Let there be light. And water. And education

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it was another UN Millennium Village, part of the Geoffrey Sachs poverty alleviation experiment. It’s not, but it does sound strikingly similar (you know, take a village of poor, impoverished Africans and bring them ‘development’). Whether you agree with the approach or not – and there’s been plenty of debate – it does seem to be growing in popularity, perhaps as a result of frustration in large, top-heavy, top-down global efforts whose goals are totally unrealistic and where success is much harder to measure than failure is to see. William Easterly‘s book, “The White Man’s Burden”, covers this well. So, rather than trying to heal the world, the idea is you try to heal a village or two and take it from there.

This latest experiment (well, it’s a year old now) centres around a newspaper appeal for a village in northeast Uganda called Katine. Reading through, many of the project objectives seem worthy enough – access to clean water, healthcare, education and so on – but the headline the Guardian chose doesn’t do anybody justice, least of all the inhabitants of Katine. “Can we, together, help one African village out of the middle ages?” it reads. For many people this perception is an ongoing frustration. If I wasn’t so interested in the topic I’d probably have stopped reading just there, as might many people at Amref (a leading partner in the project), whose staff happens to be over 90% African. That level of local ownership though is encouraging, as are the projects aims to “take advantage of – and build on – existing social and economic networks as well as traditional and indigenous knowledge”. This is probably why the newspaper decided to throw its weight behind the idea last year, and why Barclays Bank followed with a couple of million dollars (in today’s economic environment it’s less likely they’d do that now).

It will be interesting to see if the Guardian can hold their readers attention long enough to see this three year project through, although one year on it’s still gobbling column inches. Whatever happens, though, the increasing shift towards smaller-scale – and therefore more likely sustainable – initiatives, such as Katine (and maybe even the UN Millennium Villages), does present us with a different model from the one tried and tested with so little success since the 1970’s.

All we now need do is work a little harder on those headlines.

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…

The charging challenge and the entrepreneur

In “Mobile Telephony: Leveraging Strengths and Opportunities for Socio-Economic Transformation in Nigeria” (a book which I blogged about last year), Christiana Charles-Iyoha sheds some fascinating light on the barriers to mobile ownership among Nigerian market traders. Erratic power supply, and difficulty charging, came top with a staggering 87%.

Users in many African countries – and not just those in rural areas – face similar problems. In Uganda, this “charging challenge” is being met head-on by a growing band of local entrepreneurs and business people.

Rural users are able to charge their phones from a car battery (top image), charged up by a local entrepreneur when power is available, or charged in a nearby town with better supply and transported back. In urban areas, where grid power is generally more reliable, kiosks (bottom image) dotted around local markets provide charging services to passing customers.

The spread of mobile technology in developing countries has opened up income-generating opportunities on a massive scale. But what is most interesting is how local entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this growth using their own skills and ingenuity. According to the Uganda Communications Commission, the telecoms sector there provides direct employment to a little over 6,000 people. Indirect employment – which includes mobile charging entrepreneurs, airtime vendors, accessories sales-people and mobile repair shops – comes to a staggering 350,000.

Classic grassroots, bottom-up business development, and not a hand-out in sight.

(These, and other images of mobiles in use in developing countries, can be found in the Mobile Gallery. For further examples of African ingenuity at work, visit AfriGadget.com).