“It really feels like we are at the edge of a tech revolution” – Interview with Loren Treisman

In this interview, Loren Treisman, Executive of Indigo Trust, talks about the partners they support, what makes them special and why her work feels like it’s part of a tech revolution – and still it's not actually technology that matters.

By Friedhelm Weinberg on

Three days after finishing her PhD, Loren Treisman went to East Africa and her life started to take a different turn. Now she is Executive of Indigo Trust, a philanthropic fund that awards mostly small grants to small, community-driven projects in Africa that use technology for social change. In this interview, Loren talks about what makes these organisations special, what hinders them and why her work feels like it’s part of a tech revolution – and still it’s not actually technology that matters.

For a donor you took the unusual step to choose WordPress.com for your website. Why did you do that?

It just makes a lot of sense. We use a standard WordPress template and we haven’t even customised it. Absolutely anyone can make a website like ours for free. The main reason behind using WordPress is that we are constantly encouraging our grantees to make an impact whilst keeping costs to a minimum. We thought that we should practice what we preach and wanted to demonstrate that you can easily set up a website at no or low costs. It can also be updated regularly and easily so it feels like we’re current, interactive and able to regularly tell the outside world what we’re doing. It also makes sense to be transparent in our grant making when we support transparency initiatives.

Loren Treisman is Executive of the Indigo Trust, a philantropic fund that gives out grants to organisations that work for social change using technology.

Did you get any negative or positive reactions on this?

We haven’t had any formal feedback, but quite often people will pick up on the fact that it’s a simple site and ask us why we did that. Some organisations are really encouraging. We’ve definitely never had any negative feedback about it and our readshership numbers are really good for such a small organisation.

Being more open as donors has also had a really positive impact. It helps us find the right organisations to support and to become better known in the space, which leads to all sorts of opportunities.

Based on this, what advice would you give an organisation?

Occasionally, we get applications for developing a portal or new social network. We often say to them: ‘Why don’t you use the networks and platforms that are already out there, like Facebook and Twitter and focus more on developing the right content and building a strong community?’ The right people are often already using these platforms and they work well, so there is often no need to reinvent the wheel.

I think the same would apply to building a website. Platforms like WordPress are already out there and are simple to use. If there is something out there that already does a good job, there is no need to start from scratch or pay expensive rates to build a tailored site.

What kind of communities are you funding? Why are you interested in these?

Our funding is very widespread. We are looking at technology-driven projects that bring about social change in Africa, with a special interestin promoting transparency, accountability and good governance. From a community perspective, this means we are very interested in how established community activists can utilise technology to mobilise, share information and support each other.

A good example is an organisation called the Tanzania Gender Network Programme. They work closely with lots of offline activists all over the country, which are already mobilising their communities and campaigning for changes of policies and practices in their communities.

We have supported an SMS platform that enables them to communicate more effectively with each other and also to pass information on to the international community more efficiently. We like to see projects like this, where offline activists are already doing something successfully and then explore the ways in which technology can help them to grow and become more efficient in how they mobilise people and communicate.

How important is it to have an offline network to realise something with tech?

We definitely think that technology is only ever part of the solution to social challenges, so anything that is coming from a purely tech point of view is unlikely to work.

That’s mainly because in order to create social impact, it’s critical to have a clear theory of change and a deep understanding of the local context and culture. Also what capacity building is needed around these tools? How is the information being used? How will one raise awareness of a platform and what policy and advocacy work could take place around a project?

We often find that the tech is only a small component of a wider project.

What is it then that you’re looking for?

Our projects vary dramatically, so there is no fixed formula. We definitely look for an organisation which has a clear theory of change. What I mean by that is that we really want to know: ‘Why is there a need for what an organisation is doing?’
‘How are they going to ensure that their approach creates social impact? Is technology useful to contribute towards this impact’ In some cases it is and in some cases it isn’t.

We also look for projects which use appropriate technology (by which we mean technology which is available and widely used locally), follow a social enterprise model or have low running costs, use technology in an innovative way and ideally for an idea which is sustainable and/or replicable. We also have a soft spot for grassroots organisations, open source products and interoperable solutions.

From the projects you have done so far and experiences you have gained, what was the biggest surprise?

We’re taking relatively high risks with the organisations which we’re supporting. Some of them have never even run a project before. We’ve often been amazed at the level or progress whichis made in a short space of time, particularly around the innovation hubs that we’re supporting all across the African continent. Many have started attracting further funding and some fantastic projects are starting to emerge from some of them such as Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria and Activ Spaces in Cameroon.

We’ve also found that there have been some surprising income generation streams through these projects. We support a project called iCow and we’ve given them less than 65,000 GBP in total. They’ve now got to a stage where they are negotiating a contract with one of the biggest mobile providers in Kenya and they are establishing a sustainable business model which will remove the need for further funding.

We are really excited to see business models emerging which could remove the need for aid dependency. On saying this, we are aware that there are some projects, particularly in the transparency space which will require on-going funding, whether in Africa or the West.

On the other hand, was there something that you expected to work out and it didn’t. Why?

One of the biggest challenges at the moment is around citizen reporting. A lot of fantastic platforms have been developed, so citizens are able to report on challenges in health service delivery or corruption for example.

We have found that getting these projects to lead to impact can be a real challenge. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible; there is one project called the Lungisa Project which is being piloted in Khayelitsha township in South Africa and it’s starting to get a fairly good resolution rate for their reports (over 50% of reports have been resolved).

But we have found that it can be a real challenge to incentivise people to submit reports, often because their communities have never been shown that reporting will help to make a change.

Even if the reports come through, sometimes there is not enough of a backend to put pressure on government or whoever the service provider is. There also needs to be the will and capacity of government to deliver these services. Sometimes they just can’t – even if they would like to.

Participants of the Social Innovation Camp that was hosted by the founders of Co-Creation Hub working together.

It is worth saying that it is very early days, as we have only been funding in this space since October 2010. In terms of learning we need to be realistic that it is relatively limited at this stage, because most of projects have only been running for about a year.

One of the things that we do is use our blog for this. We publish regular updates from our grantees that talk about their successes as well as the challenges. We ask grantees to report honestlyin the reports which they submit to us and also try and check in informally with grantees on a regular basis and to follow them on Twitter and Facebook so that we can get real-time feedback on projects. We are also really active on social media platforms like Twitter.

We’re part of a donor collaborative called the Transparency and Accountability Initiative and regularly share best practice. They’re now exploring the development of an impact and learning workstream.

I also do a lot of talking at conferences and writing in the international press and we put some effort into trying to convene people. There was a conference in London called ‘Africa Gathering’, where we brought all the hub managers together. This gave them areal chance to share best practices, successes and challenges from their different locations.

Building on that, how does the decision to give out smaller grants affect your daily work?

One of our main philosophies at the Indigo Trust is that the best solutions to Africa’s challenges will come from Africans.

We really want to support African organisations – we do break our own rules sometimes – but that is our main aim. If we are honest, in this space, there are not that many African-run organisations that are ready to absorb large amounts of funding yet.

We also recognised that there were other funders that did have larger grants available. The Omidyar Network even distributes up to two million dollar grants in this space.

We realised there wasn’t enough space for entrepreneurs to be able to innovate, take risks and have room for trial and error, to make mistakes and learn from them and try other things out. Yet, that’s the way the tech culture works in a place like Silicon Valley, so we thought this is where we should step in.

How do you further support successful projects?

We thought we were in a really good position as philanthropists – we’re not distributing tax payers money – to be willing to take high risks, but with small amounts of money.

Our strategy moving forward is to always have these small grants available. We’re also hoping to award larger multi-year funding to the projects that have been successful, but still at a very low level of about forty-thousand pounds a year.

We also see ourselves as having a significant role outside of funding includingleveraging funds from other funders, if we do see a project get to the state of readiness where they need to seeklarger funds. We are very well-connected with funders that we can introduce them to.

Su Kahumbu, founder of iCow, is licked by a Jersey-Friesian cross as John Njure, a small-scale dairy farmer from Kamirithu looks on. iCow is a text-message based service that automates basic record-keeping for dairy farmers. Kenya has 1.6 million such farmers; many of them are small scale, and use rudimentary methods.

What is the most important thing you can do for your grantees, other than giving money?

One path is publicity. As soon as we have funded something that gives the organisation credibility to go and ask for other funds. I also regularly talk at conferences and write in the press to promote the organisations as much as possible, which attracts other funds and interest.

We are also lucky that we get a really big overview of what is going on across the continent. So we spent a lot of our time connecting up organisations that have not been connected before but have similar areas of focus or could benefit from each other’s expertise. Sometimes I am amazed that following a conversation which I could barely recall,someone would write to me to say ‘thanks for that introduction’, as it lead to securing some free training or other relevant support. I think that can be really useful.

We also occasionally host working lunches or events which bring together relevant experts, have funded a Social Media and Philanthropy research paper to further knowledge of this field and hope we act as thought leaders in this space.

Why did you choose to focus on transparency in your work?

First of all, from a citizen empowerment perspective a lot of development in the past was about development being done for people. We think it’s really important that citizens are given a voice and that they are empowered to make choices and changes in their own communities.

Technology really has the power now – especially with mobile phones becoming almost ubiquitous in many African countries – to really enable people to have better access to information generally and particularly around governance and transparency.

Obviously, there is massive momentum in this space with things like the Open Government Partnership and a lot of governments committing to opening up data. This data is meaningless – unless techies and activists use the data to stimulate social change.

We are excited about making sure that firstly the information that people want is out there (surely anyone should have a right to access information on their elected representatives for example). Then it’s important to ensure that the information is in a format which everyday citizens can understand and that is meaningful to them. Then we’d like to see people being able toutilise that information to stimulate social change.

Our Founder, Fran Perrin also has substantial experience in this space, having extensive experience at a senior level in the civil service and contributing towards the UK government’s influential Power of Information report.

One of the biggest challenges in the sector is effectively bringing the social activists and the techies together. Often you get people that are coming from a technical approach and they can build a fantastic platform, but they don’t necessarily understand the needs on the ground and what drives social change.

On the other side you have the social activists, who really understand how to make change happen, but don’t necessarily know how technology can contribute in that process. There is a lot of work to be done in terms of bringing these two groups together.

Another massive challenge is government receptivity. A lot depends on their openess and responsiveness to this space and some, like Kenya, do a very good job in terms of releasingloads of data. Obviously somewhere like Zimbabwe this might be a lot trickier.

The mechanisms for ensuring that transparency leads to accountability are still unclear and there is also a lot of work to do in terms of creating the right ecosystem and developing the necessary skill sets in-country.

This sector is also incredibly new and it will take a while before a range of scalable/replicable and sustainable solutions have been established. We need to take a long-term view.

How do you try to make sure that they will be sustainable in the end?

It is worth saying that sustainability is definitely a challenge, in any area of development. Particularly in the transparency space there is likely to be a need for grant funding for the foreseeable future, just because it is quite hard to generate income from transparency projects.

However, again, we have been surprised by the income streams that can come about. For example, we have a grantee called ‘Budgit’ in Nigeria. They develop infographics that help the general public understand the Nigerian budget and then stimulate a lot of discussions around this, both offline and using social media.

Now they’ve been approached by banks and governments who have asked ‘can you produce infographics for our work?’ And they are starting to produce income by providing consultancy services to them.

Some business models are emerging in the tech space, iCow which I mentioned above is a great example. Buy-in from governments can be another route to sustainability, particularly if a tech-driven project cuts the costs of providing an alternative service.

I would say this is something that remains a challenge. We prioritise projects that have some sort of a social enterprise model, which means they will eventually become sustainable. Or if they are unlikely to be able to do so, we are quite strict about organisations keeping their costs really low, so it’s realistic that funding can be obtained in the long term.

Then there are some projects that we hope will be picked up by governments or larger NGOs and institutions, as scaling becomes possible. But particularly at the scaling stage it is a real challenge for an organisation to secure funding.

On a personal note, you have a PhD in Genetics and are now a grant-giver. How did one lead to the other? How do you benefit from the PhD in your daily work?

Almost immediately after my PhD – I think three days later – I ended up going to East Africa to volunteer. To cut a very long story short, I ended up working out there for two and a half years and just completely fell in love with the people and continent.

I guess in this day and age a lot of people are realising that a lot of information can be accessed on the internet, but it’s transferable skills that are more important. I think fortunately for me Fran and the Indigo Trust recognised that I had the ability to present to large audiences, write reports efficiently and carry out research to get to know a field fast. I also had experience in influencing policy and working closely with African communities at a grassroots level as well as liaising with senior Stakeholders. Havingspent more than two and a half years living and working in Africa, as well as having South African parents means I’ve always been closely connected to the continent.

How are you feeling in the sector? Or do you want to go back to academia?

I definitely don’t want to go back to academia! This is so much more rewarding, because in a year you can really start seeing – it might be unfair to say complete impact – but you can start seeing things changing, things starting to happen. If I am honest, I did find the process significantly slower in academia, which felt a bit less satisfying. Whilst I am cynical about some aspects of the development sector, I’m also totally inspired by the sector as a whole and I love our approach, particularly the fact that we’re supporting homegrown talent.

Also once I spent time in Africa, I realised this is where my passion lies.

How do you keep this passion alive on a daily basis? What keeps you going?

It’s a combination of first of all having a fantastic team and a founder who is truly inspirational. Our grantees are also great, as ultimately they are the ones that make these projects happen and it’s so inspiring to see people who are actively trying to make positive changes in their community, rather than depending on aid.

I also love the atmosphere of the tech community, there’s a real can-do attitude. People are willing to take risks and try out new things. It really feels we are at the edge of a tech revolution. This really does have potential to have massive impact in the world, so I find that very exciting.

Finally, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I absolutely love traveling to Africa on a regular basis. A big piece of my heart will always remain on that continent.

If you’d like to learn more about Indigo Trust’s work, please subscribe to their blog: http://indigotrust.wordpress.com or follow them on Twitter: @indigotrust.

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