There’s a popular saying amongst the tech and development crowd that 10% of an ICT4D initiative is the tech and the rest is…. well, the rest. I’ve recently heard a modified version that says 5% is the idea and 10% is the business model, and the other 85% is…. well, the rest. The ‘rest’ is mostly made up of people, culture, context and the stuff of anthropologists.
At the Slush conference in Helsinki in November, I joined a short ‘Fireside Chat’ with Tanya Accone (UNICEF) and Mika Valitalo (Plan Finland) about the importance of that other 85-90%, which Tanya referred to as ‘peopleware’.
Tanya kicked off the panel by asking people to think about how much time they’d dedicated to the technology of their start-up idea or their tech solution – the hardware and the software – and to then ask themselves how much time they’d spent on the people component. “People are what will make or break your idea,” she said. When it comes to mobile adoption, for example, we are seeing an exponential adoption pattern all over the world, and people are driving that. “I bet every single one of you at SLUSH hopes to see that curve in your future.”
She went on to note that conventional wisdom is that ‘content is king,’ however a key takeaway from her work in the mobile and social entrepreneurship space is that content been deposed by context. For example, when working with the U-Report project in Liberia, lessons from other countries where it had been rolled out were incorporated, but they had to be contextualized to make them work in Liberia. This involved talking and working directly with youth to ensure that the programming could be adapted properly.
Mika agreed that ‘peopleware’ is a critical consideration. “I’ve witnessed this 10:90% ratio several times when co-designing and supporting projects using technology for social impact in African countries,” he said, and told the story of working on enhancing birth registration in Kenya, where the slow and manual flow of information between people and the government seemed to be a key challenge that could be tackled with use of mobiles and computers and applications.
“However, the deeper we dug the more varied the challenges seemed to be. We realized that people might be reluctant to register children when local practices were not in sync with the existing legislation. For example, if men are marrying girls under the age of 18, they might not like the idea of birth registration as it would prove a girl’s age. People living near the Kenya-Tanzania border might not want to be identified as being from one or the other country, because being unregistered may allow them to move back and forth across the border more easily and receive some type of benefit or commerce opportunity.
Even with a functioning mobile phone and app in their hand, people will weigh multiple aspects based on their personal situation before taking action. So, spending enough time with end-users and trying to see the world through their eyes as much as possible is crucial, especially when working in places that are not familiar to you. This may sound self-evident, but I’d encourage everyone keep this top on the list.”
I shared two of the key points from the Technology Salon earlier in the week on the topic of start-ups and social impact: a) the importance of partnership and collaboration (eg, people), and b) knowing the local context — not just the technical landscape, but people and culture.
These two aspects were really highlighted for me when I was working on a project in Cameroon that trained youth to use mobile phones to make short videos that they used to organize and advocate for change in their communities and more broadly. The donor was a large mobile phone manufacturer who assumed youth would use their higher-end phones to create the videos. The youth, however, were much more familiar with simple phones like the Nokia 1100. The phones we purchased in order to get good video quality had too many layers and folders and features. So we ended up getting some Flip cameras, because what we really needed was a push and shoot video camera, and this design was a better fit for low-income rural youth who had limited experience with technology.
We also realized that though the training was set up for youth, community adults were really interested in learning to make videos too. So we had to find ways to engage them so that they would not feel left out and so that we could ensure their continued support for the youth’s efforts. This meant we had to spread our resources out a little further than we had imagined, but we saw it as necessary. In all these processes we had to balance the context and reality on the ground, the expectations of the youth and community, expectations of our local partners, and those of the donor.
Tanya added that achieving success with social impact sometimes means rethinking your business model, because you’re in pursuit of the double dividend of financial return and social impact. She gave an example in Burundi where only 3% of the population has access to the electricity grid. “You would think it’s a market ripe for alternative energy solutions. But many businesses avoided it because their existing retail and distribution models simply would not work in that context. It took deconstructing and reconstructing business models to create something that does work — a network of microfinanced microfranchises operated by village-level entrepreneurs.” Now the families use robust, fast-charging LED lights recharged through a pedal-powered generator, a system that also recharges mobile phones.
Another aspect is understanding the value proposition, she said. It would seem to be basic business, but all too often well-intended initiatives forget this and rush in with a cheaply-made solution. “In the process, they trample over the basic human dignity of their target consumer or beneficiary.” She suggested keeping in mind that people with limited resources are among the most discerning consumers because they don’t have disposable income. They are cost conscious, and equally, they are looking at value for money and return on investment in the durability, feature sets and total cost of ownership of everything they buy and value. This means that more energy-efficient chips, better battery technology, and robust handsets are important to economically challenged users.
Tanya also noted that ‘base of the pyramid’ users are no less style-conscious or aspirational than consumers in general, so “don’t disrespect them by skimping on the design and delivery of your solution. And like you and me, consumers in marginalized communities seek enjoyment and entertainment and fun too. Music has huge pull and potential… and don’t forget that pay-as-you-go comes with data!”
Mika shared an example where the technology that was introduced carried almost too much power with it. In this project, a mobile phone was loaded with videos and connected to a portable projector. Daycare workers and parents were able to watch good childcare practices from model early childhood care and development centers. “What we found out was that using new technology not seen before sometimes amplified the message so much that caregivers wanted to discard what they already knew and replace it with what they saw on the screen from the model daycare centers.” Though the project showed the power of tech, unintended consequences may come up at the intersection of software, hardware and ‘peopleware’.
Mika talked about another project in Uganda that supported parents’ involvement into school activities. Plan realized that men were more willing to come to parent-teacher meetings once they introduced a mobile SMS service through which they sent invitations. The technology lowered the threshold for men to participate in issues they might have previously considered ‘women’s issues’. These subtle dynamics in the local context can have a big influence on how an innovation works, he noted.
Mika’s takeaways for startups and innovators were that civil society organizations might offer good synergy for co-designing, testing out and distributing products and services. “I’ve seen startups getting needs and ideas from the ground through NGOs, and then innovating products and services together. For example we produced a start-up mobile data gathering tool called Poimapper based on the needs coming from our frontline staff. We did on the ground pilots and product development in Kenya with actual end users who gave crucial feedback to make the service work well. Peopleware matters and partnering with NGOs can help startups to get it right,” he said. “INGOs often have a wide presence around the world, and they are on the ground in communities and the surrounding society. They know quite a lot about peopleware, participatory methods, and community engagement. Then again, they don’t necessary have the same agility and fast innovation processes combined with new business models that startups are often good at. So, my advice to NGOs is to go and meet startups and visa versa.”
I added that it’s important to understand who has access to and control of devices, and to ensure that a product or service is valuable to people in the long-term. So first — Who owns the phone? Who controls it? Often the story is that everyone has a phone but you may find that some people own 2 phones, some don’t have any. You may find that the people you least expect to have phones have them or can access them, and those you’d think would have a phone don’t. This is critical especially when working with girls and women who typically have lower access and control – and of course you should be sure the project is including girls and women!
Also, you may be working with people who have very little disposable cash – but if your application or idea saves time and money and meets a real need, they may be willing to move their resources from one thing to another. For example, using solar for light and charging up phones can save money and time as well as eliminate the health risks of kerosene lamps. However, you need to make sure that what you offer is a long-term and sustainable change. When people have limited resources, they’ll be hesitant to invest in something new if they are not assured that it will be available, sustainable and cheaper in the long term.
Lastly, as Mika said, partnering with non-profits can offer start-ups a way to reach communities, because some non-profits are quite well-known and respected by the community (though of course, some are not too!). But ethical non-profits will not risk their reputations on ideas that they do not believe in, that are unconvincing, or that seem to take advantage of the poor. Start-ups will need to have clear ideas and evidence that a proposition is solid, because most non-profits have a low tolerance for risk and failure and (one hopes) a higher ethical standard than a basic money-making operation.
Tanya closed us out by summing up the key points:
- People are your critical success factor. “People” include your end-user as well as those that you may be partnering with.
- Context is king! Understand the social dynamics, know who owns and controls the device, know what people spend money on.
- Build a better business model.
- Understand the value proposition — Figure out how your application/tool/innovation can help save precious $ and time.
- Understand your partners — Remember that brand and reputation are very important to non-profits, and they don’t like risk.
Thanks to Tanya and Mika for co-collaboration on the Fireside Chat and this blog post!