Toms and Toilets

The popular shoe brand Toms was founded in 2006 with the premise that for every pair of shoes you buy, they would give one to a needy person in the developing world. This sounded like the peak of corporate community involvement, until a few years ago when people realized their impact was more harmful than helpful. For one thing, the shoes took away from local businesses. Also, with the limited amount of shoes, children competed for pairs, creating tension and inequity amongst groups. Sometimes the best intentions produce unintended consequences.

In 2010, in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, Alanna Shaikh — a blogger at Aidwatch — wrote a scathing commentary titled Nobody Wants Your Old Shoes: How Not To Help in Haiti. In it she declared, “Only the people on the ground know what’s actually necessary; those of us in the rest of the world can only guess.”

This truth of this claim has showed itself time and time again in development efforts. International Development professionals striving to improve health and sanitation conditions in South Asia began a toilet-building campaign that recently culminated with Modi promising to build one million toilets in India. But despite this, many people still defecate outdoors, sometimes even close to a toilet. Unclean conditions, lack of education, and cultural and religious context contribute to the lack of usage.

Recognising that local organizations are sometimes best equipped to provide local solutions, we partnered with Facebook to launch the Praekelt Foundation Incubator for Free Basics. The idea of our Incubator is to provide organizations with tools and templates to create and publish their services to the mobile web — personalizing it to suit their needs and the needs of their beneficiaries too.

This is easier said than done. Mobile is not an easy medium to wrap one’s head around. It requires bite-sized content, clear call-to-actions, interactive features and, ideally, regularly updated content and service offerings. But, in a world in which there are more mobile devices than people, the potential payoff is enormous. Rather than playing catch up in the future, the Praekelt Incubator allows organizations of all sizes to tap into this opportunity now.

The graduates from our first batch of Incubator partners will launch their new services on the Free Basics platform this week, including She Inspires Her, a mentoring service for young female entrepreneurs in Africa, doctHERS which provides remote patient care with female doctors in Karachi, and Planned Parenthood’s site which brings localized sexual and reproductive health information to youth. And in the next few weeks we’re launching new services from organizations that provide information on everything from local education and literacy to rural development. By partnering with Facebook and publishing these services on the Free Basics platform we’re ensuring millions of people are able to access these new services for free.

Our Incubator program is the expression of two core beliefs at Praekelt: that the ‘people on the ground’ should be given tools to create their own solutions and that access to the internet is a basic right. Next, we’re opening our application process to find another 50 organizations to bring on board by the end of the year. If your organization could benefit from Free Basics and our Incubator program, apply here to work with us.

We hope to continue to use this initiative and others to discuss how free, universal access can be sustainable and scalable. Please comment and vote for our proposed panel on this topic for next year’s SXSW conference to take this conversation further.

Originally published at