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.

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.

2016: A year in preview

2015 started off with more than a little degree of uncertainty. Thirteen years ago I launched kiwanja.net not really knowing whether there was really much of a long-term demand for what I had to offer. But it was worth a go. Apart from my years at the helm of FrontlineSMS, where funding often came in multi-year awards, most of my other work has been short-term, and I’ve ended up combining paid work with pro-bono support to grassroots innovators. Uncertainty is the name of the game when you go it alone, as many people in my shoes will know too well.

In stark contrast to how the year began, it comes to a close with a busy and hugely exciting year ahead. So, in something of a shift from the traditional ‘year in review’ post, here’s my ‘year in preview’ and a summary of what I’ll be getting up to over the next twelve months.

Care International


In October 2015, CARE International announced my appointment as their first ever Entrepreneur in Residence. I’ll be spending time with CARE over the next year helping them make sense of the increasingly complex world of social innovation and technology-for-development. Further details are available in this interview first published on the CARE Insights website.



Yoti is a new digital identity tool which helps you prove who you are and confirm who other people are, online and face-to-face. I’ve been appointed an inaugural member of Yoti’s Guardian Council. Yoti Guardians are “influential individuals who ensure that Yoti always seeks to do the right thing, and that they are transparent about what they are doing and why”. I’ll be advising them in an independent capacity over the next year to help them do just that, and to help Yoti think about the potential of their work in the developing world. Further details are available on the Yoti website.

Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation: International Case Studies and Practice


In March my second book – the follow-up to “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” – will be published by Kogan Page. From the publisher’s website:

“Social innovation and social entrepreneurship look for creative and affordable solutions to specific societal problems. Fuelled by the spread of the internet and the ubiquity of mobile phones, there are more people working to solve pressing social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history. Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation presents the journeys of pioneering – and often accidental – social innovators who, faced with a problem, used their courage, tenacity and creative thinking to find a solution.

Using their own words to reflect open their experiences, these cases do not gloss over the setbacks and the dead ends social entrepreneurs can face. Instead, readers will gain a realistic insight into the challenges and an engaging look at the problem-solving mindset needed to overcome them. From a life-saving project to bring solar-powered lighting to midwives in Nigeria, to a news dissemination service that’s grown from small beginnings to have a global impact, each case study draws out the lessons learnt by the innovators, providing guidance and advice for those looking to follow in their footsteps. Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation is an invaluable resource for social entrepreneurs and innovators looking for new ideas and insight into what really works – and what doesn’t. This book is an inspiring read for anyone with a social conscience and a desire to change their world for the better.”

We’ll be announcing more nearer publication date in early March, so watch this space.

Means of Exchange

MoE-X-Man-IconWe’ve recently recruited a Project Director for our Means of Exchange (MoE) project, and over 2016 will be launching a number of new initiatives. For those that don’t know, MoE is a kiwanja initiative launched in 2012 to look at how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local community and promote a return to local resource use, leading us to a better, fairer, more locally-connected world. I’ll be supporting Sally Brammall over the year as she devises and implements the new strategy. More on the Means of Exchange website.

Global eHealth Foundation


The Global eHealth Foundation (GeHF) is a UK charity dedicated to using the power of technology to bring healthcare and health education to the poorest and most disadvantaged communities in the world. GeHF is supported by a highly influential group of Trustees and Champions including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mrs. Graça Machel, Peter Gabriel and Mary Robinson. I’ve been appointed Chief Executive on a part-time basis to work with the Foundation to help them deliver on their objectives and mission. Further details can be found on the Global eHealth Foundation website.

altruly mobile app


After about nine months of planning and raising investment, I’m now working on a new kind of mobile giving app called altruly, due for release by early summer 2016. altruly re-imagines mobile giving, helping people support the kind of change they want to see in the world in a new and engaging way. Further details will be announced soon. In the meantime, you can sign up for news and updates on the altruly website or follow the project on Twitter.

In addition to my contract and project commitments, I’ll continue to blog and write guest posts, support and mentor grassroots innovators and carry out speaking engagements. I am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to do work that I deeply care about, and that genuinely excites me. I take none of it for granted. Thanks to everyone who has been part of my journey so far, and I look forward to others joining over the coming year. Happy new year, everyone.