora International (FFI) were looking for people with technology and conservation experience, a unique mix at the time (but not so much now), and Simon wanted to know if Ken was interested. Ken flew to the UK a week later, and was eventually offered a one year contract to develop what turned out to be a highly innovative, and for a while successful, project called wildlive!
During 2003, Ken considered his options and decided to set up his own organisation to try and help other non-profits make better use of emerging mobile technology. Since then, NGOs in over one hundred countries have benefited from kiwanja initiatives such as FrontlineSMS and nGOmobile. Little did he – or many people – realise back then the role that mobiles would end up playing in the developing world. This website is testament to that growth, and one person’s small contribution towards it.
Welcome to kiwanja.net…