August 12, 2014


Kopernik: Innovative Crowd Funding NGO Gets Technology to People Who Need It The Most

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JFS Newsletter No.143 (July 2014)

We had the opportunity to interview Toshihiro Nakamura, co-founder and CEO of Kopernik, a non-governmental organization (NGO) attracting global attention for its work in connecting "last mile" communities -- the poor living in the most remote parts of developing countries -- with technologies that transform their lives.


Edahiro: What led you to launch Kopernik?

Nakamura: I was originally on staff at the United Nations (UN) engaged in activities to support developing countries, mainly in charge of helping the governments in East Timor, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone, but I found it difficult to change the lives of ordinary people only within the framework of the UN, which is basically government-to-government assistance.

Also, I felt that at the UN most things are done within by three stakeholders, forming a closed triangle: government providing financial aid, an aid-receiving government, and the UN. It seemed to me hard to organically incorporate new, effective ideas into such a closed world.

Later, various technologies suitable to developing countries emerged, and more people were starting their own business. Hoping to utilize such technologies effectively, I began to focus on our current activities in about 2009.

Edahiro: How does Kopernik bring technologies to developing countries?

Nakamura: We are always looking for the best technologies in five areas: energy, health, education, water, and sanitation. Then we ask our local partners to choose which technologies the local people need the most from our technology list, and furthermore, we raise funds to bring the technologies to the local communities. In this way, Kopernik plays a role in connecting technologies, local partners, and donations. To connect these three, we fully utilize our website, while also actually visiting targeted communities with products to demonstrate useful technologies.

Edahiro: How many technologies have you handled?

Nakamura: We list about 60 to 70 technologies.

Edahiro: How do you find them? Do companies approach you to sell their technologies?

Nakamura: Some of them. We sometimes get information from others. We also conduct a team meeting once a week as a study session. Each team researches new products, checks if they are useful in remote areas, and makes a presentation to add technologies to the list.

Edahiro: What criteria do you use to choose a product or technology?

Nakamura: First of all, we select products designed for developing countries.

Edahiro: Can you be more specific?

Nakamura: I mean products that are inexpensive, durable, and easy-to-use. Besides that, it is an important point that repair service is guaranteed under warranty.

Edahiro: Which countries are the major developers of such technologies?

Nakamura: Many of them originate in the United States. Some of them are from European and Asian companies. There are also many technologies produced in Indonesia, which is our main field. Indian and African companies are listed, too. We collect technologies from all over the world.

Edahiro: How about Japanese companies?

Nakamura: Maybe just one company.

Edahiro: Japan is notable for high technology. You mean Japan does not have many technologies designed for developing countries.

Nakamura: Well, Japanese technologies are mostly for developed countries. Developing countries have quite different needs.

Edahiro: American technologies include those for both developed and developing countries, don't they?

Nakamura: Yes. And most of those technologies are created by venture companies. The United States has an overseas program named the Peace Corps. This is a two-year volunteer program run by the US government to give technical guidance in developing countries. From among the program participants, quite a few people have started a company after earning a business degree. Some universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have courses on designing and disseminating technologies for people in developing countries. Many graduates of such universities are setting up entrepreneurial ventures one after another.

Edahiro: How do your teams find the technologies?

Nakamura: We mostly search through the Internet. We check various international conferences, too. There are networks of people involved in technologies targeting developing countries. People in the same field gather at conferences, held by universities such as Stanford and MIT. Besides that, we exchange information with people in the field of impact investment.

Edahiro: When you find a local partner that wants to use a technology from a company, the company doesn't offer the technology for free, does it?

Nakamura: No. We buy it. In a sense, we are engaged in market development for companies.

Edahiro: What kind of people become your local partners?

Nakamura: There are many NGOs, of course. Some of them are cooperatives, women's groups, etc., and we sometimes work with local shops. Each area has many local groups doing certain activities in their area of interest, and Kopernik meshes smoothly in partnership with such groups, which then gains the trust of villagers.

Edahiro: How many local partners do you have so far?

Nakamura: The number of projects is around 130. Some groups handle multiple projects, so the total of local partners is about 60 to 70, I guess.

Edahiro: How do they become your local partners? Groups can apply through your website, but I don't think anyone can become a partner right away, right?

Nakamura: No, but we widely accept partnerships. As our projects are supported by donations, we see credibility as the most important thing, so we do basic screening of applicants. We ask applicant groups about their reporting and financing, and refrain from working with groups that cannot provide such basic information immediately. Otherwise, we just start working together to see how it goes.

Edahiro: Please tell me about your third stakeholder group: the donors.

Nakamura: Most donations come from individuals and private businesses, and these mainly cover the initial cost of purchasing technologies and transportation. We sometimes call for financial support to operate a technology fair to introduce technologies to local communities, and the funds are spent on presenting ideas about the technologies to visitors at the fair.

Edahiro: Do you have such donors from across the world?

Nakamura: Our network spreads globally, indeed, with most donors from the United States and Japan. We are also financially supported by people in Australia and European and Asian countries.

Edahiro: Please tell me about your projects.

Nakamura: One example is a project in Oecusse, the poorest district in East Timor, where we worked together with an NGO with about five staff members. We brought solar lamps to about a half of the households in the district.

We did a survey afterward and found that the use of kerosene in the area decreased dramatically, which means a drastic decrease in spending. Before we introduced solar lighting, people used to spend as much as 1,400 yen (about US$13.86) a month, or about 20 percent of their monthly expenditures of 7,000 yen (about $69.30) to buy kerosene. After introducing solar lighting, their monthly spending on kerosene dropped to less than 100 yen (about 90 cents), and they can even work longer at night to gain more income. The project was able to cover about half of the households in the district, and it is one of our most successful projects so far.

We are also working on a project with local shops named "Tech Kiosk." We often find small shops in rural areas, don't we? There are these shops in the countryside of Indonesia, as well, and people go there to buy things like snacks and coffee.

In thinking of how to connect the flow of people and our business, we advised shop owners that they could make their business grow if they would stock and sell solar lamps and water filters. This idea worked out very well. So far, we have developed more than 50 Tech Kiosks. People come to the shops to buy our products, thereby contributing to an increase in the shops' revenue. Thanks to this business cycle, their lives are much easier now. This is one of the major projects we're currently promoting.

Edahiro: The shop owners cannot collect money until the products are sold, correct?

Nakamura: No. That's why we have this business on a consignment basis. They wouldn't join our project if they had to buy products up front, so we take and ask them to pay only after the products are sold.

Edahiro: Your business model seems to be working quite well.

Nakamura: Fortunately, our business is growing at an annual rate of 30 to 70 percent, so I think we are going in the right direction. We are getting more inquiries from companies asking if we can test their products. I think we can run our business more smoothly if we can generate additional revenue through some fees, including offering consulting services.

Edahiro: How many staff do you have?

Nakamura: A little more than fifty.

Edahiro: You have many! Are they from many countries?

Nakamura: Yes. Most of them are from Indonesia, followed by Australia. We have four Japanese staff and others are from France, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands.

Edahiro: What is your next plan?

Nakamura: We are still a small group, so we will keep going steadily ahead with our current projects. We would like to increase the number of reliable partners in Indonesia and build solid relations with them.

Edahiro: What is the most helpful way for people to contribute if they want to support Kopernik?

Nakamura: Making a donation is the most helpful action people can take to support us. We accept donations on our website. It is an effective option for people who want to participate in our activities. We first let people know about the issues existing in developing countries, offer solutions, and then tell them they can help solve the problems by making a donation. I think that participating in this way is very meaningful. It's not just about moving money from one place to another.

Edahiro: Local partners apply for the technologies they wish to use, and then have their choice publicized on Kopernik's website. Their projects will be launched only when financial support hits the target amount, so they must be very anxious while waiting for the results.

Nakamura: Yes. One time, I was with a local partner just when the fund reached the target. I received a phone call telling me the target was achieved, and we all shared an exciting moment together.

Edahiro: You were in the right place at the right time! I hope your work will bring much joy to more people around the world. Thank you very much.

Written by Junko Edahiro