Today I feel rather like the mother, whose three boys have just gone off to battle. Thomas is flying from Stockholm to Delhi today and Peter and Jeroen head there shortly from Amsterdam. I’m in Bermondsey, biting my nails. We have four days to go.
This is, to be frank, a make or break moment for Akvo, as a key result from our successful mid-August launch was the endorsement of Prince Willem-Alexander (the Prince of Orange). He asked Thomas (Akvo) to join the Dutch royal tour to India, which runs later this week, along with his wife, Princess Maxima and Queen Beatrix herself. As my friend Dennis said, you really couldn’t make it up if you tried..
What’s most important here is that Prince Willem-Alexander chairs the UN’s advisory board on water and sanitation and his wife, a former banker, is a high profile advocate and expert on the potential of microcredit. The Dutch embassy (which incidentally is located in the most uber-cool 60s building I’ve ever seen), is hosting a seminar on Thursday 25th October titled ‘Water and Microfinance: exploring innovative partnerships’. The main aim of the seminar ‘is to discuss how microfinance could help accelerate water- and sanitation-related Millenium Development Goals through innovative partnerships’.
We need two million Euros to build the core Akvo system and we need commitments now from funding partners. So this seminar is important. So too is the willingness of partners to trust us to create something of great value with their money, without them prescribing their own processes on us. They need to be bold enough to let us set out the process, based on open source models. The question is, who signs first. Hence the nail biting.
How we’ve spent Autumn
We haven’t just spent September and October negotiating with funders – far from it. While waiting to actually build the thing, we’ve been using the time to consolidate our thinking on how Akvo aids the prospecting, specification, monitoring and reporting of water and sanitation microfinance. We’ve also been asking how Akvo can become a place that brings together more than stuffy reports, designed for shelves. Think videos, blueprints, people, maps, etc. Thomas and in particular Anna Norén, our brave communications manager, have been trying to handle the large number of enquiries. And we have been eagerly putting every contact and piece of correspondence into our neat new shared CRM tool, HighRise. We haven’t been perfect – I’m sorry if there’s anyone who has emailed us and you’ve gone adrift. But we’ve done ok. Feel free to hassle us if we have neglected you.
Since Stockholm World Water Week, I’ve spent time in both California and India, with a stint back in London in between.
First, I want to thank everyone in San Francisco who spent time with me or Gino Lee, Akvo’s UI director and man of considerable modesty and knowledge, as we worked to ensure Akvo was in sync with the latest developments in software tools and social media. Highlights for me were attending the launch of B-Corporation, (thanks to Jesse Patel) which has led to some wonderful lasting connections, a probable Akvo Facebook application and a potential open source video player for the Akvopedia.
Another treat was our meeting with Peggy Duvette, the charismatic director of Wiser Earth. It looks likely that Akvo and Wiser Earth will co-develop software tools, and it may be that we will help her team make what they already have in place open source. Gino and I were lucky also to spend time with Olana Khan, COO of Kiva.org, who helped us understand their business model and the opportunities that exist to improve the efficiency of microfinance processes. I was fortunate to have two meetings in San Francisco with Business Objects, and Laura Wang, the editor of its Insight programme, which is bravely trying to examine how the brand in future could front a global network of data crunchers who can solve big, audacious global problems.
Finally, I’d like to thank Jonathan Becher, senior VP at SAP, who provided his usual fantastic advice on how to venture, how to gain, and who bought me dinner (again), this time in Palo Alto. Curiously SAP has since bought Business Objects for $6.8 billion. As you can see from this recent interview, Jonathan’s focus at SAP is extremely relevant to Akvo, looking at similar issues from a completely different direction.
At the beginning of October we were in India, to spend proper time with Madhab Nayak at FODRA. There’s simply too much to tell from this time to do justice here, so I won’t even try. But take a look at the photos here, which should tell some of the story themselves.
I have no doubt that FODRA’s example will help shape Akvo over time, and I hope Akvo will help FODRA find new partners, scale its technology and try out new things. Our favourites were the potential for digital animation tools, to help educate people about water issues, and the need to properly map territory, authority and rights so that the built environment can be transformed – unless you can measure territory, understand who has authority over it, and understand and adapt who has rights to use it, you can’t change anything.
All vote for Akvo? Actually these are community representatives from Pratap Nagar, a slum area in Delhi. My question? “Who has a mobile phone?”. Gosh.
We gained advice from several other experts in Delhi before travelling to Bangalore for what became a wonderful set of days really getting to know the team at Arghyam. The story of Arghyam is too long to tell here, but they are absolutely focusing on the same kind of objectives as us and, crucially, understand how open collaboration increases results and reduces (combined) effort.
Thank you to Sunita Nadhamuni, Arghyam’s CEO, plus many others including Vijaya Krishna, product manager for the India Water Portal, and Sharada Prasad, Arghyam’s project officer who was our host on a visit to the Sujala Watershed Project, 4 hours outside Bangalore. We were shown around by Vishwanath Srikantaiah, who is an extraordinary man, with exceptional knowledge of how rainwater harvesting and ecological sanitation can transform communities and eliminate local pollution and resultant health problems. The most memorable aspect of this trip was meeting the people of Kongarahalli, especially the kids. None had ever seen a digital camera before, or rather, had perhaps never really understood that a camera takes instant pictures (kudos to my new $225 Casio Exilim, which has a BIG screen – the kids couldn’t get enough of it). The photo story of the visit can be found here.
The kids of Kongarahalli, India, 8 October 2007.
I’d like to thank Peter van der Linde at Netherlands Water Partnership, an Akvo co-founder, who has courageously battled on our behalf to secure signed-off funds from development banks and, pending a signature I believe, from UN Habitat. And of course, I want to thank Thomas, because this has all come from inside his head. Without him nothing would exist now.
Akvo never set out to be a voluntary organisation. All of the people we are drawing in are the best at what they do. Many are young, but they still need to pay rent, eat, have friends and do stuff. They also need to travel to meet others, learn and generate new ideas.
Let’s hope that amid the pomp and ceremony of the royal visit, real work and real agreements are created so we have the funds to get on and build this thing. I’d like to wish everybody good luck.
Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo. He leads communications and helps ensure we stay in tune with our time.