Pitching social entrepreneurship in the Den

Earlier this week I was invited to London to spend an hour talking to the twenty-five “Join Our Core” semi-finalists, a social entrepreneurship competition set up through a collaboration between Ben & Jerry’s, Ashoka UK and VSO. It’s vital that we not only continue to encourage and inspire young people into the field, but that we also put support structures in place to enable them to build on – and take – their ideas forward. This event did both.

The location could not have been better – the home of the BBC’s “Dragons Den” – a TV series where entrepreneurs (not usually the social variety) pitch business ideas to five dragons (aka investors) in the hope of walking out with cash in exchange for equity in their fledgling business. Often a daunting scene, it was made less intimidating with the addition of a Ben & Jerry’s banner, more casual seating and a splattering of cow bean bags, plastic cows, bails of hay and, of course, free ice cream.

By the time I arrived in the early afternoon most of the entrepreneurs had pitched their ideas but I did manage to catch the last half-dozen or so. The Den was out of bounds so I joined the other entrepreneurs, and Ashoka and Ben & Jerry’s staff, in one of the other rooms where we all watched intently on a big screen.

It was a real honour to be given the chance to spend time with the entrepreneurs and talk to them about their business ideas. The range of ideas and projects may have been wide and varied, but the maturity, passion and commitment that each showed in their work bound them all. Anyone who reads my blog will know how much emphasis I place on helping young people see through their ideas and dreams, and how important I believe it is that we help them reach their potential. Three years ago, in “Enabling the inspiration generation“, I wrote:

If we can help anyone on their journey, then we should. Whether that be giving advice or a positive critique on an idea, helping raise awareness through blog posts, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions to other projects and people with the same interests, or offering to be a future soundboard as their ideas grow and develop. These are all things I didn’t have when I started out, and using them productively now that I do is one of the biggest contributions I believe I can – and should – make to the future growth of our discipline. Our legacy shouldn’t be measured in the projects or tools we create, but in the people we serve and inspire

My talk, which at an hour is about twice as long as I usually get, focused on a range of topics from reluctant innovation to grassroots innovation, my background, the humble beginnings (and current impact) of FrontlineSMS, things which I feel define me and my work, and lessons I’ve learnt along the way. These included:

  1. Don’t be in a hurry. Grow your organisation on your own terms.
  2. Don’t assume you need money to grow. Do what you can before you reach out to external funders.
  3. Volunteers and Interns may not be the silver bullet to your human resource issues.
  4. Pursue and maximise every opportunity to promote your work.
  5. Remember that your website, for most people, is the primary window to you and your idea.
  6. Know when to say “no”. Manage expectations.
  7. Avoid being dragged down by the politics of the industry you’re in. Save your energy for more important things.
  8. Learn to do what you can’t afford to pay other people to do.
  9. Be open with the values that drive you.
  10. Collaborate if it’s in the best interests of solving your problem, even if it’s not in your best interests.
  11. Make full use of your networks, and remember that the benefits of being in them may not always be immediate.
  12. Remember the bigger picture.

During the early part of the evening the fifteen finalists were announced. In reality, there were no losers – all of the projects and ideas were worthy in their own right, and as I pointed out at the start of my talk, many entrepreneurs I know would have given their right arm to be at “Join Our Core”. By simply taking their ideas and turning them into something tangible, they had already elevated themselves into the top few percent.

The fifteen finalists will be off to Uganda in August to take part in the final challenge. The projects that made it through are:

Archipelago. One of the largest communities of young entrepreneurs in Western Europe. They help young people create sophisticated businesses through events, think tanks and crowd sourced funding initiatives.

Biochar. A product created from burning waste materials such as manure and wood in the absence of oxygen in a process called pyrolysis. The outcome is a charcoal substance but unlike regular charcoal biochar has been proven to enhance soil condition, crop yield and it sequesters carbon for up to 1,000 years making it carbon negative.

Elevation Networks. An award winning youth employment charity that seeks to develop the leadership potential of young people to increase their employability.

Elvis & Kresse. Creators of stunning life-style accessories by re-engineering seemingly useless wastes. The raw material for their principal range is genuine de-commissioned British fire brigade hoses.

FairMail. A social enterprise producing fair-trade greeting cards. The pictures on the cards are taken by at-risk teenagers in Peru, India (and soon Morocco).

FoodCycle. Building communities by combining volunteers, surplus food and a spare kitchen space to create nutritious meals for people at risk from food poverty.

Hackney Pirates. Transforming the who, where and what of learning. They give kids intensive 1-1 support from volunteers, to work on projects that matter, in an unconventional learning environment.

!SYOU. Introducing the new way of walking. Unique sneakers produced in collaboration with DAC-listed nations.

Mattecentrum. Tutors around 70.000 young people in math every month – for free.

ONEforONE. A social enterprise in The Netherlands that sells water bottles, health insurances and green energy on a ‘buy one give one’-basis.

Play31. Using the unifying power of football to bring together people who have been torn apart by war.

Retoy. Creating experiences and places where children learn about the environment, sustainable consumption and children’s rights in a joyful way through toys and play.

Rubies in the Rubble. Making the tastiest chutney and the fruitiest jam in the nicest possible way at the same time as addressing social issues of unemployment, social exclusion and waste.

Ruby Cup. Improving menstrual hygiene and raising the quality of life of women and girls worldwide.

SuperHoney. Putting beehives into schools to teach kids about bees, the environment and food, and providing much-needed homes for millions of British bees.

You can find out more on each of these projects, and the competition itself, on the “Join Our Core” website, or follow on Twitter via the #JoinOurCore hashtag.

Mobile Convention Amsterdam. In tweets.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to speak at Mobile Convention Amsterdam. It was a largely commercial event, with a focus on marketing in particular, but the organisers wanted at least one session on the social impact of the technology. Before and after my talk there was plenty to tweet about, so in the spirit of previous “in tweets” posts here’s a summary of some of the more interesting takeaways from the day.

Context: For years our single digital view of the world was through a desktop computer, later wired to a modem and later again, the Internet. Today we’re free to roam and are spoilt for choice with multiple views – from PC’s to laptops to tablets to mobiles. The landscape is unrecognisable from just a few years ago.

Context: A comment which will ring alarm bells among privacy and security experts, but one not lost on the mobile marketing community (or dictatorial, oppressive regimes come to that).

Context: Not everything has to be “new” to be “innovative”.

Context: How Nokia, a mobile pioneer, saw the shift as mobiles became smaller and smaller, and smarter and smarter.

Context: Anyone aware of the history of this fascinating company will know they’ve already re-invented themselves a number of times in their long history. Rubber, cabling and paper all feature. Mobile phones were nowhere in site until the 1980’s. It was a surprise move back then – any future move out of mobiles will be the same, but not impossible given their current troubles.

Context: The iPhone was somewhat written-off by analysts in its early days. That’s the beauty of disruptive technology.

Context: As if we needed reminding of the lightning speed of innovation in the mobile space, Horace Dediu makes the point that the biggest thing in mobile today wasn’t even around a few short years ago.

Context: This is arguably one of the problems being faced by Nokia (with Symbian) and Microsoft (with Windows). Apple had no legacy to deal with, no backwards compatibility to consider, no ‘shoehorning’ of platforms. Symbian, by way of a counter example, was never designed for touch screens but ended up powering many of Nokia’s.

Context: If Apple are to stay ahead in a ridiculously fast-paced industry then they’ll need to be the ones to supersede the iPhone for style, speed and functionality. If they don’t, someone else will. Samsung are certainly having a good go.

Context: A splash of self-promotion ahead of my lunchtime talk.

Context: One of the growing criticisms of the ICT4D approach is that technology often leads the way. Start with the problem – the experience – whether you’re designing for a merchant banker in New York or a fisherman in Mombassa.

Context: QR codes certainly haven’t set the mobile world on fire, but it was a surprise to hear that when they are used properly (which isn’t often) they have a pretty good hit rate.

Context: The BBC talk about their approach to the 2012 Olympics digital coverage, where the user experience will be consistent across multiple platforms (they hope).

Context: Nice to have some numbers on this. Tomi certainly highlights the usefulness of SMS in emergency and disaster reporting/response.

Context: Text messages may be small, but send enough of them and you’ve got the equivalent of a pretty wide pipe.

Context: No-one in the audience expected this. “Visa”, “m-PESA”, “Mastercard” were all favourites as the inventors of mobile money (it depends, of course, how you define ‘invent’). Thinking of mobile money as 13 years old also reminds us that, even though it’s got the buzz right now, it’s not all that new.

Context: The meteoric rise of m-PESA continues. It’s streets ahead of anything else even before it hits that magical 50% figure.

Context: Tomi is a great and engaging speaker. Check out his free eBook if you want more.

Previous “In tweets” posts include:
The Networked Society Forum. In tweets.
The Aspen Environment Forum. In tweets.
Tim Smit. In tweets.

Closing mobile’s “gender divide”

At the Networked Society Forum in Hong Kong last November, I sat and listened as Jeffrey Sachs described mobile connectivity as “the single most important instrument for development that we have“. Few people would disagree. A recent study by the GSM Association reported a 10% increase in mobile phone use leads to a 1.2% increase in a country’s GDP. Encouraging as this may be, it’s only half the story.

Women in the developing world are 21% less likely than men to own a mobile, leaving an estimated 300 million excluded from the social and economic opportunities that owning one might bring. If mobile phones do increase opportunity, then right now they’re not increasing it for everyone. Closing this “mobile gender gap” doesn’t just make sense for women – it’s also an opportunity believed to be worth a staggering $13 billion to network operators annually.

Empowering girls and women has long been a focus for the development community, and it’s easy to see why. In Sub Saharan Africa women produce 80% of household food and, when educated women run family farms, they’re able to increase yields by up to 20%. Research also suggests that increasing the earning power of women has additional benefits for the entire family through improvements in health, education and child nutrition. And when educated girls start earning an income, 90% of it is put straight back into their families. The number is nearer 40% for men. Yet, despite all this in many parts of the world women are more likely to go hungry than men, the number of girls out of school almost universally exceeds the number of boys, and – in the case of Sub Saharan Africa – women own only 1% of the land.

Whilst the introduction of the mobile phone alone is unlikely to solve any of these problems directly, targeted interventions can. Defining this opportunity is crucial, according to “Mobile Value Added Services: A Business Growth Opportunity for Women Entrepreneurs,” a new report released today by the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women with support from the ExxonMobil Foundation. This milestone study is a major step for the Foundation – which tasks itself with helping women entrepreneurs across Africa, South East Asia and the Middle East – as it seeks to leverage the power of mobile phones and services for the women entrepreneurs its wider programmes support.

One key objective of the study, which focused mostly on Indonesia, Nigeria and Egypt, was to identify the most useful mobile value-added services which enable women entrepreneurs to advance their businesses. In the study, over 88% of women entrepreneurs said they were willing to use these services to address the core business challenges they face, and more than 82% of women entrepreneurs indicated a willingness to pay for them. Demand for the right service is clearly there. Identifying what those services should be was a key driver for commissioning the report.

Although mobile value added services were abundant in many of the areas covered in the study (over 200 different products were reviewed) surprisingly, none were tailored for the specific needs of women entrepreneurs. The Cherie Blair Foundation is now working with a number of commercial and non-profit partners to fill that gap and to provide a service that an overwhelming majority of women entrepreneurs desperately need.

You can download the full report here (PDF, 6Mb).

This article was also published on the Huffington Post website.

In search of reluctant innovators

After returning from the 2011 Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyad last January, I started pulling together a few thoughts on something I’d been pondering for some time – “reluctant innovation”. That first post paved the way for further work, and more recently a guest article in Wired Magazine in the UK called “Genius happens when you plan something else”. You can read that here.

Reluctant innovators are people who unexpectedly come up with an innovative solution to a problem they’ve experienced or witnessed, one which has angered, bugged, disturbed or frustrated them so much that they end up dedicating much of their lives to solving it. They’re innovators, but not through choice, since they never set out to innovate.

In my Wired article I give two examples of reluctant innovators:

One evening in 1996, Brij Kothari was watching a DVD of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” with friends in Ithaca, New York. The dialogue was in Spanish and the subtitles in English. Out of nowhere an idea popped into his head. As a Spanish language learner, he wished the subtitles were also in Spanish. Turning his attention home, he wondered whether India could become literate if Bollywood-made Hindi films and songs were shown with the lyrics subtitled in Hindi.

The idea behind same language subtitling – or SLS – was born. Today, thanks to Brij’s organization Planet Read, Indian primary school children numbering in the hundreds of millions are learning basic literacy by simply watching their favourite television programmes. Not bad for something conjured up in front of a Saturday night movie.

Then there’s Laura Stachel, whose organisation – WE CARE Solar – designs portable solar lighting kits for maternity wards in developing countries. When she first headed out to Nigeria she planned to work on a different problem altogether, but quickly realised that a simple lack of lighting was responsible for an unacceptable number of mother and child deaths. Maternal mortality rates in Nigeria are among the highest in the world, with a ratio of 1,100 maternal deaths occurring for every 100,000 live births, so she turned her attention to helping design, build and distribute solar kits to solve it. “As an American doctor, it was inconceivable that a hospital could function without reliable electricity. The lack of lighting for a cesarean section was a problem I had never imagined”.

Laura never intended to build and run an organisation, and never chose to become a solar innovator, but seeing a problem she felt compelled to fix, she reluctantly became one. Solar Suitcases are now saving the lives of mothers and babies in hundreds of delivery rooms throughout the developing world.

The more I read about innovation the more I wonder how rare – or ubiquitous – reluctant innovators are. Not only that, I’m beginning to realise how inspiring many of these stories are – ordinary people with little or no track record in innovation or product development beating all the odds to not only create a truly innovative solution to a social ill, but also a successful organisation to effectively deliver it.

Do you know a reluctant innovator? Are you one yourself? If the answer to either question is yes, I’d love to include theirs (or your) story in a new book I’m pulling together. If you’d like to talk, leave a comment below or reach out to me directly through the kiwanja.net website.