A sign for a phone technician in Uganda ©

Ken Banks

Ken Banks is a British social entrepreneur who uses mobile technology and the web to effect positive social and environmental change. He has spent the last two decades working in Africa with his organisation kiwanja.net, harnessing the spread of the web and the ubiquity of mobile phones to create solutions to humanitarian problems.

His organisation has now helped NGOs in over 190 countries with projects such as FrontlineSMS, a text-messaging platform set up in 2005 to empower people to share on-the-ground information and organise aid during humanitarian crises.

We asked Banks how the web has transformed his work and what the future holds for him.

How did you get started as a social entrepreneur?

My early interest in the sector came with a desire to understand imbalance in the world, and whether or not I could meaningfully contribute to addressing it. I felt guilty that I had the chance of a much better life than someone else just because I was born in a particular place. That simple fact still drives much of what I do and, if anything, has been amplified now that I have young children.

What impact has the development of the web had on your work?

It has been significant. In the mid-1980s, when I first took an interest in global development, there was very little that someone with a technical background could meaningfully do. I had to wait about 20 years for two things to happen.

First, mobile technology began to make its way into rural areas of developing countries, giving a direct communication channel to the people I felt needed help.

Second, the web began to work its way around the world, allowing me to build networks and make contact with NGOs to promote the text-messaging solution I was offering. In those early days, without the web providing a global communication and distribution network for my software, I would have struggled to get it into any country, let alone the more than 190 it has ended up in.

How much has changed with access to web connectivity in Africa and other regions you are working in?

It’s unrecognisable – yet there’s still a very long way to go. Access to the web has created an environment in which local innovators and talent can thrive, allowing them to develop their own solutions to their own problems. It wasn’t like this when I started out.

What do you think still needs to happen to close the global digital divide?

I don’t believe the divide, particularly in developing countries, will ever be fully closed. Closing it will require business models that work, technologies that can deliver the web speeds required in the areas where it’s needed most, and for mobile devices to continue dropping in price.

FrontlineSMS software in use in a hospital in Malawi ©

Josh Nesbit

Are there any projects by other leading social entrepreneurs that inspire you?

I think that kubatana.net in Zimbabwe is doing great work. They were the first users of FrontlineSMS and, under the most challenging of conditions, they used all manner of technologies to mobilise and inform the Zimbabwean public during Mugabe’s brutal and corrupt time in office.

I’m also a big admirer of Tarik Nesh-Nash, founder of GovRight, who uses a series of online and offline tools to bridge the gap between citizens and government in North Africa, a region currently exploring new possibilities of self-determination.

What is next for you?

After an incredible 15 years building up kiwanja.net, I decided earlier in 2018 to close it down and move on. There were a number of reasons for my decision – a frustration with the focus and direction of much of the technology-for-development sector, a sense that I’d done all I could over that time, a desire to bring a little more stability and financial security to my family, and the lure of a new challenge.

In April I joined Yoti as head of social impact. Yoti develops digital identity solutions and is doing some of the most exciting and innovative work in this growing field. It is my job to identify ways in which we can apply their expertise and technology to support humanitarian efforts around the world. We’ve got some exciting projects underway which I hope we’ll be able to start sharing with the wider world soon.

Do you have any recommendations about what we can all do to bring about positive social change?

There are some simple things. First, take an interest: read widely and make an effort to meet like-minded people. Second, empathise: take time to understand what life is like for those less fortunate than yourself. Third, pick something big: get behind a major global campaign that addresses a major global challenge. And finally, pick something small: get behind a local organisation, addressing a local problem that you’re passionate about.

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