Earlier this week I had the privilege to interview Ken Banks. Ken is a humble, dedicated, and steadfastly passionate individual who cares deeply about using technology in combination with social forces to further development and improve peoples’ lives in the developing world. Specifically, Ken’s organization Kiwanja.net and its FrontlineSMS has harnessed the communication tools of SMS to help non-profits communicate with the people they aim to help, and provide much needed information to communities in need that can help increase productivity, lower costs, and save lives. My interview with Ken spanned the topics of the use of technology in development, the story of his eventual path to Kiwanja, and what it means to be a social entrepreneur.
Ken struck me as a man who doesn’t care about labels, and he certainly doesn’t care about fame. But what he does care about is leaving a positive legacy that demonstrates the value of believing in something, and then following through with concrete and concerted action. His work has touched perhaps millions of lives, and his technology will be in use by organizations on the ground for years to come. Read my interview with Ken Banks of Kiwanja.net below:
Describe the path that led you to start Kiwanja.
I started getting interested in development and technology quite a while ago. It has taken some time to get the two connected to where we are now. But I wanted to take my passion and interest into development in Africa.
It has taken 17 years. I’ve done a lot of field work. Anthropology. I made sure that everything I’ve done has contributed or has the potential to contribute to the final thing that I end up doing – from conservation work to IT (information technology) to school building to hospital building to anthropology degrees. They’re all kind of related, and Kiwanja is where technology meets anthropology, conservation, and development. They do make sense, and go together very well.
Did you plan this route, or did luck play a larger role?
You never know quite where things are heading. I’m not one for big plans. When you’re talking to people who want to know what the big plan is – when you’re passionate about something you need to keep up to date with research, current affairs, and do the kind of thing we’re interested in. One of the things I usually recommend to people is that the first thing you really need to do is build a name for yourself. It could be writing or blogging, letting people know what interests you, and what your areas of expertise are.
I’ve been blogging for four or five years now, but blogs can take a couple of years to get traction. If you can get a blog to get traction, then the minute you find that spark you’re ready to go. A fairly good Twitter following, and being on Facebook, are crucial now to actually get known on the social media space.
We formed in 2003. Up until then, I would read and find people online. For instance, I tried to connect for the longest time with Eric Hersman, of Ushahidi. I kept emailing him every few months, pointing things in his direction I thought he’d be interested in. I was determined and proactive and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Can you elaborate on that initial journey to found Kiwanja?
My original career is in personal computing. That formed the basis of the work I’m doing now. I never really thought that when I was working in the finance industry, it would apply to the development context.
I was born in Jersey in the Channel Islands, which is very small. Other than finance, there’s not a huge amount else. I worked in finance when I left school. Saw Live Aid in ’85. I couldn’t help but notice that things going on in the world were far away from what was going on in my life. I heard about a trip to go to Zambia in ’93, run by the State of Jersey government. I said to myself, ‘well you’re interested in these things. Let’s just see what it’s like.’ And it had quite an impact on me. I saw how so much wasn’t working, and you think about all this money going into aid – for all these problems. Something’s not quite right. I couldn’t go back to a fairly normal life and pretend I didn’t see the poverty.
At the time I was thinking about it in terms of skills – but there wasn’t ICT (information & communication technologies) for development. So I kept going on various trips – Uganda in ’95 – to reinforce my interest. And from there I decided I want to do something with it. I don’t think anyone really saw the connection with finance. So I went back to school, and chose social anthropology. When you think about some of the real challenges people face in development, some of the biggest challenges are around local landscape, culture, the kinds of things that anthropology teaches you to look at. So having a people-focused degree, combined with IT, combined with on the ground experience, and looking at mobile as it started to explode in the early 2000s… I could quite as easily have done library sciences or English literature. I had never planned to apply it to technology. I never thought it could be useful in development, but it was always in the back of my mind – this is something I’d like to do if I could.
How can technology affect development?
If we think about how crucial access to information is, whether health information or price information, how to grow better crops, information on human rights – we live in an information society, and with the amount of time we spend on the internet, with immediate access to everything we want to know, it becomes an integral part of our lives to have that connectivity. In the developing world, they need health advice, agricultural advice, education. With the challenges they face in terms of infrastructure, and lack of coherent government policy, things like the internet can leapfrog those challenges a lot of communities have. We can give them access to the kinds of things we take for granted.
Mobile phones created such a level of excitement because for many people in the developing world, their first experience of the internet will be in a cell-phone. There are no fiber-optic cables running through villages. There’s evidence that people, as they get access to information through headsets, etc., can improve their health, incomes, and education. So it’s about figuring out how to extend that reach of the information society.
How does Kiwanja use technology for development?
Kiwanja.net was formed in 2003 with the primary objective of helping grassroots nonprofits apply mobile technologies in their work. Around 2003, cell-phones were starting to appear in broad numbers – so we thought, how can we use these phones? Administration? Improving efficiency of services, provide information to the community to get feedback? So early on in the mobile revolution, I was doing a lot of field work at the time around ICT. It made sense to, rather than work for one organization, help the widest amount of people possible.
There’s one main project, with one in the pipeline. Our main effort in the last three to four years is a software called FrontlineSMS. You install the software on a laptop computer. You plug your cell-phone into the computer with a cable. And then you can send messages out to a mobile network. It’s very simple software – embarrassingly simple. And you can group people by geography, or gender, or village, and then select that specific group to send your messages.
Could you give a specific example of FrontlineSMS in action?
If you’re an NGO who’s been working for 300 farmers for 10 years, you have them give you their mobile phone numbers. If you’re working with a controlled group of people, just collect their numbers. You can set the system up so that they can text in and subscribe to your SMS alerts. They can text in “register” and they’ll then be a part of the group. There’s actually an introductory video on our website that explains this in a bit more detail. (Watch the video)
So it allows nonprofits to send messages, whether to farmers, or human rights activists, or the general public. It opens up the two-way nature of SMS technology, allowing nonprofits with limited technological expertise to start broad communications with mobile technology. I think it’s important to continue to bring down the barrier to entry.
How many people has Kiwanja helped, or reached?
One of the problems we have had is the very nature of SMS in particular – it’s that NGOs download the software. I don’t need to fly out anywhere, or do any consultancy. They can do it on their own. It’s hugely empowering to not have bunches of white people taking over their project.
But that strength is also a weakness because we don’t know how many people we are reaching. We hear about a new project every week. We just heard that in Rifali in Kenya, they are using our software to deliver milk prices to farmers. The Human Trafficking Project uses it. Although it’s frustrating, it’s also quite exciting that they can take the tool and do the work without further input. I would estimate that several million people have been touched by the benefits of FrontlineSMS Medic alone. Tracking is something we’d like to do more of if we can get the money.
How is FrontlineSMS Medic different?
FrontlineSMS Medic deals specifically with health issues. We add specific medical modules, patient records for hospitals, which allows for quick transfer of important medical data.
Is this software in use in Haiti?
I think some organizations are rolling it out now. It wasn’t used as part of the organized response, but it could be used in reconstruction. A couple of organizations have the system up and running. It’s very simple to set up; that’s one advantage of it. Within 5 minutes, you can have two away text message systems up and running.
What is your vision for the world? What does that look like?
I don’t really spend time thinking about that. I don’t really think about my impact. When I started traveling to Africa in the early ‘90s, there seemed to be so many imbalances in the world, and so many challenges – it could be health, or climate change, there were a whole bunch of things that just get in the way. So I just feel what’s right for me. I was brought up in a nice environment, I saw things that didn’t seem right to me, and I decided to take the skills I have to help. I don’t think about specific impact. But I’m just busy really focusing on trying to help the people helping the people. Our work is detached from what’s happening on the ground because we try to get the people on the ground to run those projects on their own. That feels like a comfortable place for me to be. I don’t understand enough about climate change or poverty. I don’t know if it’s my place to deal directly with those things.
Where will you be in a year?
I have no idea where we’re going to be in a year. You just have to be reactive to things. Five or six years ago Frontline SMS didn’t exist. It was a random idea that just came up one evening. It started to get a good name and a good following, but we were just focused on getting something that works.
I mentioned that it’s ultimately about doing what works. That it’s great to call yourself a social entrepreneur, but that it comes down to the good you’re doing, not identifying with any sort of specific title. To that notion, Ken had this to say:
I don’t really know what a social entrepreneur is. And I don’t let that worry me. I spent time at Stanford, meeting up with 19 year olds who want to be social entrepreneurs. But it means nothing as you say – it means nothing to me. I wanted to say to them – no no no – what do you do? It [the term ‘social entrepreneur’] doesn’t explain what you do. And I think the objective of becoming a social entrepreneur is a false objective. I think you need to find a passion that really drives you. And whether you become a social entrepreneur is second. It’s like fame – it can cloud everything up. You do what you do and if it makes you famous then fine, but don’t go out with a false end game. You have to earn it – I don’t know if you can learn it. I mean, you can learn the mechanics of it. Elevator pitches, business plan, how to run an organization. I actually wrote a blog post about the mechanics versus the passion of social enterprise. But I think you have to get out in the world, and find something about which you say – holy cow, that’s wrong. But you can’t hand that feeling out in university, if you’re lucky enough to discover it. So am I a social entrepreneur? If they can convince me that I am then that’s fine. But it has no impact.
Where do you see the biggest opportunity for growth in this space?
For us, I think we’re only at the beginning of what mobile technology can do for social change. There’s a lot of focus on SMS – one thing that we know works is SMS – but as smart phones get into the hands of people, better internet connectivity arrives on networks, and phones become more feature rich, we can do mobile technology smarter and better. I think we’re really dabbling right now at the beginning of something that could be very exciting. There will be very, very exciting developments. With the arrival of cable off the coast of Africa, there’s excitement about bringing increased bandwidth. And we’re building our services to grow with that. So picture messaging, new modules, voice modules – we’re building a platform which can very easily grow as we start to do more interesting things for mobile development.
On being an expert:
And also – let’s completely move away from the term expert. I don’t like that word. I specialize in mobile technology. There are so many social media experts, experts on Iranian politics, and hundreds if not thousands of Nigerian political experts. It’s for people to decide whether you’re an expert. Just do what you do and do it to the best of your ability.
One other thing that I do write about, that goes along with the social entrepreneurship angle, is I think it hugely important to support and develop that next group of social entrepreneurs, if that’s what they want to call themselves. If any student, entrepreneur, or business man wants to email me, I answer every email. Young people are starting to see where you can create transformative technologies from your bedroom. And all you need is drive and determination, a little bit of luck, and maybe being connected to some of the right people. When I started in 2003 nobody would talk to me, and it was hard to get traction. It’s hugely important that we nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs. But a lasting impact – and this is the kind of impact that we don’t usually think about measuring – is the legacy we leave for other people. To have someone be able to say – wow, if he did that, then I can do that – and make them believe that they can do that. It’s one of the most rewarding things I can do.
If you have drive and capability, just do it?
We live in an age where we’re so easily distracted. You just have to stick with it. Business people regularly fail a few times before they get it right. It’s taken me 17 or 18 years but I stuck with it the whole way because I knew it was the right thing to do. Once they find their passion, they shouldn’t throw it away. I meet people who are desperate to find their passion. It’s hard to find people that don’t know – but when you find it, it’s gold-dust. The one thing that sparks that kind of personal meaning. And I don’t think it should be thrown away lightly.
Ken Banks also has a wonderful blog, you can read it here: http://kiwanja.net/blog