Starting by Luck and Succeeding by Grit with Yaw Anokwa of ODK

Aid, Evolved
Starting by Luck and Succeeding by Grit with Yaw Anokwa of ODK

Yaw Anokwa is founder and CEO of ODK. ODK’s mission is to design, build, deploy and support offline data collection software for low-resource settings. ODK is one of the most popular data collection tools used in the aid sector, and forms the foundation for a rich global community of users active in every country on the planet. It’s being used for everything from COVID-19 tracking in Somalia, to monitoring rainforests in the Congo, to managing school attendance in Honduras.

In this episode, Yaw shares the story of ODK’s humble beginnings as a sabbatical / internship project. He recounts the serendipitous start of the effort, the first few users, and how the system got traction. In the second half of our conversation, he shares some of the secrets to success. He pays homage to Gaetano Borriello, his late mentor and advisor, who started him down the path that would set the course for the rest of his life. He talks about how to design tools for field workers and how to build the community needed to support open-source software. Lastly he shares the persistence he’s needed to navigate a complex sector and funding mechanisms, so that he could build a career creating software he can give away for free.

To find out more about ODK, you can visit

Show Notes

  • ODK is a set of Open Source software for offline data collection targeted at low-resource and low-connectivity settings. Yaw is founder and CEO of ODK.
  • Boldly going where no data tools have gone before: If you just can’t get enough of Yaw, you can here him speak on this episode of the Changelog podcast. Note that the Changelog podcast is targeted at software developers or those with a computer science background.
  • Allen School recognizes Yaw Anokwa and Eileen Bjorkman with Alumni Impact Awards: You can read another account of Yaw’s life and work here, at the University of Washington page which honoured Yaw in 2018 with its Alumni Impact Award.
  • SMS refers to text messages exchanged between phones
  • Partners in Health is the organization which brought Yaw to work with medical record software in Rwanda and got him started in the space of digital health.
  • Gaetano Borriello was Yaw’s mentor and PhD advisor at the University of Washington. Yaw credits Gaetano for introducing him to the idea of ODK, bringing him to Google, and getting him started on this journey.
  • Neal Lesh gave a talk at the University of Washington which introduced Yaw to digital health. Neal also connected Yaw with Partners in Health and the opportunity to work in Rwanda.
  • Google.Org is the charitable arm of Google, which gave Yaw and his team some initial support in the first year of ODK’s development.
  • Vestergaard Frandsen is a social enterprise from Lausanne, Switzerland, that manufactures public health tools for people in developing countries. It is known for inventing the LifeStraw water filter and the PermaNet mosquito net. Vestergaard was one of the first organizations to equip thousands of data collectors with ODK, submitting over 40,000 forms a day. You can read more about this 2011 deployment here.
  • MTN is a major telecommunications company active across many African, European, and Asian countries (similar to AT&T in the USA). Yaw references an early partnership with MTN Uganda as part of ODK’s initial deployment.
  • The Grameen Foundation AppLab was a partner in ODK’s first deployment. In fact, as of the day this episode was published, the project page for ODK’s first deployment in 2008 is still available here.
  • Java 2 Mobile Edition (J2ME) is the programming environment used to build applications on many feature phones (non-smartphones). It is distinct from the version of Java used today for Android application development.
  • Kobo Toolbox is a set of open source data collection tools particularly popular in the humanitarian sector.
  • Ona is a social enterprise based in Nairobi, Kenya, and Burlington, Vermont, USA. Ona provides software development and deployment services for the aid sector.
  • Pursuing a Mission While Bootstrapping to Millions with John O’Nolan of Ghost is an IndieHackers Podcast Episode that Yaw cites, when asked about the moment he knew that ODK was a project worth pursuing. He shares a quote from John O’Nolan about traction, and how founders know when they have gained traction with their products.
  • Luck Surface Area is an idea from Jason Roberts that Rowena cites, about increasing your chances of getting lucky, by giving luck more chance to get you.
  • Mountains Beyond Mountains is a novel by Tracy Kidder about the life of Paul Farmer, the founder of Partners in Health and an inspiration to both Rowena and Yaw.
  • Discourse is a tool for hosting online communities and dialogues. ODK users and developers have benefited from using Discourse to facilitate and organize the community.
  • Evelyn Castle of eHealth Africa: Yaw gives a shoutout to Evelyn Castle, founder of eHealth Africa. He notes eHealth Africa an incredible through sometimes little-known organization doing digital health work in Nigeria and elsewhere.
  • The Tao of Pooh is a book Yaw discovered in high school. He recommends it because of how it has helped him to think about and manage the many challenges he’s faced.