WHO IS KEN BANKS?
“You don’t need qualifications to make a difference in the world (…) A lot of the really interesting stuff happening out there today isn’t happening from people who have gone from an education process and come out with a qualification. It’s people who get their backsides out there, take the time, put the effort into actually getting into the field, understand the people they want to help, getting some empathy. And quite often the problem finds them, not the other way around (…) People completely randomly came across things that really ended up troubling them (…), they ended up altering the course of their lives. They were fairly happy with things before they discovered theses huge health inequalities and human rights issues and they basically made their lives a lot more complicated that they had to by taking on these problems“.
Ken Banks is the founder of kiwanja.net and creator of FrontlineSMS. He devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. He has worked at the intersection of technology, anthropology, conservation and development for the past twenty years and, during that time, has lived and worked across the African continent. He is a PopTech Fellow, a Tech Awards Laureate, an Ashoka Fellow and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognized for his technology-based work. In 2013 he was nominated for the TED Prize. Ken is also a published author, with his first edited book, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator”, released in late 2013. His latest project, Means of Exchange, looks at how everyday technologies can be used to democratize opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local community and promote a return to local resource use.
You can connect with Ken here:
Ken also requested after the interview that we share a link to his blog that is very relevant to our discussion. Check it out here: http://www.kiwanja.net/blog/2011/10/advice-for-social-innovators-at-heart/
IN TOR 084 YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- Ken’s bootstrapping of his international development startup.
- The intended double meaning of being a reluctant (social) entrepreneur.
- Ken’s strategies for guaranteeing sustainability of small scale initiatives, and his warning about growth mindsets.
- The value of self-directed learning, as the drawbacks of working for a large organization.
- Open Source in international development.
- Ken’s rationale of leaving his own organization.
- The right way to do field work and getting to know people.
OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:
- Live Aid
- MacArthur Foundation
- Tech Awards
- National Geographic
- Reluctant entrepreneur
- Self-directed learning
- Small scale startup
- Social anthropology
- “The Starfish and the Spider” (Book)
- Nature conservancy
- Autonomy in international development
- Open Source Programming
- St. Ives, Cambridgeshire
EPISODE CRIB NOTES
Technology work since a teenager, self-taught Commodore programming.
’85 Live Aid. Working in finance, carrying gold. Life was ok, but the concert changed his eyes. The question about contribution arose.
Technology was all he could bring. It was still limited thought, so he decided to keep learning. “Learning has been about a third of my career.”
’93 Zambia to help build a school. What it’s like to live on $2 per day.
’95 Uganda, to help build a hospital. Decided to quit finance, dedicate to the poor. Feeling of guilt.
Studied Social Anthropology, get the roots of development, what was going wrong.
Many projects place people last, focusing on capital investments, technology or political agendas.
FrontlineSMS, first Kiwanja.net project
’03 He got involved in mobile tech early. Coverage was low, phones were expensive. Working at a conservation organization. NGOs were asking about technology reach, practicality, cost. Ken wanted to share. Kiwanja is born.
The reluctant innovator (reluctant is a good word)
8 years working on a mobile idea. Self published guide through Kickstarter. Awoke interest in many places, from people and academia. To be published next spring.
General sense from young people that they need to enroll in education, get training and qualification. Truth is innovation is coming from the fields not the academia. Problems and solutions find the people, not the other way around. The book is an assortment of case studies.
Ken came across the development communication problems. “If I didn’t address it, probably nobody else would have.”
Our challenge: fixing development
There is a difference between going to the field to verify assumptions, and genuinely listening. There are no shortcuts to understanding people. Not all field work is equal, not all guarantee empathy.
Sometimes institutions find themselves unable to fix small problems. Their own roadblocks stop themselves from helping, or multiply the costs, sometimes to immoral levels.
Getting started with FrontlineSMS
’05 After Africa, his interest is growing, notices a large void in grassroots organizations. After decades of work on conservation, park authorities realize that communities could benefit from education on wildlife protection and conservation. At the time, mobile phones were starting to show up on the hands of the villagers. An SMS tool would save time and costs, and it could be useful for many other kinds of people.
Started thinking about further development, interaction and automation, and re-teaching himself software and web development. Project was bootstrapped. Ken is uncertain if having developed a proposal for funding, or hiring talent would have been as fruitful. “My code might have not been as clean, but it was ready for open source.”
Only three years later he receives the MacArthur Grant.
On Open Source, Open Data
There’s room for both open and private applications.
There is pressure for developers to devise sustainable business models, sometimes closed code is justifiable.
More evidence is needed for the Open Source rationales, rigorous research.
“My focus is the end user. People in the field don’t give a damn about engineering arguments.“
On bootstrapping, and why to keep things alive
It was very low cost to maintain, keeping it was a no-brainer.
Ken felt it was needed, people also responded very positively and understood the idea behind it, some work would not have been possible.
“Zero cost is sustainable. People don’t usually think about keeping costs as low as possible as a survival strategy.“
’07 a coalition of Nigerian NGOs use FrontlineSMS for their national elections. Lots of press and attention, including MacArthur, who requested it Open Source.
His FrontlineSMS exit strategy
Probably came with age, acknowledgement of own’s abilities.
FrontlineSMS’s size required a manager. Ken considered shutting it down, but a funding source arrived, FrontlineSMS deserved a chance. Ken didn’t want to stay to hold and drag it. It took courage to leave but it was the right decision. His duties diminished over time.
Not big moments, but lots of micro-failures continuously. Sometimes Ken was unable to help people in specific cases.
Things don’t really happen overnight. We don’t hear the story behind sudden success.
Stubbornness is a mitigation of failure. Low cost keeps the effects of failure less dangerous. Small efforts still help, specially in cases where there is no room for scale but problems still need to be solved for a small number of people.
“Twitter could be a really nice small global player with just a reach of a few hundred million users, be successful and profitable if it stayed small. But it has IPO’d and now it has to be big, it has to grow every quarter, and that is what is going to kill Twitter.” Obsession for scale mentality can be particularly dangerous in international development.
Concerns for scale and impatience can kill the individual level, take the human out of the operations.
Future of the world and his work
At a crossroads about adding value: “Would I be more valuable in a large organization, or a small one?”
Ken’s position is still privileged, he feels valuable. Stubbornness might still be the way to go. Advocacy is good.
You really have to find something you are passionate about, not just interesting, for the rest of your life.
Empathy and understanding for the people you want to help. Otherwise it’s arrogance.
Get involved early, before making a family so you can do anything and go everywhere.
Social change is not structured, it’s scrappy. Learn but don’t think you need a qualification to make change. Institutionalization can be dangerous, you don’t need it to learn as you don’t need it to create impact.
“If your dream job does not exist, create it.“
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