Changing the World, One SMS at a Time

New Media Fellows 2013

By Imani M. Cheers

February 25, 2013

Also published at The Cheers Report

Ken Banks has dedicated his life to improving communication access in developing countries throughout the world. As a child Banks was very creative and loved writing poetry but wasn’t overly engaged in traditional school.  He recalls, “Despite promising academic reports from my teachers, I rarely felt settled at school and left with below average grades.” While school didn’t hold his interest for long, Banks was always interested in technology and has become a leading force in mobile technology for over a decade.

As the founder of kiwanja.net and creator of FrontlineSMS, a free open source software used by grassroots organizations to distrubute and collect information via tex messages, Banks combines over twenty-five years of experience in the technology field combined with a degree in social anthropology and nineteen years living in Africa to provide communities with reliable mobile technology developed to enrich their lives.

Banks’ accolades are extensive including a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts(2012), a Cambridge News Award for Social Entrepreneurship (2012), Ashoka Fellowship (2011) and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2010) yet his greatest accomplishments are his mobile technology advancements.

 

I was able to catch up with Banks as he travels the world as a mentor withUnreasonable at Sea helping to motivate, educate and inspire future entrepreneurs and innovative inventors to discuss his interest in mobile technology, advice for young entrepreneurs and how FrontlineSMS works.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur and an inventor?

Like many children, I enjoyed building and making things. Somehow many of us lose that as we work our way through the more formal education system, which is a big shame. I went through a number of phases during my earlier years and wanted to be everything from a train driver (despite Jersey having no trains) to a fireman, to a pilot.

In reality it took me a long time to truly find the one thing that switched me on, and I was nearer my late 20′s before I realized that my future lay in a combination of technology, anthropology, conservation and development. It took me a further few years to create my ideal job, one which is today enshrined in the mission of kiwanja.net.

Even then I had no intention, to be honest, to create or build or invent anything. That didn’t really happen until I came up with the idea forFrontlineSMS in early 2005, an idea which I ended up pursuing and building on for over seven years.

When did you first become interested in mobile technology?

Oddly enough mobile technology found me, not the other way round. When I started out in ‘mobiles for development’ in January 2003 I didn’t even own one. My entry into the field was purely accidental on a number of fronts. In late 2001 I headed to Nigeria to help run a primate sanctuary in Calabar. For a while I was considering furthering my conservation career and primatology has always been a strong interest area. About a year in I was involved in a motorcycle accident and a few days later found myself on a plane heading home to Jersey with a broken leg. When I got there I had no money, no job and nowhere to live. That was about as low as it got for me.

A few weeks later I received a phone call out of the blue from someone I used to work with at Jersey Zoo. They were now working in Cambridge (UK) for a conservation organization – Fauna & Flora International – and they’d just received a grant from the Vodafone Group Foundation to spend a year exploring the potential of mobile technology in conservation and development work.

It was incredibly forward thinking when you look back now. Mobile phones back then were just starting to get colour screens, just connecting to the Internet, just building gaming capability and just starting to become the devices which would later develop into smart phones. I moved to Cambridge in January 2003 to work on the project and still live there today. It ended up running for two years and in that time produced an innovative mobile-based conservation portal called wildlive! (which provided conservation-themed games, news and ringtones) and one of the first reports on the potential of mobile phones for conservation and development.

What do you think are the most significant challenges to technology in developing countries?

Ironically, many of the bigger dangers lie in the rush to try and close the ‘digital divide’. The rate of innovation in the technology sector, particularly in communications and home entertainment, is as high as its ever been. Armed with iPads, tablets and other high-tech devices and services, development workers rush off into the developing world in search of problems that their technology might fix. This is clearly not the right way of going about it.

I wrote about this recently in an article which has since been republished in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Many of the bigger challenges, at least in a development perspective, are behavioral and the need for many people working in the Information and Communications for Development (ICT4D) sector to recognize that there’s a shift taking place. As more and more students across contingents such as Africa graduate with computer science degrees, and as increasing numbers of innovation hubs spring up across the continent, and as mobile phones continue to penetrate deep into rural areas, increasing numbers of home-grown and local technology solutions to problems are emerging. It’s hard to argue against a shift which sees people solving their own problems rather than outsiders coming in with, often, little real understanding of them.

At the same time, technology continues to be hyped as a solution to almost every problem everywhere across the developing world. I think we need to be a little cautious that we don’t look at problems with technology-tinted glasses. The solution to a particular problem might be a crayon, or a blackboard, and we’re less likely to develop appropriate solutions if we start off with preconceived ideas that the answer is, for example, a mobile phone. And, finally, we need to recognize that low-technology is not a poor or cheap substitute for “real solutions”. At the end of the day technology has to be sensitive and appropriate to the geographical, economic, technical and cultural conditions of its users. If it’s not it will often fail.

Describe FrontlineSMS and explain how it works?

A lack of communication is a major barrier for many grassroots non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working throughout the developing world, particularly those working with hard-to-reach “last mile” communities. When FrontlineSMS was first released in 2005 it was the first text messaging system to be created with this problem specifically in mind. By leveraging basic tools already available to most NGOs – computers and mobile phones – the software enables instantaneous two-way communication on a large scale. In its simplest terms, FrontlineSMS is free software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone or modem into a central communications hub. The program enables users to send and receive text messages with large groups of people through mobile phones.

FrontlineSMS was my first independent project and its roots were in conservation, funnily enough. I was working in Bushbuckridge, an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa, helping with the Fauna & Flora International project I described earlier.

One element of the Kruger work was to try and identify a system which South African National Parks (SANParks) could use to send text messages to Bushbuckridge community members. The authorities wanted to re-engage people into the conservation effort, keep them updated on park matters, ask their opinions on decisions which would impact them, arrange meetings, send wildlife alerts, and so on. Part of my role was to identify a system they could use to do this. After a considerable search, though, I could only find mass messaging tools which worked off the Internet. Back in 2004, it wasn’t possible to just jump on the Internet around Kruger National Park, so all of these solutions proved totally inappropriate.

It wasn’t until a year later that the idea of creating a mass messaging system which ran off a laptop computer and attached mobile phone came to me. By sending and receiving the messages through the phone, the need for the Internet was removed. It really is very simple, but at the time nothing like this existed. I had a hunch that there were likely many organizations out there that wanted to send messages to people in places where there was no Internet, so I raised a small amount of money and bought a laptop, some manuals, some phones and modems and cables, and spent five weeks over the summer of 2005 writing a prototype of FrontlineSMS on a kitchen table in Finland. I built a website for it, and in October that year released it to the world. What’s happened since has been pretty amazing.

How has it grown since inception in 2005?

Shortly after its release FrontlineSMS got its first user in Zimbabwe, and things started slowly from there. (Incidentally, Kubatana.net still use the software to this day). For the first couple of years things plodded along without any major incident, although the software was proving particularly useful to the activist community.

In April 2007 a coalition of Nigerian grassroots NGOs used it to monitor theirpresidential elections. It became a big story and donors started taking an interest. That summer I got the first of a number of grants to help develop and promote the software, and things kicked off from there.  As recently as last week the team announced we’d reached the 40,000 download mark, and that the software has users in over 130 countries.

What is kiwanja.net?

kiwanja.net is the online home for me and my work. When I started my mobile work in early 2003 I soon realised there were many non-profits all asking the same questions about the use of, and potential of, the technology in their work. So it made sense to openly share what I was learning with the wider community. Today, kiwanja.net hosts my blog, over 150 photographs documenting the use and rise of mobile technology (mostly in Africa), videos of conference talks and interviews, details of my work and projects, audio clips from radio shows and interviews, and a library of papers, documents, interviews and book chapters. kiwanja.net also serves as the umbrella for my work.

What is the Means of Exchange project and how does it work?

Means of Exchange is a global initiative focusing on methods of economic self-sufficiency. At it’s core it looks at how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratize opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local community and promote a return to local resource use.

It’s part of my growing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology might help buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started my research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level.

As we all know, in times of hardship people tend to become increasingly innovative. As Greeks have found themselves with less and less cash in their pockets, many have turned to bartering. It’s how communities react to economic shocks that the project will be focussing on, and how tools like bartering, swapping, LETS schemes and local currencies are applied and deployed in response.

I’m hoping Means of Exchange will be a place where people share news, stories and ideas around how we might better buffer ourselves from future shocks. It will also host a toolkit for communities interested in implementing solutions locally, and develop its own tools where ones don’t currently exist.

As an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to others?

I’m incredibly fortunate today to get to meet, mentor or work with a wide number of technology start-ups and entrepreneurs. I’m also regularly invited to speak at conferences about my work, and to student groups interested in social entrepreneurship. Giving back, and sharing my experiences in a learning environment is just about the most valuable thing I think I can do today.

I’d say there are a few basic pointers I could share based on my work over the years:

1. Don’t be in a hurry. Grow your organization on your own terms.
2. Don’t assume you need money to grow. Do what you can before you reach out to external funders.
3. Volunteers and Interns may not be the silver bullet to your human resource issues.
4. Pursue and maximize every opportunity to promote your work.
5. Remember that your website, for most people, is the primary window to you and your idea.
6. Know when to say “no”. Manage expectations.
7. Avoid being dragged down by the politics of the industry you’re in. Save your energy for more important things.
8. Learn to do what you can’t afford to pay other people to do.
9. Be open with the values that drive you.
10. Collaborate if it’s in the best interests of solving your problem, even if it’s not in your best interests.
11. Make full use of your networks, and remember that the benefits of being in them may not always be immediate.
12. Remember the bigger picture. Don’t let politics drag you down.

What’s next for you?

Well, that’s a great question, and great timing. After 20 years working in international conservation and development – ten of which have been mobile and technology focused – I feel it may now be time to make better use what I’ve learned, and take it forward somewhere else.

I’m not entirely sure what or where that ‘somewhere else’ might be, but I have until the end of 2013 to find out. In part this is driven by commitments to a growing family, and a realization that living month-to-month is no longer a sensible or responsible option. In the ideal world I’d find somewhere to work where I could continue to write, share, speak and innovate as I have been doing with kiwanja.net over the years. I still feel I have a lot to offer.

Imani Cheers is a 2013 International Reporting Project New Media fellow. She is investigating the intersection of mobile technology and global health in South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Ghana, Cote d’ Ivoire and Liberia.