Losing my religion

It is with a little sadness – but great excitement – that I write this, my last-ever kiwanja.net blog post. As from today the site will no longer receive updates as I take on a new full-time role at Yoti, a London-based startup, as its Head of Social Purpose. It needed a special opportunity to take such a leap, and that’s exactly what I got. (Update: I left my role at Yoti in December 2022).

Fifteen years ago this January I hobbled my way to Cambridge, on crutches after breaking a leg in Nigeria three months earlier, and took on a piece of work I wasn’t sure I could deliver. My concerns were unfounded, and that nine month contract ended up launching kiwanja.net and a lengthy and rewarding career in mobiles-for-development.

Bushbuckridge, South Africa (2003). An early frontier of mobile exploration. Photo: Ken Banks

A guiding principle in everything I’ve done since has been to take on work only if I feel I can add value. This approach, although ethically sound, does come with its challenges and requires a steady stream of engaging work, with a clearly defined role. There’s plenty up for grabs out there but for the most part I can’t see where I can add value – or I disagree with the aims of the work.

Last year was a particularly hectic one but this year has been quite different. While there are plenty of opportunities out there, few make best use of my skills or approach, and many I have issues with (think top-down, inappropriate technology, huge budget, innovation-for-innovations sake, tech-first and people-last, and so on). I find it very hard to motivate myself to do anything when it goes against the very approaches I’ve championed over the last fifteen years or so.

I’d rather have no work than the wrong work, but crucially I now have a young family to support. Lean spells as a consultant don’t cut it any more. Just as in 2012 when I stepped back after building FrontlineSMS from nothing, this year it feels like the universe is telling me something. And when the universe speaks, I listen.

So, as from today I’ll be closing the kiwanja.net chapter of my personal and professional life (I’ve always struggled to separate the two) and will be moving on to a new and exciting role in the corporate sector.

I’m more excited than sad. Sometimes things just run their course and we need to know when to let go. In 2003 I helped launch an amazing conservation portal across the Vodafone network, and since then have consulted with many amazing organisations, worked in many wonderful places with even more wonderful people, developed a (what I still consider) best in class offline mobile tool in FrontlineSMS, lived in a van at Stanford University, published two very well received books, raised lots of philanthropic funds and private investment, spoken at events all over the world, sailed half way around it with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and flown all the way around it with National Geographic Expeditions. And on top of all of that, along the way I’ve won more awards and recognition than I ever imagined possible. Who can look back at all of this with anything other than pride and a sense of joy?

An exciting new journey in digital identity awaits

From Monday I begin the next chapter in my journey as I take on an amazing role at Yoti as their Head of Social Purpose. Yoti have developed a range of digital identity solutions which have enormous global development and social impact potential, and I’ll be working with them to help make sure we make the very best of the opportunity. So, although I’m moving into the corporate world I’ll still be making good use of my decades of experience, and my address book, but doing it from the perspective of a for-profit company with a product rather than an NGO with a grant.

The kiwanja.net website will remain so that my children will get to find out what their father did during the first few years of their lives – and a little bit before – and as testament to a very productive fifteen years of my own life.

As for highlights during those fifteen years, I’d have to say the collection of writing that captures most of my thinking over that time, a recent talk about social change in Munich which explains why development is so personal to me, and a project which turned out to be my last big effort to capture all that’s wrong in our sector, with suggestions on how we might put some of it right. Plus, of course, my talk at National Geographic – a massive privilege and career highlight – in which I shared the making of FrontlineSMS, a project which took up eight years of my life, and which probably saved me.

Collection of writing   |   Buy on Amazon ($1.99)   |   Download free PDF (8 Mb)

Munich talk on paying attention   |   Watch on YouTube   |   Watch on kiwanja.net

A manifesto for change in tech-for-development   |   Hacking Development

Talk at National Geographic   |   Watch on National Geographic   |   Watch on kiwanja.net

So, a very big thank you to everyone who has been a part of my journey, and to all the friends I’ve made along the way. Of course, this doesn’t have to be the end. If you’re interested in the challenges and opportunities for digital identity in global development and social innovation, you’re welcome to join me – check out the Yoti website and my Contact page for details. I’d love to work with some of you again.

See you on the other side.