If What You Need Doesn’t Exist, Go Build It – Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS

Aid, Evolved
If What You Need Doesn't Exist, Go Build It - Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS

Ken Banks built the first version of FrontlineSMS over 5 weeks while unemployed at the home of his in-laws. Just a few years later, it was in use by development and conservation organizations in more than half of the countries in the world. He’s described himself as a “scrappy” man who enjoys building his own websites and living out of a camper van for two years. And yet the world knows him as an authority on mobile technology for positive social and environmental change, as an adventurer and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and as someone who’s brushed shoulders with and won the support of people as diverse as Desmond Tutu and Peter Gabriel.

In our conversation, Ken describes the unlikely beginning of FrontlineSMS – including how little it was used in the first two years after it was built. He shares how he started out running a primate sanctuary in Nigeria, and his initial work in conservation before global health and development really entered his life. He shares the surprising chain of events that led him to specialise in mobile technology for positive social and environmental change. And he also opens up about the stress of running a global, mission-critical piece of software, as well as the challenges he’s faced within the aid and development industry. Finally we talk about his move into the private sector in 2018, to work on digital identity with Yoti as its Head of Social Purpose.

Show Notes

  • The Pursuit of Purpose is Ken’s upcoming book. Part memoir, part study, it presents a much richer view of Ken’s remarkable career, while also dwelling on questions about meaning, passion and purpose.
  • Kiwanja.net documents Ken’s work over 15 years helping social innovators, entrepreneurs, and non-profit organizations make better use of information and communication technologies. It includes details about his previous books on digital health, innovation, and social entrepreneurship.
  • Ken’s Side Projects: A variety of the resources Ken developed are linked from this page including Everyday Problems, where Ken documents some of his guidance for his daughter, and Hacking Development, Ken’s manifesto for change for the aid sector. This concise work describes four key pillars which have significant potential to disrupt and improve how aid is delivered.
  • Yoti Today Ken is the Head of Social Purpose at Yoti, a social enterprise working on digital identities. It is monitored by an external Guardian Council to ensure its adherence to its ethical framework. Ken was on the Guardian Council for Yoti before he switched roles to join as an employee.
  • FrontlineSMS Though Ken Banks stepped away from his work with FrontlineSMS in 2012, the software continues to be used and maintained by others to this day.
  • Kubatana is an organization in Zimbabwe that strives to make civic and human rights information published by civil society in Zimbabwe accessible to the public. Ken cites Kubatana as the first real users of FrontlineSMS. He states, “if they were the only people that actually thought this was useful, I’d be happy.”
  • Medic, also known as Medic Mobile, is a social enterprise with over 100 employees delivering open-source software to support health workers in resource-poor settings. Ken mentions Medic as one of the organizations that learned lessons and drew inspiration from the work of FrontlineSMS.
  • Kopo Kopo is a Kenyan company with over 50 employees supporting small businesses to easily accept digital payments and provide access to credit and other business tools. It was founded by Ben Lyon, drawing from his experiences and after his work founding SIMLab Credit (aka FrontlineSMS:Credit). FrontlineSMS:Credit was a service to provide financial services to remote organizations using FrontlineSMS.
  • Africa’s Voices out of Cambridge University is a non-profit start-up with a mission to amplify the voices of citizens across Africa to speak to those in power. In its early years, it drew inspiration from and leveraged the work of FrontlineSMS:Radio.