• Written by Peter van der Linde
    30 October 2014

My colleague Mark Charmer once described me as a super-accountant. I only got what he meant much later. I like to find money – to get things done, yes. And I like to structure things in creative ways so everybody is happy.

Back in 2009 when we just started Akvo, I talked the Rabobank into providing us with a €500,000 loan, based on a business plan we wrote in the months before. We did not have any operational income by then. It was, well, a challenge.

The director of the Rabobank pushed the plan that we worked on for months across the table.

“So you really expect me to think this is realistic?”

Good question.

I thought and replied, “No, we are going to over-perform, or fail – but you would not have trusted or liked those numbers.”

He laughed. “What assets do you have if you fail?”

“Chairs, desks and computers, that would be pretty much it”.

He liked it. Sure, he buffered his risks, but he liked it – and the next day we got our loan.

Reducing nice words, in a few strokes

Ever since that day, I felt that the loan has been the best thing that ever happened to us. Making things look better than they are is simple, but loans are different. Bankers, especially Dutch bankers, reduce nice words – in a few strokes. Numbers and factors remain – and that’s that. Good bankers really don’t care if you are a foundation or not, they want healthy business models and they want loans back.

When I now look around in the international development sector five years later, I see an emerging ecosystem of tech organisations creating internet and mobile data collection systems. I feel there is a real movement underway. At one level we could think of it as competition, but in reality it is great to see. My main problem is organisations and governments that bicker and drag their feet and won’t share the data that is collected openly. What I do take issue with, though, is the recent blooming of service providers that position themselves as “free and simple”.

These are the reasons why:

Continuous maintaining and development of software takes people, thus costs money. If a service provider gets financial support to cover these development costs, so they can donate it for free, great, but it is not free. It just means the bill is sent somewhere else temporarily. It is very risky for users to depend on any infrastructure if the long-term investments to maintain and continuously improve that system are not secured.

The “free and simple” message is counterproductive for the sector as a whole. We need more investments in IT and development, not less. Investments in the human capacities that are needed to make sure full advantage can be taken of all the opportunities that now exist. Organisations that shout free and simple from the rooftops blur this more important message for the sake of quick wins. And that I do have a problem with.

“Free technology”, that ignores the complexities to come. Try telling how simple an app is to someone that has never used a smartphone in their life before, and you will see the part of the work that is conveniently left out of the sales pitch. That’s the hard bit.

Positioning as free hides the role of back-donors that cover the costs. Why not be transparent about the real underlying costs? Years of investments in water and sanitation solutions have taught us one key lesson. Without local ownership, no sustainability. And the best answer these funders can come up with is supporting a new wave of 100% subsidised systems into Africa, without clear long term plans? Please. We are working very hard with national governments in Africa and Asia to do the opposite: reduce dependencies.

“The tool is so simple, no support is needed”. This common tagline is sometimes used to work around any lack of structures in place to deal with what happens when the tool itself starts being used. I’m watchful of tech players that manage to use a lack of regional support structures as evidence that their tool is so simple it does not need support in the first place. Or those who might suggest that evidence of a technology service provider working on the ground means “they must have a tool that is not simple and needs a lot of support”.

Free and simple does not lead to better quality data. And that is what is needed. Quality data on which important decisions can be based. I’m just back from Vanuatu in the Pacific, where the final survey that will now be taken to national scale has been iterated 31 times over the last year. One of the questions during the test phase was if the quality of the water point was good, fair or poor. Simple, right? Well, we realised that in a lot of cases it was not the status of the water point changing over time, but the expert judgment of different evaluators. And mind you, we were dealing with seasoned sector professionals here. My colleague Amitangshu explains the work and lessons involved here.

Simple is not easy.

From where I’m sitting, right now in South East Asia, I see an enormous demand for support that is needed to help make sure that the right quality data is collected, and that it is used and shared at scale. This, more than anything else, is a sign of a sector that needs serious financial investments before it can make the most of the great technologies that are out there.

At Akvo we will continue to work with partners on this long-term journey to make a real difference where it matters. And yes, we will keep sending out bills to ensure the sustainability of our systems, investing the revenues back in. It’s core to our values of being “not for profit, not for loss”.

Let me finish with a short message for the ‘software is free’ evangelists out there. People will figure it out. Soon. And if you don’t believe me, talk to a banker. It is the best advice I can give. We can recommend a great one who just got his €500k loan back.

Peter van der Linde is a co-founder and solutions director at Akvo. He is based in Amsterdam. 

Photo by Marcel Hauri, via Flickr. Licensed under a CC-BY-SA license.

Related reading:
Huffington Post, March 2014: Akvo: 10 Big Lessons We Learned In The Business of Intelligent International Development.
Mark Charmer, Akvo blog, 3 November 2014: Marketing Akvo – part 1