Celebrating the “enabling environment”

“From the palm streets of Sierra Leone to the fireworks of Boulder, we bring you an episode throbbing with life and contemplation. This time our exceptional production team highlight the work of 2010 Unreasonable Fellow Ben Lyon. Ben talks about his company FrontlineSMS:Credit which provides an effective technological bridge between mobile money providers and microfinance banking solutions to deliver state of the art financial services to the bottom of the pyramid consumers”.

This is a great video for a number of reasons. It captures Ben’s vision, ambition and spirit perfectly, and gives him an ideal platform to tell his own story in his own words.

Stories are increasingly important, and this was reinforced recently during my week with National Geographic (who always need more than just solid science to justify a magazine article or TV slot). The best way to resonate with others, and inspire, is to have a story and a passion which resonates and inspires. As Fried and Hansson put it in their recent book, “Inject what’s unique about the way you think into what you sell. Decommoditise your product. Make it something no-one else can offer”.

I met Ben through Josh Nesbit – Executive Director of FrontlineSMS:Medic – last June. That’s a little over a year ago. It’s incredible – and by no means unreasonable! – to see how far he’s got in such a short space of time, and with so little funding and resources (although that is rapidly changing). An early PC World article we pushed out was intended to generate some interest in his idea, but I think what’s happened since has surprised even Ben.

It’s also great to see the kind of support available to budding innovators and entrepreneurs today. When I started out in mobile in 2003 there was little by way of any genuine support network, and it was more a matter of everyone feeling their own way. Organisations such as the unreasonable institute now play an invaluable role identifying and nurturing young talent, and there’s very little doubt that many of the 2010 Fellows have got a great future ahead of them.

The term “enabling environment” may be ambiguous and over-used, but there’s little doubt it could be applied here better than anywhere else.

Related posts:
Mechanics vs. motivation: The two faces of social innovation
Enabling the inspiration generation

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).

Step inside the laptop bank

In the world of social innovation, many of the smartest ideas focus on “market inefficiencies” and, in particular, ways of reducing them. As increasing numbers of mobile operators implement airtime transfer systems and mobile money functionality on their networks – particularly in developing countries – opportunities also increase for locally-run microfinance institutions and their customers at the bottom of the pyramid.

In the spirit of social innovation, Ben Lyon recognised the opportunity early. The result? FrontlineSMS:Credit – a first in laptop banking – announced last week at Africa Gathering in London.

FrontlineSMS:Credit landscape

The concept is simple:

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

The FrontlineSMS:Credit system is in essence a convergence of SMS-aggregating software and mobile commerce systems, which together provide an efficient and accessible platform for microfinance institutions (MFIs) to deliver and track loans via Short Message Service (SMS). Since FrontlineSMS:Credit utilises the widely available GSM wireless telephone network, implementing MFIs need neither an Internet connection nor a permanent office to conduct business. Not only that, MFIs will be able to make use of alternative power sources such as solar panels, allowing them to operate ‘off the grid’. This could provide a comparative advantage for those working in rural and underserved areas.

FrontlineSMS:Credit Uses

Based on the successful FrontlineSMS:Medic model, FrontlineSMS:Credit is a new venture, and Ben is currently building his team. He has a range of vacancies for anyone interested in helping develop the concept. A number of large microfinance-based institutions, and major international development agencies, have already expressed strong interest in being part of his “democratising finance” movement. Further details of the project, and current vacancies, are available on the project website at http://credit.frontlinesms.com

Congratulations Ben!

(You can read an earlier article on CreditSMS (now FrontlineSMS:Credit) on  PC World here)