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Kind words for Geekcorps (and a peril of serial entrepreneurship)

There’s an odd moment that begins happening to you if you live your life as a serial entrepreneur – people stop introducing you in terms of your last project and start introducing you in terms of your current project. It takes longer than you’d think – it’s now about 18 months since I walked away from Geekcorps, but I noticed that, at the TED conference a couple of weeks back, roughly half of people who introduced me to someone did so in a Global Voices or Harvard context, while another half introduced me as the founder of Geekcorps.

(The change does come eventually. Someone – a pretty good friend, actually – recently sent me an email with a link talking about my distant past with Tripod and said, “I didn’t know you had a history before Geekcorps…”)

Geekcorps is getting a wave of positive publicity at the moment, with recent articles in Business 2.0, Mobile Mag and a terrific feature piece on C|Net News, which includes an excellent selection of photos from projects in Mali.

The Mali project was the last major Geekcorps project I had a hand in creating. But I can’t claim any credit for the creative business ideas coming out of that amazing project. One business that’s making $50 a month for a radio station in Boureem Inaly (a princely sum by local standards, enough to hire an additional station employee) provides communication services inside Mali for people who don’t have access to email or phone service. Here’s how it works:

If you want to get a message to a friend or relative somewhere else in the country, go to your local radio station and dictate a message to the DJ. The DJ, who has access to a computer and internet connection thanks to wireless connections provided by Geekcorps, sends your message to another radio station in the community your friend lives is. That DJ announces “Mahmoud Diabate, you have a message at the radio station – come down and I will read it to you.” The same system works for announcements of weddings and funerals, allowing a rural community to promote an event to people from that village who’ve moved to a major city, like Bamako.

It’s a long way from broadband access to every village in Mali, but models like this work today, make money for the people who operate them and save money for the people who use them. (A convoluted system like this one beats the hell out of putting someone on a bus from Bamako to Boureem Inaly to deliver a message about cousin Ali’s upcoming wedding…)

All of this is worth remembering when people start discussing massive projects like wiring every school and village in Ethiopia. Some of the challenges a project like this face are pretty hard to imagine working in the US or Europe. Some of the technology solutions Geekcorps Mali has created solve problems you might not even anticipate – how do you keep a laptop from melting down in a 50C office without airconditioning? USB-powered, fan equipped wooden laptop stands, of course…

I still have deeply mixed feelings about the success or failure of the Geekcorps model as a whole. Providing assistance to a project in the developing world via Geekcorps requires many thousands of dollars per volunteer to pay for plane tickets, insurance, housing and meal stipends. Several volunteers told me the felt the money they’d received as volunteers could have been better used hiring dozens of local geeks and improving their quality of life. On the other hand, some of these same geeks did a remarkable job of transfering their knowledge and experience to their local partners, and some have gone on to dedicate their careers to working on geekery in the developing world… And it’s hard to argue with some of the creativity coming out of the amazing Geekcorps Mali project.

5 thoughts on “Kind words for Geekcorps (and a peril of serial entrepreneurship)”

  1. I fall into the category of people not knowing that you were involved with Geekcorps. Very interesting.

    Since you were, I’d be interested in hearing your take on a Web technology idea I had for Africa on my blog. It has a lot of holes in it, but I’d love to get some input from someone with your background.

  2. Ethan, it’s nice as always to hear you’re proud of Geekcorps Mali!

    I definitely understand volunteers’ second thoughts and your own qualms about the money spent on them. I thought about that a lot while I was at Geekcorps Mali.

    But, in Mali’s case at least, I think it’s money well-spent. The Malians I worked with were super-bright and hard-working, but they just didn’t have many (any?) opportunities in Mali to learn and practice their craft in such an intensive an innovative environment.

    Maybe in a few years when Mali has ‘caught up’ a little bit — when the local geeks I worked with are making a larger impact on their communities — money will be better spent as you say, hiring locals directly and forgoing international airfare. Maybe this is already the case in African countries more technologically advanced (Ghana?).

    But for the time being I think Geekcorps Maliprovides a valuable experience for local geeks that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and the international volunteers are a crucial part of that.

  3. What an amazing, resourceful, and unexpected use of the technology. Geekcorp clearly planted the seed here… and if not Geekcorps, then who? It’s always useful to question the efficacy of your work, but outcomes like this suggest that “serial entrepreneurship” is suiting you well.

  4. Ethan,

    As a student of law, you are no doubt aware of the effect that structure has on the development of what people do. In this case, I think you can claim credit, as you provided that structure in the form of ideals. The Mali project was guided by these tenants and thus in the very least we do credit you with mentoring this project’s development.

    I too share some of your feelings, as what it was is different to what it has become; not exactly what we had envisioned but still it is something good. I have always been mixed about this type of development work, though, this project more than any other that I have been involved in has created more opportunities for local people, spurred more enterprise and created more ideas than any other use of development money in the developing world than I have witnessed. That I am proud of and do thank you and our many volunteers who were a part of it. Thanks for creating Geekcorps Ethan!


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