Akvo’s chairman and co-founder Jeroen van der Sommen has just changed roles, joining the staff full time to lead the development of the Akvo FLOW business. Here Mark Charmer talks with him about his plans.

Jeroen you’ve been our chairman for four years now, but now you’re coming back into an executive role. Tell me about this new role?

If you look at Thomas and I, we stay quite close to where we started. I came from the partnership side, the network, bringing the network together, coming from the assumption that problems are so big, challenges are so large, that they cannot be solved by NGOs alone, not by the private sector, not by the government, not by the knowledge institutes. So the change within the development world should be that collaboration happens between all those different groups.

On the other side, we were limited because partnership alone is not enough, especially if you want to use hi-tech applications in difficult circumstances then you need really good software guys – people who really understand what it takes to scale, to bring it to an operational level at an affordable price. That’s why Thomas came in.

So what I’m doing now is I’m managing the FLOW development – not the technical part, but it what it takes to really bring FLOW to scale.

So your role is to establish Akvo FLOW as a business that can sustain itself?

Yes, that’s the goal and it’s our operational model, like we did with RSR. We have a tool where there is a need – a market for Really Simple Reporting. And you can build a tool but you need investments. And our business model is such that within 3 years the investments should be transferred into a viable business model. That is what we’ve been doing with Akvo RSR and we did it successfully, so it’s now sustainable. And the same thing we are doing for Akvo FLOW. We have some setbacks because the development of Akvo FLOW was not at the level it needed to be for lots of people to adopt it, so we need some time – 6, 12, 18 months to make it what we want. But already it’s being used. We need now investments, grants, to bring it to the level that’s self-sustainable. And we can sell it as a service.

So who is the competition for Akvo in this market?

There are tools being developed by several organisations. But they sell a product – we are more than a product, we are a network. That’s the difference. If we find very useful tools, like we did with Water For People and FLOW, we approach them and ask them to open source them and then work to spread them out widely. And we work with them, together, because we couple good ideas to our things, and vice-versa.

For the full interview, click “More” below…

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Can grants alone make Akvo FLOW sustainable?

No. This has become critical infrastructure, and critical infrastructure you don’t do on grants. It has to be sustainable. That is one of the problems in the whole field we work in – every donor has their own short term tools that after four years when the project is over are not sustainable. And this happens over and over again. The introduction of these kinds of business models is equally as important as the tool itself.

And then to roll it out, we don’t want to sell one-by-one Akvo FLOW. We want to transform the sector – the way we do business. As a sector we don’t know how we are doing because we’re not monitoring, and if we are monitoring it’s cumbersome, it’s expensive, etc.

And if you want to scale, we have another development model. We have the business model, the sustainability model I talked about. But we also have a partnership model which is that in the first step you focus on strategic partners that can really have an impact. And we have those partners on different sides. We have partners from the knowledge side – for example IRC and maybe WSA. We have partners from the NGO world, like Water For People, Connect4Change and the WASH Alliance. And we have those strategic partners from the large donors, like WSP, from the World Bank. And they, together, have critical mass. So the first step is now to elaborate partnerships with these kinds of organisations.

How do you make sure that we don’t just create tools that increase power at the top of aid and development chains?

I see clearly a development from top to bottom and vice-versa. If you look at what is happening in the donor world… take for example IATI, the International Aid Transparency Initiative. For the first time, they agreed on a standard to make visible where the money flows – to whom and where. And we developed those tools Akvo OpenAid to make them visible. And that will have an impact. And the donors, they can drive this, but in a positive way.

At the level of Akvo RSR I think we are at the start of a similar thing. Like the international transparency initiative I think you can also talk of an international aid information initiative, that you have information about projects from the field and go at a deeper level. That’s going to be a worldwide movement. And then, lower, we’re there having an international aid monitoring initiative. That’s where we’re aiming at, and that will change drastically the information going from the lower level to the higher level, and vice-versa. So the people in the village know how much money is being addressed in that village, for a particular well and they can ask themselves, “Where is it? Why is it broken?” Because it was guaranteed for 10 years – that was the promise, you can see it on the web. And it will take some time, but I think these kinds of developments will shift information to field level and back.

We’re going into a different phase of the growth of Akvo, with more of the investment coming from countries other than the Netherlands now yes?

It’s different for Akvo products. If you look at Akvo OpenAid, I think there’s huge opportunity to take the front-runners on board with our tools – Thomas is talking right now with SIDA in Sweden, for example. So it means other governments can make use of those open aid transparency tools.

If you look at Akvo RSR, I think there is a huge potential with support NGOs and local NGOs. As we are close in the Netherlands, we work a lot with the large NGOs, that are at the brink of using Akvo RSR as the standard, not only in a few consortia but in all of their work. If you look at RSR, I think there’s huge potential to use RSR in large projects – take the example of Burkina Faso, large projects over different countries with many different parties with often many different donors, how to keep track of what is happening over the five year period that the project is being executed. Because right now the reports come in a long time afterwards – but Akvo RSR happens at the time.

Most of the large programmes are funded my multiple countries. But it’s not really about how they’re funded, more that they’re complex to run. The complexity with many people, different countries, etc. Monitoring – fast monitoring. It’s not also just about really simple reporting, but also about rapid simple reporting. Because they have it instantaneously. We’ve only just begun to tap that market.

If you look at Akvo FLOW, I think the highest potential is the national and regional governments, supported by large programmes. That’s why WSP from the World Bank or the national ministries are opportunities. Because now those kinds of teams use clipboards and every year or so they go to monitor wells and lakes, etc. I think they can save more than 50% of the expenditure by using Akvo FLOW, instead of having this period of 6 to 8 months before producing a report, you can reduce it to 1 month or 2 months. So there is big potential.

What are the concerns that potential new Akvo partners have when you talk to them?

When you look at Akvo RSR, for example, there is a mindshift needed. Because they’re so preoccupied doing reports as requested by the donors, they think “it’s not going to work because people need to do additional reporting work.” But our experience is that people like it – if you are working with UNDP, for example, you’re doing projects somewhere, but nobody knows about them. But if you put your projects online with RSR you come out of anonymity. And people like it. If you look at the site visit numbers for those using RSR as a pilot, because that’s how we start, we do a pilot and we show them, it’s often more than the overall organisation’s hits on their website. So it has an impact. Those sectors are very traditionally organised.

And then it’s also hard to believe. It’s fun, it makes you more efficient. But it gives a new dynamic into an organisation. And there’s always resistance to that kind of change.

Is there a risk that Akvo’s team becomes part of the development machinery? How can people adopt our tools without us having to be there to train and supervise them too?

I hope we will become part of the development machinery, but with a fast car! I like to be in the traffic, but not with an old car, you know? The second point is, we are organisationally now in a rapid growth phase. We can only transfer that knowledge of training if we know very well ourselves how to do it, also in local circumstances. When I was in Burkina Faso recently, yes you realise there’s not always electricity, and the temperature’s 45 degrees and connectivity is not always there. You have to experience that.

Moving forward, there are also plenty of organisations that can do the training far better than us. Because they have a local presence. What we do now, for example in Nairobi and India, we have a local field presence that trains the trainers. We’re not going out to teach people Excel sheets. Or how to use mobile telephones. You do it once and it goes.

It’s easy for us to see the results of training activity too, because it leads to visible project updates yes?

Yes – everyone can see it! Those tools we make – the governments need it and can use it. The NGOs need it and can use it. There’s also huge potential for knowledge gathering and study by university students over the world, too, once it is there. The large finance institutions too. So we make tools not for one segment, but for the whole sector. And that’s why potentially these tools can be transformative, which is rather unique.

The moment we are here now, it’s not a coincidence, if you look at the worldwide trends. For connectivity, for transparency, the donor world being under criticism. These things influence what we’re doing. If you look at the forces on the sector – it’s under pressure. Everyone has to find new business models. Look at the large forces also. We spend €160 bn on development aid every year. Of which 7 to 10 per cent goes to monitoring alone – that’s not sustainable.