A Marketplace for BoP Products

With so much ingenious technology being developed by social entrepreneurs around the world, one of the great remaining challenges is figuring out how to make it available to the people who need it—first by letting them know that it exists, and then by raising the money to pay for it.

For now, technologists and their affiliate organizations usually identify the populations that might benefit from these new tools, for the simple reason that small local NGOs have no simple way of learning about new technology when it becomes available.

Kopernik

Kopernik, a new organization founded by two former UN staff members, Ewa Wojkowska and Toshi Nakamura, proposes to solve this problem by creating what they call an Amazon.com of life-changing technology—a marketplace that allows local NGOs, who understand their own needs best, to discover products that would help them.

After that, these NGOs can apply for funding, in the form of microdonations. Anyone can look through a list of proposals on Kopernik’s website and contribute toward an organization’s goal. For example, a local NGO in East Timor that fights domestic violence and promotes gender equality hopes to raise $4,990 to buy 30 Q-Drums. The Q-Drum is a “durable, donut-shaped” 50-liter water container that can be transported by rolling rather than hoisting on one’s head or shoulder. (See a video of one in use here.) In East Timor, where women and girls fetch water over long distances several times a day in 5-liter plastic jerry cans, the Q-Drum could save time and great physical strain.

One of the most promising aspects of the Kopernik marketplace is a rating system that gives technology makers the opportunity to hear from local groups about how they used the product and how it might be refined. “We want to know whether it’s effective, whether it’s appropriate, and areas for improvement,” Wojkowska says.

So far, Kopernik has formed partnerships with 12 technology organizations, 10 for-profit and 2 nonprofit. In addition to the Q-Drum, the list of technologies includes a compact solar-powered water-treatment unit for the home; a portable water filter used like a straw; eyeglasses whose corrective settings can be adjusted by the user (watch 2009 PopTech fellow Emily Pilloton fit Stephen Colbert with a pair here); a solar-powered LED lantern; and a digital hearing aid with rechargeable batteries.

Wojkowska and Nakamura founded Kopernik after observing the limitations of the traditional approach to development work. Last year, for instance, Nakamura observed development efforts in the eastern part of Sri Lanka, where workers are helping the community in its long-term recovery from the 2004 tsunami. One of their projects was to distribute buckets so that people could collect water for their households. The Q-Drum wasn’t on the radar. A related problem is that international organizations often reuse the same solutions in places that culturally and geographically are very different from each other. Sometimes this works; sometimes it could work better.

A side benefit of giving local NGOs a menu of technologies to choose from, Wojkowska says, is that it helps them think in a focused way about what their most pressing needs are and whether a technological solution is appropriate. So far, approximately 200 local NGOs of all sizes and kinds have applied to be part of Kopernik’s network. (Kopernik vets them to ensure that they are worthy recipients and that they can afford to disseminate the products if they receive them.)

Right now, Kopernik is building its catalog of products and screening potential recipient organizations. In the future, Wojkowska and Nakamura hope to entice entrepreneurs to sell some of these products locally, to reach those who are not served by NGOs. They are also exploring ways to bring locally developed solutions into general production. In all these projects, Wojkowska says, the point is to “give choice and voice to local communities.”

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