Ken is the founder of kiwanja.net, “where technology meets anthropology, conservation, and development.” He devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world and has spent the last 15 years working on projects in Africa.
In particular, Ken is the inventor of FrontlineSMS, a free text messaging system which allows anyone with a mobile phone to communicate with large groups of people. Since most of the developing world uses basic mobile phones, but large areas lack internet access, FrontlineSMS allows people to share vital information for free.
The users of FrontlineSMS constantly invent new ways to use the program. Citizens in Nigeria used it to monitor elections in 2007. Physicians in the Philippines use it to communicate with patients in remote, rural areas. Farmers in El Salvador use it to receive the latest information on market prices.
“I fared very poorly in school,” Ken admits.
But growing up on the small island of Jersey, in the United Kingdom, he was always aware of the world around him, both locally and globally. His mother was involved in botanical gardening, and he regularly visited the Jersey Zoo. He was also fascinated by the nature documentaries of David Attenborough, which he watched on television.
In addition to watching television sets, Ken also took them apart! As he says on kiwanja.net, Ken’s fascination with technology “began at an early age, with the dismantling of old TVs and radios, and the chance to play with an early Commodore PET computer.”
As he grew up, Ken also developed a passion for travel, especially to the “incredibly complicated” continent of Africa. He lived in various places in Africa, including Nigeria and Uganda, for 18 years.
FrontlineSMS was developed at Kruger National Park, in South Africa. The rangers and park personnel needed a way to communicate with local villagers who lived near the park, but the park lacked access to a reliable internet connection. Most of the villagers did not have computers. But most of them did have mobile phones, which were equipped to text.
Realizing this communication problem was widespread throughout the developing world, Ken set to work. “I wrote the software in five weeks at a kitchen table. I made a generic communications platform that could be used for almost anything, and I made it free.”
EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
“Seeing what people are doing with our technology. We just never could imagine how innovative people are.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
Ken says that convincing people to invest in the developing world can be difficult. “You have to know what language to use. I say ‘developing countries,’ and businessmen turn up their nose. But if I say ‘I’m working with emerging markets,’ their eyes light up.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“For me, geography is the different ways technology can be applied to different settings, with different parameters.
“Geography is a funny subject; it can be almost anything. . . . I have a friend who did a paper on the geography of punk music.”
Although Ken grew up in a developed country, Britain, he has lived in different parts of the world for long enough to realize that “the technology we take for granted is so important in developing countries.”
“We need to let people find solutions to their own problems,” Ken says. “Sometimes, we don’t do that. With FrontlineSMS, the end user does everything—they determine how it’s used, when it’s used, where it’s used.” In five years, FrontlineSMS has been used in more than 150 countries, by thousands of people.
It allows farmers, fishers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and citizens to “take their idea and run with it. It’s economic and political empowerment.”
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGIST
“Get out and do something,” Ken advises. “Take an interest in the world, and travel.”
Ken is enthusiastic about the number of good wildlife-based computer games available. National Geographic Kids has dozens of fun, web-based games.