Simplicity, Inclusion and Ingenuity: What African Tech Companies Can Teach U.S. Nonprofits

Liz Ngonzi teaches at The New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies (NYU-SCPS) Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, training nonprofit organization leaders how to raise money and engage supporters leveraging social media, and online and mobile channels. 
Liz is an international entrepreneur, educator and speaker committed to facilitating relationships between organizations that “do good” with those that “do well” to meet mutually beneficial strategic objectives through marketing and fundraising campaigns and educational activities.  Born in Uganda and “raised” at the United Nations, Liz has grown into a recognized authority on women/minorities in entrepreneurship and leadership, technological innovations to advance causes and the empowerment of disenfranchised people through improved service delivery. 

In the wake of the economic realities of our times, U.S. nonprofits must explore more progressive, cost-effective and unique ways to engage supporters, and develop and deliver services to remain relevant in a highly competitive market. They must also compete with new market entrants that are more nimble, entrepreneurial and savvy about which tactics to employ to easily gain market- and mind-share.  

Increasingly, U.S. nonprofits seeking these advantages are looking to Africa, where there exist a variety of tech solutions that provide new ways to increase an organization’s relevance and survival.

Traditionally, any relationship between U.S. nonprofit organizations and Africa has been based on the assumption that it is a one-sided one with U.S. nonprofits providing funds, technical expertise, and solutions to Africa. The perception is often, presumably, those on the receiving end are unable to develop on their own and are merely a recipient rather than a partner through which U.S. nonprofits can also benefit. 

This relationship is shifting through a combination of social media, mobile telephony, and creative African developers and entrepreneurs who are leveraging technology to address and, in some cases, solve some of the continent’s most pressing issues.  These solutions facilitate access to education, human rights awareness, healthcare, employment opportunities—and even economic empowerment through timely communication between farmers and market people.

To date, the majority of the tech innovation in Africa has been on the mobile platform given that mobile phones are much more prevalent on the Continent than are PCs. Smartphones have yet to gain wide acceptance in Africa, therefore the majority of the development is on feature (non-smart) phones. 

Savvy U.S. nonprofits looking to remain relevant understand that the “flattening of the world” represents new competition; while at the same time potentially provides unprecedented access to new ways of approaching and solving problems.  As the following West African proverb states: “A man who does not leave his hut will bring nothing in.”

The following are tech innovation examples in Africa that could potentially benefit U.S. nonprofits:

Nontraditional Supporter Engagement

The successful Kenyans4Kenya Campaign initiative leveraged the power of Kenya’s largest mobile network operator, Safaricom’s M-PESA mobile money transfer service to engage Kenyans from all society to contribute funds for drought and famine relief in northern Kenya.  Corporations donated $3.5 million and an additional $2.5 million was raised from individual donations as small as three cents, demonstrating that even the most impoverished people, if given an opportunity are capable and willing to donate.


Kenyans4Kenya Website Homepage Screenshout Source: Kenyans4Kenya.co.ke (December 2011)

Service Delivery

African tech developers when creating applications to deliver critical services such as education, health care and agriculture to the least developed people on the continent need to consider that many within the potential user base are illiterate and living at a subsistence level. Simple and user friendly mobile interfaces and minimal data usage to access services are key. Three successful examples from Kenya are:

1.) The Textfor Life application developed by the BloodLink Foundation -- an organization responsible for blood collection throughout Kenya -- enables its staff to better manage the blood donor relationship through SMS messages.  By collecting pertinent data (including mobile phone number) about the donor at the time of the initial donation and inputting it into a database, BloodLink is able to increase the donor follow-up at a rate of as much as much at 100% in some areas, where previously it had been able only do so at a rate of about 2-4%.  Through the establishment of the collection and the management of information, BloodLink is able to send out emergency requests for blood donations to a targeted group of donors by geography, blood type, etc.  Additionally, through the SMS system, BloodLink is able to remind its donors to donate on a periodic basis, thereby increasing the country’s ongoing blood supply.

SMS Campaign Initiation page Screenshot from Text for Life System. Source: BloodLink Foundation

Sample SMS Message from Text for Life System. Source: BloodLink Foundation

 2.) iCow (Kenya) – Provides small scale farmers with access to vital health information for their cattle and enables them to collect and store milk and breeding records using basic mobile phones.

Source: www.icow.co.ke

3.) mPrep is a Khan Academy platform for Bottom of the Pyramid students that provides access to quality study materials aligned to local content on mobile devices.  The platform also provides schools with meaningful information about students, enabling progress tracking. 

Citizen Engagement in Voting Process

With the U.S. having recently embarked on a very critical presidential election, electoral transparency and voter inclusion are key issues to maintaining a healthy democratic process.  Two tech platforms developed by young Africans intent on improving the electoral process in their respective countries are Ushahidi (Kenya) and ReVoDa (Nigeria).

1.) Nonprofit software company, Ushahidi Inc. pioneered an online voter monitoring platform that uses crowd sourced information (primarily though text message collection and online postings from citizens) to encourage social activism and public accountability. Results are displayed on interactive crowdmaps.  Originally developed in response to the disputed 2007 Kenya Presidential election to collect data about violence around the country, it has evolved into an open-source platform to monitor elections and crises globally.


What is the Ushahidi Platform? from Ushahidi on Vimeo.


 2.) ReVoDa, was developed by a volunteer tech team for the EnoughisEnough Nigeria coalition, to enable voters to function as registered citizen observers of their respective polling stations around the country.  The platform also enables the coalition to send relevant electoral information to registered users’ mobile phones, including accurate voting locations and ares where violence has erupted.

Three key lessons US nonprofits can learn from African tech developers:

1.) The “keep it simple” principle is oftentimes the best one to apply when trying to find new ways to create awareness, raise money, and/or deliver services.  Nonprofits that over think solutions can get caught up in analysis paralysis, resulting in impeded progress.

2.) Nonprofits serving populations traditionally thought to only be recipients of support can be catalyzed through new media.  New Media can contribute to the population’s own development and work to increase their sense of pride and ownership in the solutions provided to them.

3.) The barriers to entry for new solutions to problems solved by traditional nonprofits have been lowered by Internet access, social media and mobile devices. It’s now necessary for nonprofits to begin to think more entrepreneurially and in a less risk-averse manner in order to remain relevant.

The author wishes to thank Matthew Dawes, Managing Director of all amber (organizers of Mobile industry conferences in Africa), for providing access to real-time content about and companies in the African mobile market.



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