You Can Do Well By Doing Good

Published on The European, Interview with Juliana Rotich, by Martin Eiermann, May 1, 2012.

Can the internet empower the voices from developing countries? Martin Eiermann spoke with Juliana Rotich, executive director of Ushahidi, about information flows, local knowledge, and the relationships between activists and entrepreneurs … //   

… The European: What do you see as the most important hack or development of the past ten or twenty years?

  • Rotich: I’d say it was the simple mobile phone. In Kenya, the Nokia 1100 was very important: A very simple phone that could do calls and SMS. It connected people across large distances. The next thing was fiber optic connectivity around Africa. I think that was a watershed moment, that was around 2009. It made a huge difference in how we communicate in Kenya. Internet access is still expensive, but connectivity on the continent is increasing. Before 2009 you couldn’t dream about being an internet or mobile entrepreneur in Nairobi. But now it’s a reality.

The European: When you mentioned Nokia, it brought up the issue of for-profit companies. How is that commercial and entrepreneurial spirit useful for a non-profit like Ushahidi? Can you use profit incentives to develop technologies for the good?

  • Rotich: We are not for profit, but we are also a tech-organization like Nokia, for example. Sometimes people call us an NGO, but internally we see ourselves as a tech company. Being a non-profit organization doesn’t mean that you can’t make revenue. A recent trend has been impact investing. Money can finance both non-profit and profit orientated organizations. You can do well by doing good. You can be in the non-profit space but think like an entrepreneur, and you can mix that with for-profit partners. Things are not black and white anymore.

The European: You are skyping from an iHub incubator in Nairobi. Can you take those local bubbles of innovation and creativity and blow them up to a larger scale? “Institutionalization” might be the wrong word, but can you bake innovation into the rules of the game, and make creativity less dependent on local and spontaneous contexts?

  • Rotich: That’s a really good question. I think we’re exploring some of that through our work with the iHub. I can’t see that we have an answer yet. A bubble of innovation and entrepreneurship needs to be a function of culture and it needs to be a function of community. It’s very difficult to replicate culture and community. What you can do is this: You can foster these dynamics by identifying places where people gather based on passion and engaging these communities in discussion, and by providing support. It requires patience, it requires patient capital that does not expect immediate returns. Because we are more interconnected, the world is more complicated than before, but it also creates new opprtunities. One question is whether we can find new funding models to support these passionate communities with patient capital.

The European: What precisely is the importance of culture? Is it a moral guide that tells us, “go here, but not there?” We agree that scientific progress is good – but do we want to embrace all forms of progress? Do we want cloning? Do we want a certain approach to digital copyright? It seems that culture is what allows us to make a decision about these questions.

  • Rotich: Let’s look back at how the internet was once conceived. Early on, when people were thinking about the very basic structure of it, the “Request for Comments” were are very participatory process. The open source movement grew out of that spirit, and now you have a company like Red Hat that has hit one billion recently. They took open source software and started to build services on top of it. That tells me is that there is something interesting about open source culture. It’s empowering in every sense of the word because it gives people tools on which they can build anything. In developing countries I actually think we need to look more at open source models, much more than at any other models of development.

The European: This hacker culture seems to challenge some fundamental notions of 20th century capitalism and Max Weber’s “protestant ethic”: Instead of acting out of duty and for the pursuit of money, your innovation bubbles are driven by passion and an almost childish desire to build and create.

  • Rotich: I completely agree with that. There are very interesting linkages between open source and religion in terms of how we might conceptualize ourselves and our environment. That culture provides us with a very different view of the world, but it is a view that could truly shape solutions to many contemporary problems. Let’s look at some of the biggest challenges right now: If you ask anybody what they’re most worried about, health is mentioned, and education, and the environment, and energy. These are essential questions. The strength of open source is that it taps into the network and turns us from people who know the problem into people who might be a part of the solution. I don’t really know what that might look like, but it feels like using technology as the agent that could explore what it means to filter these diverse perspectives out of our discourses. If we can collaborate to make something, then we could also collaborate to come up with a solution to a problem that affects all of us.

The European: You recently wrote that “to be innovative, you need a healthy modicum of humility.” How is innovation linked to humility?

  • Rotich: It ties back to our earlier conversation about designing with, rather than designing for. If you are “designing for,” then the mindset is that you know what is best for others. I’m African, and I am very skeptical of this whole “saving Africa” approach to development. That is just not cool. It’s very paternalistic and it’s so passé.

The European: Do you think that we in the West have been too blind to the innovation and the cool things that come out of Africa, or out of Southeast Asia, or out of Latin America?

  • Rotich: I think it’s good to listen closely what is going on on the ground. You could say that the West has not had very good hearing. But you can also look at my fellow African entrepreneurs and fellow African people and say that we need to be doing a better of job of explaining and showcasing our work. Connectivity is the greatest thing that happened to us, because we can now share our stories much more easily. We can have a voice. It is easy to make assumptions about someone without understanding what is going on locally. If you cannot connect with someone, it is hard to find out. The question now is: Are we using our connectivity to find out what’s cool about others, and how we might work together? That relates to the bigger issue of stepping out of your own bubble and expanding your global view. There are some people out there who identify themselves as global citizens – I’m one of them. I want to talk to other people to get their narrative, their point of view.

The European: You are saying: We have used global networks to broadcast our own world view, rather than treating them as satellite dishes that pick up the world views of others?

… (full long interview text).

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