A Conversation with Ken Banks founder of FrontlineSMS and kiwanja.net



We recently met Ken when he was asked to address the Join Our Core social enterprise semi-finals in the Dragon’s Den. It was one of the most inspiring moments of an already great day.

He is the founder of kiwanja.net, and devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world, and has spent the last 19 years working on projects in Africa. His early research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, an award-winning text messaging-based field communication system aimed at grassroots non-profit organisations.

Ken was awarded a Stanford University Reuters Digital Vision Fellowship in 2006, and named a Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow in 2008. In 2009 he was named a Laureate of the Tech Awards, an international awards program which honours innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity.

He was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in May 2010 and an Ashoka Fellow in 2011, and is the recipient of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest. Ken was also a member of the UK Prime Minister’s delegation to Africa in July 2011. His work was initially supported by the MacArthur Foundation, and he is the current recipient of grants from the Open Society Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, HIVOS, the Omidyar Network and the Hewlett Foundation.


Paul Skinner: In your recent article in Wired magazine you developed the concept of “Reluctant innovation”, arguing that moments of genius often come when you are intending to work on something else. Could you give us some examples of what you mean by that?

Ken Banks: Since developing a solution to a problem I didn't originally set out to solve, I've become increasingly interested in reluctant, accidental and serendipitous innovation. There's an ongoing debate in the social innovation and social entrepreneurship worlds around whether you can teach innovation, and with an increasing focus on it at university and in academia many people clearly believe you can.

What really interests and excites me, though, are innovators who didn't have that kind of training or background who come up with high impact solutions to problems they may not have originally been aware of, let alone had any interest in solving. The fact they did is, in my view, what makes them "reluctant". Believing in this form of innovation democratises the opportunity, I believe, and sends out the message that you don't need qualifications or an MBA to develop a world beating social solution. This is powerful, and empowering, and a message we need to share more.

As part of my drive to do just that I'm in the process of pulling together a book on the phenomenon - which should be out by the end of the year - which features the stories and work of about a dozen reluctant innovators. In my recent Wired Magazine article - which built on an earlier post I'd written on the subject - I provided two examples of people I considered typical reluctant innovators. Here are two short summaries of their stories:

One evening in 1996, Brij Kothari was watching a DVD of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” with friends in Ithaca, New York. The dialogue was in Spanish and the subtitles in English. Out of nowhere an idea popped into his head. As a Spanish language learner, he wished the subtitles were also in Spanish. Turning his attention home, he wondered whether India could become literate if Bollywood-made Hindi films and songs were shown with the lyrics subtitled in Hindi. The idea behind same language subtitling – or SLS – was born. Today, thanks to Brij’s organisation Planet Read, Indian primary school children numbering in the hundreds of millions are learning basic literacy by simply watching their favourite television programmes. Not bad for something conjured up in front of a Saturday night movie.

Then there’s Laura Stachel, whose organisation – WE CARE Solar – designs portable solar lighting kits for maternity wards in developing countries. When she first headed out to Nigeria she planned to work on a different problem altogether, but quickly realised that a simple lack of lighting was responsible for an unacceptable number of mother and child deaths. Maternal mortality rates in Nigeria are among the highest in the world, with a ratio of 1,100 maternal deaths occurring for every 100,000 live births, so she turned her attention to helping design, build and distribute solar kits to solve it. “As an American doctor, it was inconceivable that a hospital could function without reliable electricity. The lack of lighting for a cesarean section was a problem I had never imagined”. Laura never intended to build and run an organisation, and never chose to become a solar innovator, but seeing a problem she felt compelled to fix, she reluctantly became one. Solar Suitcases are now saving the lives of mothers and babies in hundreds of delivery rooms throughout the developing world.

(“Genius happens when you plan something else”, Wired UK, June 2012).

As I thought more and more about this type of innovation, and began to see it in more and more places, I started to wonder what percentage of innovation was planned and studied as opposed to unplanned and accidental. For me there's a certain romance in the latter, and that's something I hope to tease out a little more in the forthcoming book.

Paul: Are there any ways to increase the chances of this kind of “happy accident” occurring?

Ken: I talked a little about this during a recent interview with a US radio show. There's no particular secret, but narrowing it down I'd say there are a five things someone could do that might help.

First, in the words of National Geographic you should "live curious". As children we're always asking questions, wondering why things are a certain way, wondering how they work and so on. As we get older that curiosity tends to get knocked out of us, and keeping hold of it can be a great asset. If anything, there's more to be curious about today than there ever was. So question everything, seek answers, and don't stop there if you're not happy with them.

Second, read widely. I became interested in international development in 1993 after a trip to Zambia, and following that trip immersed myself in dozens of books on the subject. I became so curious I ended up studying the subject at university three years later.

Three, put yourself in the kinds of environments where you're more likely to see and experience things. A few years back I was becoming increasingly interested in primate conservation, bush meat hunting and deforestation, so I headed off to Nigeria for a year to work at a sanctuary. I learnt more about the workings of conservation and grassroots NGOs in that time than I ever could have by reading books. Sometimes you have to almost smell and taste the problem to get a sense of its scale.

Four, don't over-plan. I left settling down very late in the grand scheme of things (getting married in my late 30's, buying my first home around the same time) but that did mean I was largely debt free and able to move around freely as random opportunities arose. Since 1993 I've lived and worked in several African countries and helped with everything from school and hospital building through to primate rehabilitation, biodiversity surveying and IT research. Without a doubt it's that breadth of knowledge and experience which allows me to do what I do today. At the time many of the things I did didn't appear to really tie together but today they're all equally as important in my work. "Where technology meets anthropology, conservation and development" is kiwanja's strap line, and it captures the four things I'm most passionate about.

And that leads me to my fifth and final bit of advice. If your ideal job doesn't exist, create it.

Paul: People who know you now might assume you have always been a leading figure in ICT for development. But from hearing you speak it turns out that you created FrontlineSMS, the platform that empowers development through open source communications software, with very little support and even spent a year living in a camper van to get it off the ground. Many of  our causes also have to make a great deal out of very little on a daily basis to achieve their goals. Do you feel there are ways to turn scarce resources into a positive?

Ken: One of my favourite quotes goes along the lines of "some of the best innovation comes about out of scarcity". When I think about what I've seen over the past 20 years across Africa, I'd have to agree. If you have few resources - and that can be anything from skills to networks to funding - you do tend to do things differently. Because of my belief in bottom-up development, FrontlineSMS was always going to be a tool that end-users in the developing world could simply take and deploy on their own. That was how I wanted it. But the fact that it was only me in the beginning - it stayed that way for about four years - and that I had a day job paying the bills, meant that I knew I wouldn't have the time or resources to provide full support. So it was designed in a way that meant users were least likely to need any - it was simple to install and use, didn't need a manual, could be easily copied and replicated, and was free.

After developing the software over five weeks while on holiday in Finland in the summer of 2005, it was released to the world a few months later in October. At that stage I just let it go, and carried on with my consultancy work. It only received a very small amount of funding (which I used to buy my first laptop, and some phones and cables), so there was no real pressure or expectation for it to make a huge impact. And since it wasn't funded by a major donor there wasn't an end-point where funding would run out and the project would potentially close down. One main advantage looking back was that I could keep it going at minimal cost simply by dedicating a few hours a week to it (mostly answering questions from users, prospective users, and the media).

That was key because it wasn't until April 2007 - 18 months later - that it got it's first big break when it was used to monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections. At that time I was at Stanford University on a Fellowship, helping about a dozen social innovators develop their own ideas. After the Nigerian elections it became clear that my own project had potential, so I turned my attention back to it. Amazingly, I had almost shut FrontlineSMS down a few months earlier. And, yes, during my time at Stanford personal funds were incredibly tight so I lived in a VW camper for two years. I continued to live in it after I was funded by the MacArthur Foundation (who introduced me in emails as "the man in the van"). It kept life simple, and kept me focused. Silicon Valley is the kind of place you can get lost in, and I wanted to make sure I didn't sell myself short by not pursuing the non-profit ideas that really switched me on.

Paul: We understand that FrontlineSMS is now at a point in its development where you have been able to appoint a new executive team and free up some of your own time to work on new projects. What can you tell us about your plans for your new Means of Exchange programme?

Ken: If I think about my work with FrontlineSMS, and the broader topics that interest me, one theme emerges - how we might use modern communications technology to empower people to connect with their communities for meaningful, social benefit. FrontlineSMS, of course, always had a developing country focus and it's now in use in approaching one hundred countries around the world. What I wanted to do next was focus on a problem closer to home, and this is something I'm now able to do following our announcement in May that I'll be stepping back operationally from FrontlineSMS (read announcement here).

Means of Exchange is part of my new focus, and the site is something I hope will become something of a hub for people interested in how we promote economic self-sufficiency. In short, Means of Exchange focuses on methods of economic self‚Äźsufficiency, community building and local empowerment. At its core it will focus on how emerging, everyday technologies - primarily mobile phones and social media - can be used to democratise economic empowerment, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use. Over the course of the year I'm planning to develop and distribute a suite of apps giving citizens the tools they need to take better control, and better exploit, their own economic opportunities. Although this project has been in the planning for around 18 months, recent events mean the timing is now perfect. I'll be writing more, and announcing details of the first app, on my blog in the next month or so.

Paul: You also have an interest in games as a platform for achieving positive social and environmental impact - what can you tell us about the Silverback conservation game you developed?

Ken: Silverback was mobile conservation game developed in 2003 during my time at Fauna & Flora International. It was re-released following the high-profile killing of a number of gorillas in national parks by rebels in 2008. The original idea was to teach people about gorilla conservation while they played a fun game, and to that end it succeeded (scoring highly in the commercial mobile gaming press). Although a game, strong educational elements were included as the player worked through eight levels, facing a range of threats and challenges a gorilla would expect in the wild. "Face the challenges of life in the forest as you grow from a juvenile gorilla into a fully-grown silverback. Across eight challenging levels try to guide yourself and your new family to the safety of the reserve, but watch out for fires, traps, poachers and rival silverbacks".

Although a flagship project, Silverback was part of a wider initiative funded by the Vodafone Group Foundation which sought to address two key questions. First was how to make the most of cutting edge technology to bring mobile phone users closer to conservation, and how people could be connected more directly to conservation projects and issues in a way that was enjoyable, novel and created a sense of personal involvement. Secondly was how mobile phone connectivity could work for conservation in the field, in communities where poverty was an overwhelming fact of life and where conservation was seen as a luxury of the wealthy. Silverback was one of a number of games we developed, along with a suite of animal ringtones and wallpapers, and a mobile internet site, all under the banner of wildlive!

Paul: At this point in our interviews we ask our guests to pick out one or two of their favourite causes from Pimp My Cause and to let us know why they have chosen them. Who would you like to choose and why?

Ken: There are so many great causes in your community so this is a tough one. But if you were to force my hand I think my choice would have to be The Hackney Pirates. I'm fully supportive of any organisation that works to educate, empower and inspire young people, and to a degree their work reflects some of the things I try to do, albeit at a different level, through the various mentoring programs I'm involved with. I've seen some of their work at first hand, and met some of the staff and management, and they're an incredibly talented and dedicated bunch.

Other than the significant impact they're having with the children they support, The Hackney Pirates have also managed to take a concept that some children might resist and made it fun and playful with a brand that is both great and unique both visually and textually (I love their use of pirate terms in their literature). It's the combination of fun, focus, impact and brand that makes them my choice.

Paul: At Pimp My Cause we are not so concerned with technology itself as we are with what you can do with technology. And in particular how the democratization of communications technology can help purpose-driven organizations achieve breakthrough results. How would you advise The Hackney Pirates to explore using communications technology to achieve their goals, or what ideas would you suggest for them?

Ken: The Hackney Pirates brand has huge potential in today's social media and smart phone-driven world, the very places young people feel naturally "at home". They already have a Twitter account, and with around 700 followers there's still plenty of room for growth. I'd ramp up the frequency of tweets a little, most of which focus on news from the organisation, and look to gain a little more social currency by retweeting others working in a related space. Of course, Twitter is a challenge due to its character limit but their Facebook page does a fantastic job of promoting stories of the work they do with children, and in promoting playful events like "The Young Pirate Apprentice".

It's difficult to comment on their strategy - and how they might better use technology - without knowing their wider plans and intentions, but I'd say the one area they've probably got the most (as yet untapped) potential would be on mobile. A pirate social network linking fellow pirates, for example, so children could connect and share stories and experiences. Or pirate-themed educational games, where children gained "gold coins" for attaining a certain level. Even fun apps where people could add parrots or pirate hats or claws to photos they've taken of family and friends, which could then be uploaded and shared through an online platform. All of these would raise awareness for them and their work among their target audience, and build on their fun and unique theme.

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