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Mobile Phones Answer the Call of Nature- BBC

April 27, 2013

(Originally published on BBC Future’s Matter of Life & Tech, April 24th 2013 by Jonathan Kalan)

Some technologies seem to take off instantly whilst others – no less useful – seem to just limp along.

Take mobile phones and toilets – two arguably useful and life-changing technologies. In just over forty years, around six billion people have managed to get access to a phone. Yet less than half that number has access to sanitation, despite the fact that toilets were invented at least 5,000 years ago. And, according to Ms Jaehyang So, water and sanitation manager at the World Bank, the number of new people with access to sanitation “is not moving very fast.”

That’s a problem. A lack of facilities, poor infrastructure, leaking sewage and the rapid spread of associated diseases cause billions of dollars in economic losses, and the lives of nearly 4,000 children each day. And, as the world’s population swells, things only seem to be getting worse.

Now, the World Bank has stepped in and it believes the key to tackling the problem is tapping into mobile phones. “What a mobile phone represents to a person today is a potential for prosperity. It connects them to the rest of the world,” says Ms So.  “What people sometimes don’t understand is that access to sanitation also gives people that chance out of poverty.”

The bank has just announced the winners of its Sanitation Hackathon (SanHack), a competition to build phone apps that can help improve sanitation in the developing world.

“It was one of the most innovative and risky things we’ve done at the World Bank”, says Ms So, describing the experimental competition that aimed to bring fresh thinking to an age old problem.

“We were a bit worried the challenge wouldn’t be very sexy, or data rich,” claims Edward Anderson, also at the bank. “Developers usually get excited about building apps for things like climate change, but not so much about fixing pit latrines in rural areas.”

The response, however, was quite the opposite. The competition attracted more than 180 apps, including everything from games to teach children about good hygiene to programs that track exactly how much a household spends on sanitation.

More than maps

Yet, most of the submitted apps focused on crowd-sourcing information and mapping it – and for good reason. “Mapping has been a huge game changer,” in sanitation, claims Ms So, allowing utilities and providers to know “who needs service, where the problems are, and where the community is growing.”

Due to the informal design and haphazard growth of slums, and remoteness of rural areas, very little formal mapping has actually been done.

“In these places, it’s less a case of building stuff on top of a map, and more building the map in the first place,” says Gary Gale, who runs community programs for mobile firm Nokia’s Here Maps. “The minute you have information on a map, it gives it a veracity that wasn’t there beforehand.”

(Read full story on BBC)

World Water Day 2013

March 21, 2013

Well folks, it’s that time of year again. The time when we stop, take stock, and put into perspective one of the world’s most pressing problems; Water.

In recognition of the critical water challenges facing Kenya, where I currently live, let me share a bit of perspective from my own experiences chronicling of the challenges, the innovations, and potential solutions for water access across east Africa.


In the hot, dry and harsh landscapes of northeastern Kenya skirting the Somali border, hundreds of thousands of nomadic pastoralists continue to eek out a meager living from the land.

Yet in September of 2011, conditions were unbearable. It had been 16 months and counting since a single drop of rain touched down on the scorched earth, and the region was crippled by the worst drought in decades, forcing residents to survive near-famine conditions. The riverbeds were emptied, leaving nothing but dusty scars on the landscape. Carcasses of goats, donkeys and camels littered the side of the 370 km dirt highway between the two major towns of Wajir and Garissa, and thousands of people were forced to set up temporary shelters, kept alive by charity.

As result of global climate change, weather patterns are shifting drastically. The rains in the horn of Africa are becoming more sporadic, erratic, unpredictable and unreliable. However, a lack of rain alone does not produce famine. While some countries have the infrastructure, policies, programs and emergency relief services to be able to provide resources for their citizens in times of crisis, this area of Kenya, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.

When it comes to the basic necessity of water, the northeastern region of Kenya is plagued by both a lack of infrastructure and extreme marginalization. Inhabited by mostly ethnic-Somali pastoralists whose livelihoods depend on their livestock, people carry their homes on the backs of camels and move nomadically from one water source to the next. They don’t vote, and even if they did, their voice would matter little- the region has such little economic importance due to lack of resources, its primary purpose is to serve as a buffer between Kenya and war-torn Somalia. An aid worker once mentioned offhand that “the elected officials want to keep these people poor. That way, come election time, they can easily buy their vote and retain power.” Though this can’t be verified, it certainly is a common perception here.

Across the region, infrastructure is still the greatest challenge. 96% of sub-Saharan African agriculture is still rain dependent, meaning only 4% can actually grow and harvest crops when the rains don’t come, or during the dry seasons. Resources are vastly underused, and the lack of agricultural innovation and investment is tragic. There is water, underground and above ground, that’s not being tapped into.

For example, along the Tana River in Garissa, the Kenya Red Cross estimates that only 10% of rivers capacity is actually being harnessed. The African Development Bank has cited that the region’s lack of infrastructure- roads, housing, water, electricity, sanitation- reduces its output by 40%.

While rains may be uncontrollable, famine isn’t. The ability to access, harness, and distribute what lies atop or just beneath the surface is perhaps both the greatest failure and opportunity of the region. This photo-essay explores the current situation of water in Kenya’s driest areas, and the multiple efforts of private and public organizations working around the region to fix it.


eLimu; Tech vs. Content & The E-learning Debate in Africa.

February 10, 2013

Hello friends,

My latest piece for BBC Future’s Matter of Life & Tech column explores the growing debate of technology vs content in the e-learning space, by looking at Kenya’s new eLimu tablet.  Check it out!


eLimu: ‘T’ is for tablet computer

BBC Future; Matter of Life & Tech
February 5th, 2013
Jonathan Kalan

In a tiny classroom tucked inside one of Nairobi’s sprawling slums, the 34 class eight students of Amaf primary school wait anxiously for the 4 o’clock bell.

At this time, twice a week, headmaster Peter Lalo Outa instructs students to put away their textbooks, assembles them into groups, and pulls out seven sleek tablet computers for the after-school lesson. One day, the students watch a video explaining the process of composting manure. On another, they’ll watch the animals they study come to life through videos, pictures, and interactive games.

“Our curriculum in Kenya is like a punishment to children, they feel they have to do it because it’s compulsory,” explains Outa. “With these tablets, our students really enjoy learning.”

Amaf school is one of two institutions piloting software by eLimua Kenyan education-technology startup that develops apps and content for small, touch-screen, wifi-enabled Android-powered tablets.

“We’re using the tablet as a tool through which information, ideas and passions can grow,” says eLimu founder Nivi Mukherjee,

eLimu works with local teachers, partners and developers to design localised, digital content meant to push primary education beyond the typical “chalk and talk” approach common in many classrooms. The start-up wants to show that digital content can be cheaper, better, and more effective at getting kids to learn.

“Our books have a limit,” says Outa, “but these tablets go beyond – with videos, photos and more practical learning.”

In Kenya, education is still one of the country’s biggest development hurdles. Although primary school was made free in 2003, resulting in nearly 100% enrollment, today less than one third of primary school pupils possess basic literacy and math skills for their level, according to Uwezo, a four-year initiative researching the state of education in east Africa. On any given day, 13 out of 100 teachers are absent from school, it says.

“Overcrowding in classes, inadequate teachers, and lack of learning and teaching materials” are all enormous challenges to education, admits John Temba of Kenya’s Ministry of Education.

Splash and flop

eLimu may be the latest attempt to harness technology for education, but it’s certainly not the first. For decades, organisations have been using technology to broaden universal access to information and make learning more interactive.

(Read the full story here)




From BBC Future- Matter of Life & Tech

December 12, 2012

Hello readers!

For the past two months, I’ve been contributing to a column for BBC Future, called Matter of Life & Tech. The column highlights “Ideas and technology that could change the world. Hi-tech or low tech, developing or developed world, we profile the innovators and inventors who are finding solutions to the world’s problems.” 

You might want to check it out every once in awhile ;). In any case, here are a few of my recent pieces for the column.

Mobile phones call out for fresh water-
An innovative system being tested across Kenya allows people to access drinking water at the touch of a button.

Nomadd; Cleaning solar power’s dirty side-
The simple device that could finally allow solar panels to be located where they would get the most sun. A tech-fix to a grubby problem

iPhone Apps; Therapist that are always on call-
Smartphone apps that act as surrogate “therapists” for conditions like depression and anxiety are becoming increasingly common. But there is still a lot to understand about how – and if – they work.

The Avon Ladies of Africa- New York Times

October 17, 2012


Last year while traveling across the region, I stumbled across Living Goods, an incredibly innovative social enterprise in Kampala, Uganda, that uses an Avon-Lady style delivery system for essential health products. I wrote a feature for Beyond Profit Magazine titled “Door-to-Door Healthcare” highlighting their approach and impact.

Last week, Living Goods was also featured by Tina Rosenberg in the Fixes column of The New York Times, with photo contribution from The (BoP) Project.

Check out the piece here- it’s a great read!

Putting the ‘Care’ in African Healthcare

July 27, 2012

Penda Health’s first clinic is tucked off the main road in Kitangela. Several signs (including a branded foot bridge!) around the area make it easy to find.

(*Editors Note; Post originally appeared on NextBillion, July 24, 2012. )

What’s the secret to attracting 300 patients a month to a brand new, three-room health clinic in a sprawling industrial area? It might be the free manicure/pedicure women receiver after paying for a full “head-to-toe” checkup, but more likely, it’s the value of Penda.

In Swahili, Penda means love, and that’s the key to Penda Health Clinics, a new chain of low-cost health facilities in Kenya that puts “care” at the center of their business model.

In January of this year, the first Penda Health Clinic opened in Kitangela, a rapidly growing city just an hour outside Kenya’s capital of Nairobi. Penda’s mission is to revitalize health care service delivery by providing high-quality and affordable healthcare to Kenyan women and their families. Their services range from reproductive health, maternal health and family planning for women to full checkups for men and children.

Being “nice” may not seem like a revolutionary innovation in health care, but in Kenya, going the extra step and putting the patients first may make all the difference. It helps build relationships, and a trust between doctors and patients that results in return customers, making both preventative care and diagnosis easier. After just five months of operation, 25 percent of Penda’s visitors are now returning visitors – either themselves, or with their families.

“All of our clients complain about other clinics,” says Beatrice Ngoche, one of the co-founders of Penda.  “At government hospitals, nurses are rude, queues are long. That should not happen to patients. They are already sick.”

“Why in the world would we ever want to make a patient wait?” co-founder Nick Sowden adds. “We make money from every patient, we are a business. We should never make patients wait – that would just be stupid!”

If patients do have to wait a few minutes, the receptionist will sit down with them, apologize for the delay, and offer a free information and awareness session on the spot.

Though Penda may be slightly more expensive than a public government hospital, it is cheaper than or equivalent to most private clinics, and draw from a wealth of experience. There is one clinical officer (similar to a physician assistant) and one certified nurse on staff at all times. A medical advisory board split between the U.S. and Kenya is always on call for advising.

The clinic is fully stocked with supplies, medicines, tests, and essential equipment that is often lacking in other small or government clinics. For example, at a nearby hospital in Kitangela, to get a malaria test, patients must visit to the hospital, request a test, consult with a doctor, then go across the street and purchase their own test kit (sometimes even the medical gloves), and return to the hospital for test and diagnosis. This type of self-service care is common.

Most of the women come to the clinic for immediate treatment, yet Penda’s staff is focused on education and awareness for preventative care. “Have you had a pap smear lately?” or “Would you like any advice for family planning?” are common questions after the initial reason for visiting is addressed.

While their approach to care is key, it is not the only innovative thing about the Penda model.

First, they have found a unique way to serve a growing market: women working in factories. Nairobi alone hosts roughly 50 factories with 1,000 or more female employees working in one location. These women work and commute for long hours, limiting the time they have to access critical healthcare. Penda is open 12 hours a day on a walk-in basis, near many of these factories. To reach these women, Penda is connecting directly with the factory management, while also holding information sessions at churches, community meetings, women’s groups, and other places that help them engage potential clients.

Second is their financing model. Penda Health is a for-profit company, and in one of the most unique funding models I’ve seen in the east African social enterprise space, Penda creatively devised a “Social Shares” program to help build their first clinic.

Instead of seeking impact investors or angel investors to raise the $20,000 needed for one clinic, they crowdsourced investment from those who wanted to be a part of the clinics success.

Individual investors, via PayPal, purchased “Social Shares” – essentially loans – of $100 each, in the individual clinic. If the clinic is successful, their investment will be returned plus a 5 percent interest rate in two years. If its not, “we can’t promise anything,” they state clearly.

While the company has also recently received investment from U.S. impact and Kenyan investors for overhead costs, they feel that this model of crowdsourcing for establishing individual clinics is the best way to engage a broader base of supporters with less cash. It’s like a Kiva model, but for growing social enterprises. They believe the best investors are those who believe in the mission of the clinic, and they will enjoy literally tracking their investment as the clinic grows and serves more patients.

It will be many more months until the first Penda Health Clinic is fully financially sustainable, but they seem to be well on their way. According to mangers, the clinic has already served over 1,300 patients, and has provided cervical cancer screening for 53 women, with fewer than ten cases being flagged and referred to a larger hospital – giving several women an essential early start in case they need treatment.

The most important metric to Penda, however, is how their customers feel. While perhaps Sowden may be the only who gets away with actually hugging patients, (“you’re white, it works, otherwise it’s kind of awkward for us!” his Kenyan colleagues joke), the numbers are strong.

“99% would recommend us to a friend. 96% give us 5 out of 5 starts for friendliness. We’re very proud of these comments” Penda reported on one of their most recent blog posts. For Kenyan health care, it seems the “care” is one missing component that Penda hoping to fix.

(Left to right) Founders Stephanie Koczela, Nick Sowden  and Beatrice Ngoche.

The ‘African Social Enterprise Safari’

June 28, 2012

*Post originally appeared on Huffington Post IMPACT section, June 27, 2012. 

Wildebeests aren’t the only things migrating across the plains of the Serengeti this season.

Summer’s arrived in America, Kenya’s long rainy season has finally come to an end, and as predictable as the seasons the annual migration of young American expatriates into and out of Africa is well under way. This year, entering stage right: summer interns and recent college graduates looking for experience. Exiting stage left: Harvard, Wharton, and MIT’s MBA Classes of 2014, looking for whatever’s next.

Things weren’t always this streamlined. For decades, the great continent of Africa was slotted into fulfilling two roles for America’s young and restless: As a place to “find yourself,” the pinnacle of soul-searching to be attained in some mud hut drinking cow blood with a Maasai tribe (or something equally and equivocally cultural), or as a place to repent sins and/or selflessly serve the rest of humanity — perhaps educate, clothe, feed, or “civilize” those very same Maasai.

Africa was a temporary settlement camp for America’s young agents of virtue and wayfaring soldiers of the backpacker’s army, intent on dirt-cheap exploration or humanitarian salvation. It was not the kind of place Americans came to build a resume — until now.

Today, the continent is taking on a surprising new role for some American Gen-Y circles: As a jumping point — a place to actually “make yourself” rather than “find yourself.”

…Read on


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