Two years ago, when international aid groups rushed to help earthquake-ravaged Haiti, little did they expect that one of the greatest needs would be for an Internet connection.
Tech-savvy social enterprise Inveneo, quickly recognized that connectivity would be key for these organizations to coordinate efforts. Within a week, and with the help of Ekta Foundation and Net Hope, Inveneo set up a network for relief workers to communicate and more efficiently deliver water, food, shelter and medical services.
Google.org took note and supported Inveneo with a $182,000 grant as the group’s workers stayed in Haiti to build a broadband network amid the destruction, partnering with Haitian technology companies and training local talent to maintain and service it after everyone left.
“They move quickly and get things done in tricky environments,” said John Lyman, program manager at Google.org, the Mountain View company’s philanthropic arm. “We were particularly happy with the progress they made with their network in Haiti and decided as a result to help them do more in other parts of the world.”
$2 million more
Last month, Google awarded Inveneo a $2 million grant for the nonprofit’s new Broadband for Good initiative, which will span three years and deepen the organization’s involvement in East Africa, where it is bringing better broadband infrastructure to underserved communities.
“This is what 2012 will be devoted to – deploying these resources. We also want to build a collaborative group of people who want to do this over and over again,” said Kristin Peterson, Inveneo’s CEO and one of the organization’s three co-founders.
The small social enterprise, based in San Francisco, already has significantly scaled its model, which emphasizes local entrepreneurship and collaboration. Since its inception in late 2004, Inveneo estimates that it’s helped more than 2 million people in more than 900 communities in 27 countries.
Peterson said the enthusiasm for technology in emerging markets was not always strong. Worries about maintaining the infrastructure as well as the adaptability of local communities led many to question whether technology could truly have a strong social impact.
That challenge is precisely what prompted Peterson and two other Silicon Valley professionals to rethink their careers.
Mark Summer, who had been working as a chief technology officer in the voice-over-IP space, and Bob Marsh, who had been constructing computing devices for more than three decades, joined Peterson, a former business development and marketing executive, to build a different kind of venture: one that targeted a market of 2 billion people who had little or no access to information technology.
People’s perceptions of these rural, untapped markets have evolved, enabling Inveneo to get the capital and resources needed to operate there. Tech giants Cisco, Microsoft and Google have bolstered Inveneo’s mission.
“Google believes in tackling big problems that affect millions of people by finding solutions that scale. Technology is very well suited to this type of work, but historically nonprofits haven’t always used it as effectively as they could have,” Lyman said. “That’s starting to change, and we hope to help accelerate the shift because businesses and governments can’t solve all of the world’s most pressing problems on their own.”
Getting low-cost computing systems to rural communities remains an uphill battle, with cost being a critical factor, along with access to electricity.
“In these countries, power is not going to be delivered by the government, and if it is, it’s not reliable. Plus, electricity is exceedingly expensive,” Peterson said. “So, we use low-power technology to try to reduce the intake of power.”
For instance, a low-powered desktop installed in a rural school by Inveneo would use 14 watts of energy and cost $500 to $700 to install a solar system to power it. Compare that with a traditional desktop used in the United States, which draws 10 to 15 times that amount of energy.
Asked if any of the low-cost tablets, such as India’s Aakash, or projects like One Laptop Per Child have promise in providing low-cost innovations for social impact, she said the device alone is not the answer.
“Most of the time, the technology is about 10 percent of the project. In a school project, you have to train the students, the teachers on how to use the technology. You have to train people locally to maintain that technology. It’s not the technology, it’s the system that you build to deliver that technology to the end user. There’s also not just one solution – sometimes tablets are right, sometimes laptops are ideal.”
Since Inveneo works primarily at the organizational level, not selling to individual consumers in the developing world, Peterson describes Inveneo as a catalyst that aligns itself with local partners and invests in training local staff so the technology and networks last.
“It’s about building an ecosystem of low-cost technology, local entrepreneurs and local networks,” she said. “We just connect the dots.”