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Grameen Foundation´s ICT Innovation Program – Approach and Philosophy

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Posted on October 14, 2009

David Edelstein is Director, ICT Innovation, at Grameen Foundation DC

We officially launched our Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Program two years ago, when we began our Application Laboratory (AppLab) efforts in Uganda.  This initiative, in collaboration with the mobile operator MTN and Google, built on the successful Grameen Foundation/MTN Village Phone Program.  With over 10,000 Village Phone Operators, this served as a unique testing ground for developing applications and information services tailored to the needs of the poor.  Over nearly two years we explored the potential of more than 50 services, actively tested a subset of these, and in the end of June launched a suite of five services nationwide (additional details at www.applab.org).

Today, the ICT Innovation Program comprises four initiatives.  AppLab Uganda and AppLab Indonesia are seeking to create innovative and sustainable approaches to employ technology for the poor across multiple domains (e.g., agriculture, health, education, finance, markets, etc.).  Our Community Knowledge Worker Initiative in Uganda focuses on validating whether and how mobile phones can be used to create a self-sustaining network of ICT-enabled agricultural extension agents.  The Mobile Technology for Community Health Initiative in Ghana similarly relies on mobile phones to increase the quantity and quality of antenatal and neonatal care providing information to parents and Community Health Nurses in rural villages.

The common thread is a consistent focus on using mobile phones to improve lives and livelihoods of the poor through innovation in information access.  There are seven basic principles that we follow: 

1)      We design services (both information dissemination and collection) for phones that are already in people´s hands.  We recognize that more sophisticated devices (e.g., smartphones) will become increasingly important and are relevant today in some cases, but our primary focus is on the very large majority of phones in emerging economies, which are basic devices.

2)      The services are based on concrete needs that can be addressed with information technology.  We begin with ethnographic and needs assessment research and focus our efforts on solutions with the potential for greatest possible impact.

3)      We see the phone as a powerful two way communication device.  In practice this means we put as much emphasis on innovative ways to collect information as we do on disseminating information.

4)      We build services with a clear path to financial sustainability and portability.  From the outset we consider the elements that need to be in place to successfully scale the services and take them to other countries.

5)      All testing is user-centric and conducted where people live.  Our iterative testing approach, which involves rapid prototyping, focus groups and small-scale pilots, is carried out in Uganda, Ghana and Indonesia.  Over 90% of the team is based in these countries.

6)      We often rely on trusted intermediaries such as Community Knowledge Workers, Community Health Workers and Village Phone Operators to improve discoverability and usability of services, overcome literacy and multiple language challenges, and reach the poor more effectively.

7)      We engage with a range of strategic partners.  This includes a diverse group of local companies, NGOs and government entities as well as global technology companies.  This ensures both local relevance and impact and global reach.

Based on our on-the-ground experience to date, we believe we have valuable insights and lessons learned to share with others doing work in the ICT for Development space.  The ICT Innovation Team blog will draw upon the day-to-day experiences of the Team in Uganda, Ghana and Indonesia.  It will offer a mix of insights from our efforts, anecdotes about the fun and challenges of working in this field, thoughts about how to most effectively meet the needs of the poor with mobile technology, as well as other themes that inspire the ICT Innovation Team.

We look forward to sharing with you and welcome your comments and suggestions.

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