How social entrepreneurs can cut through the hype and utilise the best fit emerging technologies

Story highlights

Emerging digital technologies hold tremendous promise to help social entrepreneurs tackle the Sustainable Development Goals and scale inclusive business models

Digital technologies can be utilised to innovate entirely new value propositions and leapfrog product and service offerings in Base of the Pyramid markets

Usage data can help address systemic problems, across the value chain, on a bigger scale

Social entrepreneurs must cut through the hype to utilise best-fit emerging technologies that align the problem and solution, and fit into the entire ‘political and social context’

Digital development still requires on the ground, human capital development to ensure the digital divide is narrowed and not widened


As Editorial Committee member Royston Braganza explains, digitalisation is a fast-moving reality for more and more people every day, with potentially transformative technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Blockchain, gaining popularity, even in the layman’s lexicon. But unless entrepreneurs understand the complexities, the promise of an AI “revolution” could be a promise unfulfilled for certain segments of society, and, the hype of blockchain could lead entrepreneurs to squander resources by losing sight of the problem at hand. Social entrepreneurs are left to manage this complexity, and as a first step, must consider some critical questions: is my technology-enabled solution aligned with the problem I want to tackle? Have I considered the social and political context? Ultimately, will my business model empower, or further marginalise, those across the digital divide?  


According to Jack Sim, the Nine Basic Principles of Biomimicry can help us reach the Sustainable Development Goals. Photo Credit: © GIZ/Susann Tischendorf


Social entrepreneur Yao Huang, Founder of the Hatchery, inspires us to act, explaining that the inclusive business community must overcome fear of the unknown by embracing emerging technologies to scale business ideas with a purpose. To use Huang’s words, “People think that social impact and ‘tech’ are the antithesis of each other, but it's the synergy that's powerful.” Jack Sim, who shares Huang’s sentiment, provides a framework for tackling the problems outlined in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), borrowing from the Nine Basic Principles of Biomimicry. He emphasizes that we must develop a “tech-driven ecosystem” – one that, among other things, benefits from diversity, preserves resources, and decentralises distribution – to enable that ‘powerful synergy.’

Envirofit employee activates SmartGas valve

Envirofit Kenya employee John Njogu activates the SmartGas valve, which monitors and transmits fuel usage so that Envirofit Customer Service can schedule delivery of a new tank before it is empty, ensuring customers a consistent supply of LPG. Photo Credit: Envirofit

Ideas in action

Entrepreneurs from Envirofit and aWhere, Inc. show us how digitalisation can enable new value propositions and relieve problems faced by the world’s poor. In the case of Envirofit, not only has technology enabled “Pay-As-You-Cook” nanofinance to make Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) affordable, but the company utilises usage data to provide a superior customer experience. What’s more, Envirofit is sharing their data with cross-sector stakeholders to collaboratively tackle the need for increased access to household energy for billions. At aWhere, Inc., Information Communication Technology (ICT) systems enable aggregated ‘agricultural intelligence’ that allows farmers to make better-informed decisions about their crops. A theme in many of this issue’s contributions, prescribed usage is not necessarily the goal of digitalisation within inclusive business models. As aWhere, Inc. Founder, John Corbett, explains, “When we enable people to have access to something, the first thing they do is innovate its use.”

awhere map

aWhere is using agricultural intelligence in order to improve agricultural value chains´ resilience against weather extremes. Photo Credit: aWhere

Drone and field

Access to technology is the important first step in technological disruption. However, the most innovative factor is its individual use. Photo Credit: pexels.com

Consider the implications

Utilising emerging technologies in inclusive business models is far from straight forward. Dr. Eugenia Rosca shares her research findings, which include a warning that a ‘loss of human interaction’ in Base of the Pyramid (BoP) markets could further marginalise those who are most vulnerable. Not only must entrepreneurs understand emerging technologies in order to decide how best, if at all, to apply them, but according to Craig Jolley from USAID’s Center for Digital Development, they must also understand the ‘entire political and social context.’ As his colleague Kyle Novak points out, digital technologies can enable solutions, but should not be considered the solutions in and of themselves. In that same vein, their colleague Thomas Koutsky, asks us not to forget that that digital development “will still require hard work, on the ground, that can’t be replaced by an app or an SMS service,” leaving us to contemplate the complexities.

People waiting to be registered in India

People in India waiting to be registered. Photo Credit: GIZ/Dirk Ostermeier

Next steps for entrepreneurs
Practical tools for businesses

There are tools available to entrepreneurs to help you translate these insights into action. Please see below, and if you have ideas for additional resources, please let us know by contacting us at info@ib-an.net.

Additional Resources:

Primer on Blockchain (pdf)

This primer helps international development agencies and their partners to assess whether and how distributed ledger technology (DLT), such as blockchain, might apply to their work. It provides a set of key questions to consider for assessing relevance of DLT to particular development challenges; a basic summary of the technical aspects; and an illustrative list of DLT applications being tested across a range of sectors.

Reflecting the Past, Shaping the Future: Making AI Work for International Development (pdf)

This document is aimed at development practitioners who may find themselves funding, managing, or advising on projects that involve machine learning (ML) or artificial intelligence (AI). It provides enough technical background to help “non-technical people” to ask hard questions and insist on answers they can understand. On the other hand, if you’re already an expert in ML, this report can help you see how your development colleagues can contribute to your work.

Identity in a Digital Age: Infrastructure for Inclusive Development (pdf)

Part 1 of this report discusses instrumental and infrastructural approaches to inclusive development and argues for long-term investments in ID infrastructure. Institutions and individuals each have key roles in the ID ecosystem, and we will discuss the tensions inherent in trying to serve both. Part 2 of this report asks how the ID landscape is changing. Emerging technologies will expand the options for identifying and authenticating individuals and introduce new actors across the DID value chain. While some emerging trends may offer greater opportunity for inclusion, higher confidence in authentication, or better data security, new technologies and new actors may also change the roles of traditional ID-granting institutions and their relationships with ID-holding individuals. How we address these emerging trends in technology will determine whether ID is an instrument of empowerment and inclusion or surveillance, disempowerment, and exclusion.

Funding for Agricultural Disease Surveillance Data

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is seeking innovative tools and technologies for crop pests and disease surveillance over large geographic regions in low-income countries.

The application deadline is November 14, 2018. More information.

Dana Gulley
Dana joined iBAN as the Editor-in-Chief of its online magazine, CLUED-iN, in July 2018. She is the founder and lead consultant at Third Peak Solutions, a firm that advises businesses and nonprofits on developing innovative strategies to solve our world’s most pressing challenges. A trained mediator with a background in natural resources and business administration, Dana has spent her career building cross-sector partnerships to tackle both energy and water issues.

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