A startup accelerator for the world’s poorest

The time to enable the world’s most unlikely tech founders is now. Here are four reasons why.

UPDATE: We have two pilots about to begin! You can read up on our journey so far at: http://saintsal.com/village-accelerator-the-story-so-far/

Opportunity doesn’t strike, it avails. When it appears, it’s up to us to strike.

I want to create a new type of grassroots startup accelerator to empower the poorest in the world. The opportunity is investable, immediate, and possibly worth billions. But I need your help.

Leapfrogging the digital divide

Not so long ago, One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) dropped tablets into rural villages in Ethiopia, hoping to teach a little English to kids who had never seen printed material before. In 4 months, not only did they teach themselves English, they taught themselves to hack the tablets!

Kids in Wonchi, Ethiopia, teaching themselves English and how to bypass security settings on their tablets. Image: blog.laptop.org

At that moment, everything changed.

This was a demonstration of how economic parity for the poorest in the world doesn’t need to take generations.

Smartphones for the poorest

Two years ago, Dr. Andreas Gal started the “Boot To Gecko” Project to “find the gaps that keep web developers from being able to build [mobile] apps that are – in every way – the equals of native apps built for the iPhone, Android, and Windows Phone.” This became FirefoxOS, a platform that enables sub-$50 smartphones and is spreading worldwide, fast.

The ZTE Open running FirefoxOS, a fully capable smartphone running on hardware that would make an Android crawl. Image: ubergizmo.com

Given even poor villages already have access to shared mobiles phones, FirefoxOS means they’ll be replaced by smartphones.

When I was in Bangkok 6 years ago, homeless children slept under the night market tables while their parents hustled. I went back a few months ago. They’re still under those stalls, but their faces are lit up by their tablets!

Everything changed.

Its only a matter of a few years until everyone in the world effectively has access to a computer and to the Internet.

Making an app has never been so easy

Freeformers is a training company that started in London. They figured out that you can teach someone with no technical experience to make a Facebook app in a day, by focusing on the hacker’s mentality, rather than programming as an academic discipline. They set out to teach both corporate executives and disadvantages teenagers. Three months later, the teenagers were teaching the executives.

Everything changed.

Consider this: FirefoxOS is designed so that if you can make a web app, you can make a phone app, removing the barrier-to-entry that exists with mobile apps today. Even non-technical people can learn to make a FirefoxOS app in a day!

How do the little guys win?

Sometimes, startups do a good job with “low-end” customers, and sneak in because the incumbents don’t see them as relevant. Once they’re established on the low-end they quietly creep upwards. Then, it’s too late for the incumbent to react. This phenomenon is called Disruptive Innovation.

IBM once dominated the computer market, but ignored the personal use market. Microsoft didn’t. The radio manufacturers of the 1950's ignored teenagers. Sony didn’t. Kodak ignored cameras in mobile phones. It’s gone.

In each case, caring about the “low-end” is what mattered. But here we are, ignoring what’s happening among the poorest in the world, while in real economic terms, these economies are growing the fastest.

Transacting into the digital economy. One of many M-PESA exchange booths across Kenya where people convert cash into digital credits than can be transacted over their mobile. Image: asmarterplanet.com

By addressing their local needs, we’re already seeing Disruptive Innovation in finance and agriculture across Africa.

The Opportunity

What if the OLPC tablet drop was followed by a startup accelerator, with training, techniques and fast-paced peer-support formats used in Western accelerators? What if we didn’t stop at tablet hacking, and helped local people launch startups that address local needs we’ve never even fathomed?

We could unleash the next cluster of startup world records! But there’s only one way to find out!

In some cases, the accelerator model can help charities, by offering greater capital efficiency and enabling locals to run with the ball. The macroeconomic factors make a compelling investment case, so there’s potential that this could be privately funded.

It’s too early to know the right model for this, but the recent progress of Kiva, Khan Academy, OLPC, Mozilla, and Freeformers indicate it’s not too early to start.

Opportunity avails. It’s up to us to strike!

My goal over the next year or so, is to figure out and roll out a “Village Accelerator” focusing on empowering people in the poorest economic groups in the world – with sights on the poor communities in South East Asia, Central Africa, South America, the “Stans,” and the equator.

The Hard Parts

One of my biggest concerns is what cultural barriers will work against us – and whether we’re welcome to help. The Girl Effect and Mozilla’s Internationalisation group have experience to draw on here, but I also need to dive in myself to learn first-hand…

Over the last 3 years, I’ve founded Leancamp and Founder-Centric, and have been privileged to help the top accelerator and university programmes in Europe – the likes of Seedcamp, Springboard, Oxford, UCL and Orange. We’re at the crest of a trend, teaching and empowering more and more first-time founders as the accelerator industry grows, and helping redesign the accelerator model for new regions and new types of startups.

In the developing world, I think we can design the material and empower local trainers to teach people how to build startups, but contextual differences will push us further than ever before.

How you can help

Everything has changed, and while there’s an amazing window of opportunity, there’s also a lot to learn, fast.

While I’m excited, confident and pressing on, I realise that in spite of having spent time in these parts of the world, I’m still naive.

If you have, or know anyone who has, significant experience in these communities or projects like this, or in new-market Disruption, please help me connect.

If you think this is worthwhile, please share this post and help spread the word! And if you’d like to be kept updated,I’ve started a mailing list here.