Tech for the Other 80%
25 March 2015 at 10:48 am
A duo of technology entrepreneurs has made the move to social enterprise, aiming to bridge the digital divide between the world’s richest and poorest with a global rollout of their $7 computer-on-a-stick, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
After a successful stint selling their tech product to large corporations for profit, Israeli Nissan Bahar and Italian Franky Imbesi decided to use their technology for good. They scaled back their for-profit operations and made the shift to social enterprise with the goal of revolutionising computing in developing nations.
Their technology is Keepod – a portable operating system stored on USB. The Keepod can be plugged into any machine by the user and enables them to access their personal computer in any location.
It allows easy and secure sharing of computing resources where availability is limited, such as in the developing world. Five billion people, 70 per cent of the world’s population, are still without access to personal computing.
Observing that charities working in their sector didn’t manage to sustainably scale to the heights the pair were aiming for, they decided to continue to run Keepod as a business and apply rules and terminology from the business world, changing only one thing in the equation – instead of maximising profit, they aimed to maximise impact.
Having now completed a pilot program in Nairobi, Kenya, their attention is turned to a global rollout of their model of microfranchising – turning people at street level into Keepod vendors.
Co-founder and CEO of Keepod, Nissan Bahar spoke to Pro Bono Australia News from his home in Israel about the potential of technology to address poverty, the challenge of implementing programs that are geographically transplantable and how he has found personal satisfaction leaving his corporate career behind.
Rewiring for Impact
Nissan Bahar had always worked in traditional, for-profit business in the IT sector. He says the origins of Keepod lie in a decision he made to move away from that world and into the social sphere after Keepod proved a commercial success.
“We started selling it to banks and telcos, reducing their costs in desktop management in a very significant way. We realised that if what this is, what we can do for a company, imagine what we could do for individuals. We started seeing the impact Keepod could have,” he says.
“We were also completely tired of working with enterprises and executives and we wanted to do something more meaningful with our lives. We did something that people call commercial suicide (laughs) and cut back activity in our enterprise business after two years operating as Keepod.”
After taking a year to experiment with models and get a grip on the complex social issues Keepod could address, Bahar and Imbesi relaunched Keepod with a pilot program in Nairobi, Kenya, to test some of their ideas.
“That made sure we understood the demand, we had a solution for it, and we knew how to deliver sales,” Bahar says.
“One of [the takeouts] was improving the technology, when we went to Kenya, for example, we tested using Android for the first time. That operating system is more intuitive for people, it reduces the learning curve for people using the technology for the first time. It was a major bet and it paid off.”
Bahar says the benefits of the Keepod have been profound.
“Having access to free information, and just seeing what is out there is a huge impact on somebody’s life. When we work with people who struggle just to earn the bare minimum in a week, they usually don’t have a window to the outside to see the different opportunities, they are usually fed on information coming from very, very specific channels,” he says.
“For me even if they just go on Facebook and have a friend overseas who says ‘hi’, that is taking people out of their reality and empowering them. You can take it to so many levels.”
Bahar and Imbesi’s ambitions are lofty, with the goal to achieve global cut through. They have developed a targeted strategy to achieve this, leveraging NGOs, the philanthropic capabilities of the developed world, and the enterprising spirit of those in developing nations.
“We partition the world based on income,” Bahar says. “20 per cent of the world population is running on $1 to $2 a day. That is mainly Africa, but not only them.
“Then we have what we call the middle class of the world, which is 60 per cent of the world – Latin America, the Middle East, and many countries in Asia, that live on about 10 dollars per day. Then we have the people on the right side of the digital divide, another 20 per cent, which are the developed countries.
“The first 20 per cent – the people in extreme poverty – we don’t think that we are able to sell them Keepod, even if it’s $7. We reach them only through aid projects and NGOs working in the field. It’s a channel that is set up where basically NGOs are doing projects, small grassroots NGOs through to larger ones, and we cater to those communities through them.
“The 60 per cent, the main target, these people cannot afford a computer but they can afford a Keepod.”
Bahar highlights difficulty in trying to get governments to distribute technology in those middle countries. The organisation came up with an alternative solution enabling people to become vendors themselves, rather than go through the top of the pyramid. Keepod has since had over 500 inquiries from 80 countries around the world.
“We decided to go to to street level, and allow people to set up their own Keepod points and perhaps make a small income – make a small profit, drive people to their business and contribute to their community,” he says.
“Now we are consolidated, we can focus on getting those Keepod points at street level, and this is what we’re deploying now.
“You go to those places where there is really extreme poverty but when you go on the highway, you see billboards of Apple and iPhone. They know it exists, so they are really eager to get on board, and when they do get it, they are so dedicated and creative with it.”
The remaining 20 per cent of the world, those in developed countries, are approached to ‘Give and Get’. They can order Keepod, but to get one they must also give one. Instead of spending $7 they spend $14, and the second Keepod is allocated for someone in extreme poverty.
Tailoring for Change
Bahar says each geographic region demands a unique response, a need amplified by the seller-client relationship.
“Obviously when you work with different countries in Africa or you need to manage a project in South America, the logics are completely different and the expectations are completely different. Then you go to Asia and the interaction is completely in another direction.
“We find a common ground with everyone – whether someone in Africa or South America – around their everyday struggle and what we can do about it. One of the things we focus is on is helping them understand how personal it is. That worked on all cultures, that sense of ownership.
“Now that we approach it as a business, where it’s not just like I’m going to approach this population and give them something for free, where they will accept it and say it’s wonderful …It’s extremely challenging. I’m selling them something, this changes everything, they are my customer!”
Variance in connectivity to the internet and the availability of computers in poverty-stricken areas has also required Bahar and his team to think strategically.
“We work in different areas and every project has different needs. There are areas where there is power but no connectivity, there are areas where there is neither and there are areas with both but no access to a computer,” he says.
“The scenario we are seeing the most is where there is connectivity and power, but the barrier is the cost [of the computer]. What we are saying is, let’s change the way the computer is used, as providing a laptop for each person would be impossible. We place recycled computers from the [developed] world in public places such as libraries and then people can just go and access the shared computer using it as a personal one.
“In projects where there is no connectivity or no electricity, we approach them together with the ecosystem we have built around us, such as satellite organisations that know how to bring power and light via solar panels. There are all kinds of creative solutions there.”
Caring Over Commercialism
Keepod has given Bahar a fresh outlook, he says – both in business and personal terms.
“Being a business owner is already a risk..being a business owner with something that is difficult to define as a business…I don’t know many companies that are working like Keepod and even in the startup scene it’s funny because people are looking at us and asking where the catch is!” he says.
“It’s much more intense and more challenging than previous business ventures. It’s an incredible business school for us.”
“For us it was also finally doing something that gave us satisfaction, and not just economic satisfaction. There is real personal satisfaction with something that impacts people in such a positive way.
“It takes us to places that are incredible and allows us to connect on a personal level with people around the world. Something like that, it changes you as a person and allows you to do things that usually you couldn’t.
“Being borderless, as a person, and as a company, is great. It sounds like a cliche but it’s really amazing.
“And that is enough.”