Reflections on kiwanja: Four years on

Assignments in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, talks at W3C in India, the development of several new projects, work with UNEP, a Fellowship at Stanford, an increasingly popular website, new volunteers… all in a years’ work. And at the root of it all –

Despite all of this, I’m still unsure how to describe kiwanja. Ten years in the making and now almost four years old, to me it remains indefinable. I guess you could argue that it’s a company – although it won’t be for much longer – run by me, but that definition implies some degree of separation or competitiveness. There isn’t in either case. I’m not sure if there is a word to describe a person as an organisation, or a movement, or a belief come to that, but if there was then that’s probably what I’d use. Marvin, a Jamaican guy at the Digital Vision Program here at Stanford, has got as close as anyone to understanding, although he probably doesn’t realise it.

kiwanja is very public but, at the same time, very private. What it does is provide me with the vehicle to do what I’ve chosen to do with my life. Is it an alter-ego? Perhaps, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the use of that word. I’m a firm believer that the ego is more of a barrier to progress than an enabler. After all, so much more gets done if you don’t worry about who gets the credit. People who know me know that I’m slightly uncomfortable describing kiwanja’s achievements as my own, which might sound slightly odd. You see, it’s no accident that, with the exception of the Blog, you won’t find a single reference to ‘I’ throughout the whole site. I’ve always believed that it doesn’t matter what you’ve achieved in the past – that time is over – and that you’re only as good as the last thing you’ve done. This is the best way of suppressing that ego, and keeping me on my toes. We should all learn to be a little more humble, I believe.

One of the beauties of kiwanja – and there are many – is that it can never be taken away. For as long as I live, work and play, it will always be with me. There’s a tendency in life to surround ourselves with physical ‘things’, all built on the back of a life of labour. Often used as a measure of how successful we’ve been, these are the very things that we shouldn’t be building our lives on. We shouldn’t forget how fickle life is, how a single twist of fate can send us spiraling downwards, how quickly we could lose what we’ve worked so hard for. Instead of building our lives around material things, we should put more effort into working hard on the things that can’t be taken away – drawing, painting, music, passion, belief, mission and religion, to mention just a few. My effort has gone into kiwanja, my thing that can’t be taken away. Don’t be a slave to the system, and don’t live unsustainably or beyond your means, however tempting that system may make it.

People should also not wait until they are effected – or touched – by something before making it their ‘mission’. So often we hear of those who, touched by a disease, loss, particular event or near-death experience suddenly dedicate their life to an associated cause, usually via a Foundation created in their own name. Of course many, many others don’t experience anything and end up doing nothing, or they only take up charitable or philanthropic activities in their later years when they realise – sometimes too late – that there’s more to life than a home full of possessions and a healthy bank balance. Maybe I was fortunate when I found my purpose relatively early on (if you call 27 ‘early on’), but whether or not that’s the case, the vital thing is to stick with it – good times or bad, famine or feast – whenever it comes and whatever it is. We all feel emotive when confronted with images of famine, war, despair, poverty, disease or environmental destruction, and in that brief moment we all feel that we ought to do something about it. Don’t let that moment pass, and don’t ever forget how it felt. Remember, a few dollars donated yesterday to an African famine won’t alleviate African famine. Either you’re in it for the long run, or you’re not really in it at all.

Also, remember that philanthropy is not just about money and not just the stuff of pop stars, and that we all have something to offer planet earth. A million acts of random kindness has far more potential as a force for good than any large-scale multi-million dollar project with all its associated overhead and waste. How are people all around the world creating positive change? Often at the grassroots level. This is where so much of the real work gets done, yet ironically we hear least about it. So this is where kiwanja deliberately focuses, supporting those who dedicate their time, and sometimes their lives, to their own particular cause and own particular calling. I’ve always maintained that I myself am not going to save lives, or a rainforest, or a particular species from extinction. But I can support someone who might. Remember how much more gets done if you don’t care who gets the credit?

As 2006 comes to a close and kiwanja enters its fifth year, I’m still no closer to working out where I’m headed than I was back in 2003 when it all began. Maybe it’s because of my belief in remaining flexible, maintaining an ability to respond to, and make the most of, opportunities whenever and wherever they arise. I would never have dreamed last Christmas, for example, that a year later I’d be a Fellow at Stanford. So who knows what’s next? All I can do is make sure I’m ready to take the challenge whenever it comes, and not become complacent in the meantime. kiwanja – whatever you define it as – has taught me a lot, not least that.

2006: The people’s year?

If it wasn’t enough that Muhammad Yunus recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the poor, Time magazine now makes ‘us’ (that means ‘you’, according to the front cover) all ‘People of the Year’. According to Time:

“The ‘Great Man’ theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species…”

Is it just me, or is there change in the air?

Craigslist: The capitalist conundrum

As a Visiting Fellow in the Reuters Digital Vision Program at Stanford University, I often find myself sitting in on some pretty amazing talks and lectures from some of the most amazing people. Love ’em or hate ’em, I even had the chance to hear from the likes of Bill Gates and Arnold Schwartzeneger recently. (Bill described the iPod as nothing more than “a hard drive with music on”, and Arnie wanted to see more cranes (that’s the building-type, not the bird) in California. Eye- and ear-opening stuff, but one for another blog entry, I feel).

Last month, Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist, came in to talk with us. It was a small, intimate affair. More like a Q&A around the camp fire than a Stanford seminar. But this is how Jim seems to work, and it suited us all down to the ground. Not even a plush Powerpoint presentation to talk of. Just Jim.

For about an hour-and-a-half, Jim described the Craigslist phenomenon and answered a whole bunch of questions. The seventh most visited site on the web, volumes of traffic that I could only dream of (for now!) and a web ‘presence’ in most major cities around the world. Yet all managed with a staff of less than forty. Just compare that to the hundreds, if not thousands, who work with other dotcom ‘giants’. What struck everyone was the work ethic – a desire to keep things simple, give the users what they want and turn a blind eye to “maximising revenue”. Craigslist, you see, doesn’t have any ads, other than the ones posted up by users, and certainly no big money-making schemes.

“There are forums on Craigslist, and users have the chance to tell us what they want from the site, like if they want ads. And, so far, they haven’t asked for them. So we don’t”

It was very much an “anything for a simple, quiet life” ethic, even if this meant turning down tens of millions in potential revenue. So, when Jim met with a bunch of New York bankers several weeks later, imagine the mayhem and confusion. Described in a New York Times article as a “culture clash of near-epic proportions”, some in the audience really struggled with the concept of “non-revenue maximisation” and “serving customers first and worrying about revenues later”. In a world where money talks – as it certainly does in Silicon Valley – it is so refreshing to meet someone bucking the trend. And many people seem to agree, judging by the comments left on the New York Times website.

“Craigslist is the best example of businesses that are refusing to make money the only goal, or even the main goal.

This type of customer-driven business, running as a partner to society instead of an aggressor, is the form of the future – truly green companies. They are hybrids of sorts, combining the best of for-profit and non-profit characteristics”

The fact that a bunch of bankers struggled so deeply with the concept makes it even more entertaining, for me at least.

Until you wake up, keep scratching, guys…

On the eve of India, fame at last? ;o)

I’m not sure if anything I’ve done before has ever made homepage news. Maybe FrontlineSMS when it hit the streets late last year? Or maybe wildlive!, backed by the ‘Vodafone factor’? Homepages have moved on, so I’ll never know…

So maybe the news of my impending trip to India, on the Reuters Digital Vision Program website, is my homepage debut. It’s only taken 13 years.

In just two days time I fly to Bangalore, my first ever visit to the Asian continent, to talk and Chair and scribe at the W3C Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries (they’re making the most of me over the two days, for sure). I was invited to apply, which is a new experience for me. Usually I have to beg, steal and borrow to get to these kinds of things, so some kind of recognition of my work is certainly a welcome change to my own personal little status quo. Being offered funding to fly there was also a new experience. And, of course, I’ll be planting a tree to offset my carbon emissions. Although it’s a long flight, so maybe that’ll need to be two?

I usually get extremely frustrated at these kinds of gatherings – lots of talk and hot air and often no tangible results to show for all the cost and effort. I’m hoping that this one will be different, and with such an active involvement in proceedings I have the best opportunity yet to have a positive impact. My presentation, not surprisingly, is about keeping the mobile web relevant. Because let’s not forget that this is not just about technology – at the end of that mouse, or mobile phone, is a real person. Someone with their own problems, issues, concerns and needs. By being there I hope to represent these people, and give them a voice in something which is more than likely, at some stage in their future, to have an impact of some kind on their lives.

You can find out a little more about the workshop on the W3C site, including a sneak preview of the presentation I will be giving. Lucky you.