Technology with Purpose

How Companies, NGOs and Communities Can Make a Better World

by James Bernard


image001Technology is changing the way in which individuals and markets interact worldwide. It has become the medium in which information is being transferred and plays a critical role in how we navigate the creation of new systems and processes in our communities. With our new Seattle office, SSG Advisors is now able to engage directly with many leading technology companies, NGOs and philanthropies on how a ‘purpose-driven’ approach to technology can improve the lives and livelihoods of people across the developing world. As we prepare for the annual Global Washington Conference next week, we are excited at the prospect of highlighting innovative examples of how organizations like VillageReach, Remitly, PotaVida, and Intellectual Ventures are making use of technologies to deliver lasting impacts in the developing world.

What Distinguishes Purpose-driven Technologies?

So, what distinguishes a purpose-driven technology approach from other types of technology projects? These are technological tools that address some of humanity’s toughest problems and improve quality of life. Of particular interest are technologies that are accessible for use in low-resource settings, fit into the local cultural context, are affordable, and can stimulate development. This type of impactful use of technology can have a profound impact on critical global development challenges, such as food security, climate change and education. Purpose-driven technology solutions create lasting impact, whether it is using cutting edge TV Whitespace technology to connect outlying fishing communities in the Philippines or employing the Internet of Things (IoT) to transform water conservation at a public utility in Uganda. It is important to note that purpose-driven technologies are not limited to ICTs, since many innovations can come in the form of physical devices, such as cook stoves, or business models that can allow projects to scale.

The Key to Success

The key to success and sustainability, is to work from the ground up, both from a design and implementation standpoint. Creating partnerships between private sector companies companies, NGOs and communities is key. As an African proverb states, “if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Working together, partners are able to develop new business models that create economic opportunities and enhance sustainability. The result is that the responsibility of improving the lives of people and the communities they live in – things that are sometimes neglected — become a priority for each partner.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

Over the last decade, SSG Advisors has enabled a wide range of clients – companies, donor agencies, NGOs and foundations – to build these collaborative partnerships in more than 50 countries around the world. We have enabled our partners to make smart use of technologies to enhance their impacts on communities, markets and the environment. That is why we are so excited to be taking part in the 2016 Global Washington Conference, where we can share our experiences and learn more about the amazing work Seattle-based organizations are doing at the nexus of technology and impact. Look for us on December 8, at 1:30 p.m., at the “Tech for Good” panel, and join the conversation!

Building Local Partnerships to Empower Youth in Kenya

I’m 35,000 feet above Greenland, and I’m thinking about Africa. Kenya, specifically. I spent six years growing up in Kenya in the 1970s and 80s, and so it is a place that remains clse to my heart, and it’s only been in the last ten years that I’ve realized how much those experiences havScreen Shot 2016-07-18 at 10.02.38 AMe shaped my world view and my career. I’m extremely lucky to be able to do the work I do for SSG Advisors, and to be able to give back – even in little ways– to a place that shaped so much of who I am.

Kenya is a country of contrasts: huge population growth and large swaths of empty space; arid land that is hard to farm, and lush, green valleys full of growth. Industries in decline – tourism, sugar farming – and new, growth sectors like minerals and technology. It has booming cities – Nairobi and Mombasa — with their frenetic construction, impenetrable traffic jams and vibrant populations; small towns on the verge of collapse, and sparsely populated rural areas. The country is governed by a Constitution that virtually every Kenyan believes in, but they struggle with daily small-scale corruption and ongoing political scandals. As always, Kenya represents the hope and de
speration of Africa.

I just completed, with three colleagues, a Rapid Partnership Appraisal (RPA) on the Kenya Youth Employment Skills (KYES) program, which aims to connect unemployed and underemployed youth with job opPicture2portunities in nine counties over the next five years. The program is funded by USAID, and is being implemented by the Research Triangle Institute International (RTI), our partner on the project. This kind of program can help reshape Kenya, a country with more than 60% of the population under the age of 25. Unemployment, while high among all under-educated youth, is even more prevalent among young women, who often become young mothers, or aren’t allowed to work due to religious or cultural reasons. A program like KYES can give hope to young people who lack confidence and skills, and don’t feel like they are part of the growing middle class. People who feel they are stuck doing low-level jobs with few skills or opportunities to move up the economic ladder.

Under this backdrop is where SSG Advisors does its best work. We believe strongly that partnerships between the private sector, non-governmental organizations, community groups and donors represent a critical part of the path forward in any program. The only way to make development really, truly sustainable is to work with the businesses and organizations that were built locally and will be in their communities long after the five-year span of any program. The great news is that many other organizations are also understanding this, including our partner NGOs, the donors and development banks, and of course the businesses with whom we are engaging. Our Sustainable, Transparent, Effective Partnership (STEP) process simply gives everyone a framework from which to work.

In the past 15 days, we met with more than 50 businesses and organizations in five counties across Kenya – from rural farming areas to the bustling cities. We learned about why growing indigenous chickens can yield faster profits than boiler chickens. We learned how ingredients like tea, sugar and bixa are grown and harvested (employing thousands of people) in the start of a long value chain that stretches around the world. We spoke with women’s groups who are selling handicrafts on the Internet in Europe and the US, and met home-grown technology companies that are designing products for Africans by Africans. We heard how a new government regulator is striving to provide better building standards to manage the construction boom. We met local political leaders who are trying to change their communities from the ground up. These people see hope in the future of Kenya, and are deeply invested in it. When we surveyed them about how long they planned to be working in the country, the answer was invariably “for a lifetime.”

The work we did in Kenya over the last few weeks is really just the start of a process that will last for the entirety of the five-year program, and well beyond. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are actively working with the program team and the partners in every county to start the process of brokering the partnerships that will make KYES successful, and just as importantly, that will give youth the skills and the job opportunities they need to be successful.

At SSG, we don’t just talk about sustainability as a vague concept, or something to check a box in a work plan. It’s fundamental to the work we’ve done in more than 50 countries, and with countless businesses and organizations. It’s core to how we help organizations rethink new business models, allowing them to tap into new markets. By working together in deeply rooted local partnerships, we have some hope of changing the outcomes for millions of people around the world.