“In Africa, necessity is the mother of invention and social media sites are not just for sharing photographs and gossip,” quipped a recent article about Africa’s digital revolution. Although I think most of us would agree that our digital lives and social media worlds are partly for entertainment, the article also highlights how some entrepreneurs are employing technologies to help solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.
In the slums outside of Nairobi, Kenya, for example, cellphones have become so cheap that more than 70 percent of people living in struggling neighborhoods have a mobile. Safe and affordable drinking water, however, is a precious commodity. To tackle this problem, Standford University students involved in the Designing Liberation Technologies course, formed a successful partnership with a Kenyan organization, the Umande Trust. The Stanford-Umande team was able to realize a digital entrepreneurial solution that allows the community to use their mobiles to locate the best and cheapest water. The new, texting system called M-Maji, which is Swahili for ‘mobile water,’ allows users to find and compare information on the location, price, and quality of water in the community. This texting system saves users time and money and allows smaller water vendors to compete in a market that was previously monopolized by a few big vendors.
But this push towards digital, entrepreneurial solutions to social problems extends well beyond Africa.
In Bangladesh, women social entrepreneurs are packing their internet-equipped laptops onto bikes and riding out to rural villages. Villagers pay an hourly rate—$2.40/hr—to chat over Skype with a husband working in Saudi Arabia, to catch up with their Facebook friends, or to submit their college applications online. It is a business opportunity for these young women, but they are offering more than just a computer to rent by the hour. These young women, called the “Info Ladies,” are also providing villagers with other services for minimal or no cost such as talking to teenage girls about contraception and HIV prevention and discussing best farming practices with local farmers. The women not only bring computers and the Internet to remote places; they also offer new ideas and information.
The business community is leveraging this social entrepreneurial push to provide real solutions to some of the most pressing and immediate global problems. Last month, Forbes magazine launched its 2012 search for 30 Entrepreneurs Under 30, which aims to identify some of the most talented and young social entrepreneurs, who are in Forbes writer, Erin Carlyle’s words, “creative, do-gooding business people, and they’re getting a lot done.”
Digital and mobile platforms are increasingly the platforms of choice of the business-minded do-gooders. Recently, Paul Miller of Bethnal Green Ventures wrote a piece for GigaOm, “Saving the world with tech? It’s getting easier all the time,” in which he discusses the growing interest of venture capitalists in investing in socially-minded, tech startups. Whereas a year ago, many of the digital tech accelerator programs were generalized in focus, now they are honing in on using technology to solve a specific challenge. Miller mentions Greenstart, for example, which aims to help transform the energy sector with ‘digital cleantech’ solutions, and Imagine K-12, which seeks a technology-based transformation of the American education system. Of course, most relevant to Tech urSelf’s work, are those investors and accelerators such as Rock Health and Healthbox focused on technology-based solutions to optimize people’s health and wellness as well as overhaul the healthcare system.
It’s an exciting time to be working in this field, as a ‘real ecosystem’ develops to support the growth of digital tech solutions. Even as many communities continue to struggle, it is inspiring to read about so many people who see these struggles as opportunities for innovation, solutions, investment, and changing people’s lives for the better in real and practical ways.
This blog was originally published on the Tech urSelf blog.