When it’s reasonable to be Unreasonable

One of the most exciting things about my work is the incredibly talented people I get to meet. Up-and-coming entrepreneurs with a never-say-die, get-up-and-go attitude. I’m continually inspired and more than happy to offer my help in any way I can, particularly to those looking to implement FrontlineSMS one way or another in their work. Today, two of these projects have made it through to the next round of a major competition and are looking for your help. I hope you feel equally inspired to show your support – it’s only a few mouse clicks away and costs little.

What’s it all about?

The Unreasonable Institute unites up to 25 high-impact social entrepreneurs from around the world, who attend an intensive 10-week summer institute. There, entrepreneurs incubate their ventures with rigorous skills training and expert mentorship. At the end of the ten weeks, the Institute connects the Fellows with start-up capital and a global network of support. In short, the opportunity provided by the Institute will make a significant contribution to the growth of these early-stage initiatives.

Finalist #1: FrontlineSMS:Credit

FrontlineSMS:Credit, run by Ben Lyon, is one of the finalists. FrontlineSMS:Credit aims to make every formal financial service available to the entrepreneurial poor in 160 characters or less. By meshing the functionality of FrontlineSMS with local mobile payment systems, implementing institutions will be able to provide a full range of customizable services, from savings and credit to insurance and payroll. Ben is currently in Sierra Leone testing his system, and signing up local organisations for early pilots. Visit Ben’s page on the competition website and support his pioneering work!

Finalist #2: Light Up Malawi

Light Up Malawi – run byRaina Kumra – is a venture which aims to bring 100% alternative energy to Malawi through policy reform and the creation of a sanctioned pilot program for all manufacturers of solar, biomass, and wind energy products. In a sign that collaboration is alive and well even among competition finalists, one of the key systems they plan to deploy is FrontlineSMS:Credit, which will be used to assist with the setting up of rural distribution programs, and allow for the creation of finance systems for village entrepreneus. Please show your support for Raina’s work  by visiting her competition page here.

Both projects need pledges of just $10 from 650 individuals. The first 25 projects from the 37 finalists to raise $6,500 will secure their place on the summer program. Please take a moment to show your support. You pledge now and pay later, and it only takes a minute. Thank you!

(You can read more about how the Unreasonable Marketplace works here).

And the winners are…

Most of my ideas come on trains and buses. nGOmobile was no exception. The 1645 Kings Cross to Cambridge train was responsible this time around, after I’d spent the day getting ‘processed’ by the American Embassy in London. It only seems like yesterday that we launched the competition, and yet here we are, five months and over seventy entries later, with the four winners.

It’s been a fascinating exercise. We have projects from Kenya, Uganda, Mexico and Azerbaijan looking to work with local communities to promote the protection and sustainable use of environmental resources; another planning to launch an SMS-based service for rural communities allowing them to ask a range of water-based questions on topics such as sanitation, hygiene, water harvesting, and water technologies; one seeking to help rural Central American and Mexican communities solve problems of deforestation, poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and the marginalisation of women; and another seeking to help grassroots and politically excluded people understand their human and legal rights, and to engage them further in the political process.

nGOmobile is a text message-based competition aimed exclusively and unashamedly at grassroots non-profit organisations working for positive social and environmental change throughout the developing world. Non-profits were asked to send in proposals on how they sought to use mobile technology, with the top entries getting laptops, modems, phones, software and cash to enable them to implement the work.

It was tough turning down so many other amazing and worthy entries, and the hope among all the Judges is that we can scale this further and provide further prizes and opportunities when we re-run the competition in the coming months. Mobile World Congress has been a great platform to announce and profile the winners, and there is widespread interest in what nGOmobile is trying to achieve. For a project which only took five weeks and $20 to set up – I couldn’t get anyone to donate the URL – it’s a great example how it needn’t take months and cost thousands of dollars to get a project up and running. Rapid prototyping is a strong theme in all my work.

Last night I introduced the four winners to each other, and they’ve already started sharing their stories and experiences via email. In the next couple of weeks we will profile these projects in more detail on the competition website, and begin to plan ahead. It’s very early days, but the potential positive social and environmental impact of nGOmobile is there for all to see…

Ring, ring… The grassroots is calling

One thing I really enjoy about kiwanja’s work is how it encourages NGOs to come up with their own solutions to their own problems, how it focuses on the grassroots and how it seeks to help those organisations looking to help themselves. While other initiatives appear more interested in what people are doing with technology, a large part of what interests me is how we empower organisations who aren’t there yet – those that have the ideas but lack the capacity to see those ideas through. For example, for every NGO using mobile technology in their work there are dozens, if not hundreds, who aren’t.

I’ve been fortunate over the past few weeks to be involved in the judging of a couple of competitions, and by far the most enjoyable has been nGOmobile (and not because it’s one of my own projects). While other competitions are largely dominated by industry players and middle- and heavyweight NGOs, nGOmobile has been unashamedly aimed at the small guy. Having spent a lot of time living and working in the developing world, I remain convinced that one of the best ways to solve many of the chronic problems in these countries is through grassroots empowerment. As William Easterly points out in The White Man’s Burden – a topic I blogged about in the summer – development’s traditional ‘top down’ approach has had little tangible return on its hundreds of billions (or trillions?) of dollars investment.

One of the really nice things about nGOmobile is that NGOs get the chance to win a prize based on what they’re going to do, rather than what they’ve done. While this makes the competition a little unique, it does make it more of a challenge from an organisational point of view.

The competition was launched in October, and ran for three months. Getting news out to grassroots NGOs, many of whom struggle with their own connectivity issues, was never going to be easy. But thanks to some fantastic support from other mobile-related sites and bloggers, including White African, ZapBoom, Tactical Tech, ShareIdeas, Textually.org, Nokia, Ore’s Notes, Total Tactics, Black Looks, Saidia.org and 160Characters, news broke fast, and a feature on the BBC World Service Digital Planet programme made a big impact. By the time the competition closed over seventy NGOs had submitted entries. Other, higher-profile and bigger-budget, better-established ICT competitions would have been happy to hit anywhere near that.

Analysing the results of the competition makes fascinating reading, as did my first analysis of FrontlineSMS usage last month. What we’ve done, in essence, is taken the pulse of the grassroots NGO community. Where are they working? What is their focus? What concerns them? How would they solve a problem? How would mobile technology make their lives easier? What would the impact be if they had it? The pie chart above does indeed tell an interesting story.

Health-related work came out on top at 19% – perhaps not a huge surprise – but conservation, running it close at 18%? That was a surprise. The conservation community has been a little slower than most to grasp the benefits of mobile technology, but it looks as though things are beginning to change. The human rights community has been increasingly active in this area, with sites such as ICT4Peace and New Tactics taking a lead, and agriculture- and fisheries- related projects have been responsible for some of the higher-profile mobile-based solutions, including Manobi, TradeNet and the 2006 WSIS Award winner, East African Fish Auctions. Entries in the competition reflect this.

Interest in nGOmobile among the blogging community, grassroots NGOs and the mobile industry has been fantastic, and discussions are already underway on ways to scale the competition in 2008 and increase its own – and the winners – profile. It’s incredible to think that it was only launched four months ago.

The grassroots were given the opportunity to speak. And boy, are they calling