Ken Banks is the founder of kiwanja.net, an organisation merging technology and anthropology. For the last 20 years, Ken has left his home in the UK to focus on mobile technology projects in Africa that create positive social and environmental change. He has also been acknowledged by National Geographic and BBC as a leader in his field. We speak to Ken about his fascinating inventions which have improved African countries tremendously, and hear about how his path led him to our continent.
How did you get involved in mobile technology in Africa?
I learnt to code when I was in my early teens, and when I eventually joined the world of work after I left school, I ended up operating mainframe computers in the finance sector in Jersey, Channel Islands – where I was born. So my interests always had a technology slant, though I never thought I’d end up making a career of it. How I ended up working on mobile technology in Africa is quite a story, one which ended up defining me and the direction of the rest of my life.
In late 2001 I travelled to Nigeria to run a primate sanctuary. I have a strong interest in international development and conservation, and had already spent time working on a range of projects in Zambia and Uganda over the previous few years. I was due to stay in Nigeria until around the middle of 2003, after which I was considering taking up university studies in primate conservation. On 30th August, 2002 I was travelling back on a motorbike from an evening out celebrating my birthday with the sanctuary staff when a car hit us. I ended up some distance down the road. Given that I had no helmet on I was fortunate just to break my leg. I was taken home, and ended up having my leg set after eight long days. As I settled back in Jersey I began planning my next move and looking for my next challenge, but very little really interested me.
Then, out of the blue, I received a phone call from someone I used to work with at Jersey Zoo. They were now working for a conservation organisation in Cambridge and Vodafone had just given them a grant to look at the potential of mobile technology in conservation and development work. Back in late 2002 very few people, if any, were working in this space. Fortunately for me I had a strong technology background, and had experience working in Africa (on conservation and development projects), so it seemed like a good fit. I got offered the work, moved to Cambridge in January 2003 and took up the consultancy work. I have never looked back. I dread to think what would have happened if I hadn’t broken my leg in Nigeria. I wouldn’t have been around to take up this work, and all the amazing things that have happened since, wouldn’t have. It’s odd to think that we often work so hard to be strategic about our careers, but for me it took a serious accident to alter the course of my life.
Tell us about the FrontlineSMS service that you developed and what success it has seen so far.
While working on the consultancy, I travelled to South Africa and Mozambique a number of times over a two year period, doing fieldwork and exploring the potential of mobile phones as they gradually appeared in the places that many NGOs were working. It became clear that there was a lot of potential for mobiles to have a considerable impact in health, education, agriculture and so on. But very few people were building tools and solutions back then, and even less for smaller, grassroots NGOs. I’d spent most of my time working for smaller organisations during my previous trips to Africa, and figuring out how to help and empower them had become something of a focus for me.
About a year after returning from my last South Africa trip, I was at home enjoying some Saturday evening football when the idea for FrontlineSMS came to me. I knew that the Kruger National Park were trying to figure out how to send bulk messages to the communities living around the park, but that no tools existed which made that easy to do. Most text message broadcast tools required the Internet, and in most places I’d worked the Internet was a distant dream. So the idea which formed the basis for FrontlineSMS was to develop a tool which worked off a cheap laptop, without needing the Internet, and which allowed you to create contacts and groups, add mobile numbers to them and then broadcast a single message out. People could then reply, and you could basically run a communications hub anywhere there was a slither of mobile signal. If there’s not a signal where you worked then communities wouldn’t have phones, so potential users were self-selected that way.
Today, FrontlineSMS is helping power thousands of projects in over 100 countries. Everything from election monitoring to healthcare networks, from human rights abuse reporting to agricultural advice to farmers. It’s been quite an incredible story. In June this year I stepped back and handed operational control over to two colleagues, having felt I’d taken FrontlineSMS as far as I could. I think we have to be honest with ourselves, and realistic, about what we’re good at, and I didn’t think I was the best person to run the organisation as it entered a crucial stage in its development.
You are now working on Means Of Exchange which focuses on technology creating economic opportunities. Unpack this a bit more for us and tell us what this service achieves?
Following the handover, I started work on Means of Exchange. I only tackle problems that seriously bug me – as the communications challenge for NGOs in the developing world did – and this one does too. Technology has given us this ‘wonderful’ globalised society where we all feel interconnected and in touch with each other. Businesses can run internationally and we can get news in an instant. The problem is that, when things go wrong, in a globalised world they can really go wrong. We’re seeing this now. A stock market crash in one part of the world can lead to misery and hardship on the other side. People losing homes, jobs, self esteem, purpose. This can’t be right. Changing the system is one solution, but I don’t think we’re going to see that for some time. The system will eventually destroy itself, so we just have to wait.
What Means of Exchange seeks to do – using the same technologies which have caused many of the problems – is to build tools which encourage people to reconnect with local businesses, local resources and each other. By doing this we can build resilience into communities, so when things go wrong in far away places they’re much better placed to deal with the shock. There’s a general feeling that we need to think about sustainability in today’s world, but as good friend of mine, Andrew Zolli, said in his recent New York Times article, ”sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, whereas resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world”. I think we need to realise that we are headed for a future of instability, and that the way forward is to figure out how we can better manage in financially and environmentally turbulent times. This is what Means of Exchange is all about. How do we rebuild community, and encourage communities to become more financially resilient? My talk is available to view on my blog.
Being a leader in both, what are your thoughts on the future of technology merged with anthropology?
Studying anthropology at university looks like something of a masterstroke now, given the increasing visibility of anthropologists in the technology sector. Truth be told, I studied it because it just looked interesting. In the mobile technology sector in particular, anthropologists are playing an increasingly important role.
Today, with mobile markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can still call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ or BOP, as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone. Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.
They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries. Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.
Regarding the role of anthropology in my Means of Exchange work, clearly there are strong behaviour change elements and understanding what drives people is going to be key. Means of Exchange is a true multidisciplinary effort, drawing on all sorts of skills and disciplines – behaviour change, gaming, economics, sustainability, social media, community building and so on.
Coming from Europe and now working in Africa, you have the advantage of knowing both sides. What do you think are the main misconceptions that first world countries have about Africa’s state of technology?
After spending considerable amounts of time working across Africa – I lived and worked in about eight African countries between 1993 and 2008 – I’m now settled back in the UK where I’ve been focusing on using the skills, experience and insight I gained to develop solutions to some of the bigger problems I see. It’s been a fascinating experience, and I’ve seen a side to Africa many people don’t. I don’t see people sitting around, arms outstretched, waiting for international donors to step in with handouts. I don’t see people taking anything for granted. I don’t see people complaining about how bad things are, and how they have it tough. I see an incredibly entrepreneurial people, people looking to seize any opportunity they get to build better lives for themselves and their families. I see children doing absolutely anything they can to get an education. I see healthcare workers travelling huge distances, often on foot, to share knowledge and healthcare education. I see technology entrepreneurs applying their talents to solving social and environmental challenges where they live, not looking to get rich.
Internet penetration may still be low in many countries across the continent, but that – combined with the arrival of increasing numbers of smart phones – has given many entrepreneurs huge opportunities to build businesses, solve problems and better connect with colleagues, associates, social care providers, and their families. We’re beginning to see some African technologies leap ahead of the west, making us rethink how we see innovation and how we see Africa, its people, and its opportunity. There’s a growing sense of optimism among many Africans I know, despite their still being immense problems in some parts of the continent. That said, Europe is no different. We just need to remember that Africa is not a country, but a complex continent of cultures, peoples and traditions.
How do you see digital evolving in Africa in the next few years? Any predictions you would like to share?
I’m not one for predictions, but I think it’s fair to say that over the coming years we’ll witness increasing numbers of African technology companies, and entrepreneurs, building successful businesses. We could well end up using apps developed in Africa on our own phones in the West, and perhaps even using devices designed and manufactured in Africa to power them. But whether or not the continent becomes a bigger player internationally in the technology sector, you can be sure that the local technology sector will be far more buoyant And the increasing numbers of students leaving university with solid computer science qualifications, combined with the gradual influx of financing, and the growth of innovation hubs, will make for very interesting reading in the next few years.