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gates_foundationThrough innovation and funding, Kenyan bitcoin startup Bitsoko promises to revamp the way commerce is conducted in bustling markets in Nairobi and cities across Africa. The company has invented a digital wallet that employs blockchain technology to allow a smoother, cheaper transfer of funds between individuals.

Used in Bitcoin, blockchain technology saves and encrypts transaction records that allow for safe, speedy monetary transactions at a low cost.

This form of technology expands access to financial services for merchants and their customers. For sellers, such programming allows them to view and track customer payments while aggregating this data to produce complete financial and stock records, customer invoices and receipts, financial statements, and tax returns.

The acceleration of blockchain technology will also make transferring funds between individuals cheaper, encouraging mobile commerce.

Developments such as this will provide an alternative to inconvenient, slow transactions using cash or credit cards and will follow at the heels of the economic boom occurring in Africa. Such technology will foster economic growth and pair customers with suitable goods and services in a more efficient way.

According to Allan Juma, co-founder of Bitsoko, the brand hopes to be a leader in mobile finances, noting how “the financial structure in Kenya and throughout Africa has changed rapidly since the birth of mobile money by M-Pesa. We believe that this will only continue to grow”.

The company has recently attracted attention from international investors and organizations as well. It was recently awarded $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the Global Challenges Explorations, an initiative providing support to groups working toward solutions to global problems.

Programs such as this one provide an incentive for entrepreneurs who have experienced societal challenges to develop efficient, sustainable strategies for improvement.

With its GCE funding, Bitsoko plans on expanding its access internationally, bringing mobile banking services to Ghana, Zimbabwe, and Sierra Leone in a project co-founder Daniel Bloch has named “Enable Universal Acceptance of Mobile Money Payments”.

Bringing this technology to new countries will spur economic growth and technological innovation that has been heating up Africa in recent years. With increased transactional accessibility, sellers can expect to create a larger, more diverse consumer base and enhanced output.

Partnerships between international organizations such as the Gates Foundation and local businesses can lead to far-reaching global solutions that empower entrepreneurs and their communities.

Jenny Wheeler

Sources: Disrupt Africa, Grand Challenges in Global Health, Bitsoko
Photo: Coin Telegraph

solar-powered_iShack
In 2012, South Africa’s subsidized housing program had built about 2.8 million houses since 1994. As impressive as that is, the country still faced a backlog of nearly 2 million homes. Facing these numbers, the government decided to shift its focus from providing new-made homes for every household to improving current living conditions. Approximately 1.2 million households, or 3 million people, are still living in informal homes today. These shacks have no electricity or running water. Many are uninsulated and poorly ventilated, creating unhealthy environments for those inside.

Mark Swilling decided to address this problem back in 2011. Swilling, the academic head of the Sustainability Institute in Stellenbosch, asked his students, “‘What can be done while people are waiting?’ We wanted to orientate [our research] towards what the average shack dweller could do while they are waiting for the state.”

His question led to the solar-powered iShack. The shiny metal walls of these ‘improved shacks’ stand out in shantytowns where wooden pallets and corroded sheets of zinc are the building norm. The shacks also feature insulation made of recycled plastic products, a layer of insulating bricks around the bases of the walls, windows designed to improve airflow, and a coat of fire-retardant paint.

The most popular feature by far, however, is the solar electricity. The shacks are equipped with a photovoltaic panel on the roof that powers a porch light and interior lights, as well as an electrical outlet that makes it possible for residents to charge their cell phones.

Damian Conway, manager and director of the Sustainability Institute Innovation Lab, the main team behind the implantation of the iShack, says that part of their research methodology was paying close attention to what they community really wanted. “Electricity is the number one thing that most people in Enkanini say they need,” Conway says. “The needs are all there: sanitation, water … but the main thing is energy.”

The iShack has been warmly received. Nosango Plaatjie, a mother of three living in one of the iShack prototypes, commented that the ability to keep her phone charged and her lights on has made a huge difference to her family.

“The solar [lights] are better,” Plaatije said. “Now we don’t need to go to sleep early anymore because now we have lights. My daughter must do her homework now, she doesn’t have any more excuses. And I like the light outside because we can see what is going on, I feel safer.”

The iShack model of incremental improvements to already-existing settlements has a lot of people excited. In 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supplied the organization with a grant that would allow the project to roll out across the informal settlement of Enkanini.

With much success and steadily rising support from the local community, other groups are beginning to take notice. Slum Dwellers International, a global nonprofit that serves the urban poor, is watching iShack with an eye toward implementing the project across many countries in Africa.

The secretariat-coordinator Joel Bolnick gave the impression of hopeful patience when he said, “Our intention is to give the institute some time to develop the model. They’re almost there now.”

– Marina Middleton

Sources: Mashable, The Guardian iShack Project CNN Live Science Mail & Guardian
Photo: Street News Service

Mobile_Financing
It can get hard to save for the future, plan and invest in a business and survive economic reversals if one lacks access to finances or bank accounts. This is a reality for many individuals who live in poverty.

When the concept of microfinance was developed, people with extremely low incomes had the opportunity to acquire small loans with which they could start businesses and generate income. A revolution at the time, microfinance gave the poor a chance to get loans without a credit history and large collateral needed by the traditional banking sector. However, these kind of loans are still hampered by access and the need to handle finances which can drive up costs and interest rates. This hole is now being filled by mobile finance.

Electronic solutions are making banking options much more accessible across the world. They reduce the cost of infrastructure needed, and the administrative costs associated with maintaining financial accounts. Such remittances can be much more secure than traveling long distances to deposit cash in a bank. Government disbursement programs can also use mobile financing to directly remit payments to the welfare dependents. This cuts out the intermediaries, reduces opportunities for corruption and allows the beneficiary to get their monies quicker.  Worldwide, 170 million people who receive payments directly from their governments stand to benefit from this approach.

M-Pesa, launched in Kenya by Safaricom, is one of the most wide-reaching mobile financing solutions. Over 17 million people in Kenya now use this product and over 25 percent of their GDP is moved through this system. Originally designed to facilitate microfinance loan repayments, M-Pesa allows cash deposits, withdrawals and cash transfers between people in the same way you would credit a phone with talk time. It has now expanded to Tanzania and Afghanistan.

Some of these initiatives are supported by development organizations. For instance, Bangladesh based Bkash is supported by BRAC Bank, IMF and The Gates Foundation among others. The Gates Foundation and other such organizations are closely involved in the process of making these solutions hit their stride.

The Gates Foundation assists in finding innovative new solutions and researches factors that would encourage their adoption. The foundation also works with governments to develop and implement policies that would stimulate this sector and develop suitable methods for oversight and accountability among the providers. As the technology slowly becomes mainstream and more competitors enter the market, governmental regulations will start to become more and more important.

In the words of Jim Kim, President of the World Bank, “More than one in three people on earth now lacks access to basic bank accounts or any kind of credit. Our goal is to bring that number to zero in just five years. Doing so will be an incredible challenge, but the reward will set us on a path to end extreme poverty by 2030.” Mobile financing is going a long way to bridge this gap and help achieve this goal.

Mithila Rajagopal

Sources: Bkash, Economist, The Gates Foundation, LinkedIn Pulse, World Economic Forum
Photo: flickr

fight against poverty
In the fight against something as daunting as extreme poverty, success often gets buried under all of the staggering statistics. Looking at how far the world has come in the fight against extreme poverty involves observing what has been done and what is possible in the coming years. This lens makes it clear that the humanitarian efforts of thousands of people have made a very clear difference in the lives of millions exposed to poverty.

In 1990, the global poverty rate was at 36 percent, which decreased to 18 percent in 2010. This fulfilled a Millennium Challenge Goal to cut the global poverty rate in half, and it did so five years ahead of schedule. The call to action outlined in the Millennium Challenge Goals has inspired many to rally around the cause and make improvements.

In addition to the poverty rate changing, the number of children who die from preventable diseases every year has decreased by 30 percent in the past 15 years, indicating an improvement in the standards of living for thousands of children.

Education in developing countries has seen improvement with higher annual enrollment rates, which will see more apparent return in the future when these children are more prepared and qualified to support their families and contribute to a more stable society.

The future of the fight against poverty smacks of success, given that the fight maintains momentum. Were progress to continue at the current rate, or better yet, speed up, the goal of lifting one billion people out of poverty could be met between 2025 and 2030. Bill Gates posited that there could be almost no impoverished countries by 2035.

There are various initiatives being developed by various humanitarian organizations that show promise of success. In December of 2013, 46 countries all over the world stepped up to accelerate the fight against extreme poverty by committing to a composite $52 billion donation over a period of three years that will go directly to the International Development Association, a fund established by the World Bank to support the world’s poorest.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Foundation, Warren Buffett, Feed the Future — the list of people and organizations willing to help is endless. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. In a world that is more technologically capable than ever with the resources necessary to feed the whole world and the money to establish stable communities around the world, the fight against extreme poverty is more manageable.

The fight is not over, nor will it be an easy fight to win. Worldwide, there are nearly 1 billion people who survive on $1.25 or less every day. Proportionally compared to the world population, we are facing a smaller fraction, but it is still an overwhelming number. Keeping in mind the progress of the past and the promise of the future, the world can continue to successfully fight against extreme poverty.

– Maggie Wagner

Sources: The World Bank, MSNBC, The World Bank, Mic.com
Photo: Konnect Africa

Bill_Gates_poverty_fighting_poverty’s_end
The World Economic Forum is held every year for top leaders, thinkers and businessmen around the world to meet in Davos, Switzerland. The topics and discussions are over a range of ideas, but they all focus on making and shaping the world into a better place for everyone and achieving  poverty’s end. Bill Gates has been a regular attendee at these meeting and his newsletter that was released by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation lays out the three myths about poverty that do more harm than good.

The first myth is that poor countries are doomed to stay poor. Gates cited China as a prime example of this. He cites the transformation places like Mexico City have undergone from 1980 to 2011 as an example of how poor countries have the ability to truly transform themselves. Bill Gates goes on to note that seven of the 10 fastest growing economies of the past half-decade have been in Africa.

Gates go on to say optimistically that by 2035  he believes that there will not be any country that is consider “poor” by the current World Bank standards. He see countries either being in the “lower-middle income or rich” category, he sees poverty’s End.

Bill Gates’ second myth is that foreign aid is a big waste. He cites the eradication of polio as an example of aid working. Today, there are only three countries that have never been polio-free: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. There is now a global effort to eradicate the disease completely by 2018, which will not only save the lives of scores of people, but also save about $2 billion dollars per year in preventative treatments.

Bill Gates’ third myth is that saving and prolonging life leads to overpopulation. He cites Thailand in the 1960’s as an example. Child mortality rates began to decrease, then in the 1970’s the government invested in a strong family planning program. Now Thailand’s child mortality rate is as low as the United States and Thai women are only having about two kids each.

The message is that if child mortality is high, then families will have more children in case a fair amount of them die. But if one invests in a strong family planning program and lower child morality, families will have fewer children because they are living longer.

Gates’ foundation does amazing things every year, and by issuing this information to the public he is helping to educate and make sure that people and governments have their facts straight.

– Arthur Fuller

Sources: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg
Photo: The Butterfly Project

Philanthropic_Giving
When it comes to international aid programs, everyone has heard of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as Warren Buffett’s astronomical donation track record, with last year’s donations reaching $1.87 billion. However, outside of the American audience, African billionaires are also stepping up and contributing to causes they care about. Here is a list of African philanthropic billionaires that lead programs in their own countries.

The wealthiest African, Aliko Dangote, worth an estimated $20.2 billion, donates millions of his wealth to education, health and social causes. Last year Dangote took part in the first ever Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy, where he discussed the benefits of donating, listing Gates and Buffett as inspirations.

Nathan Kirsh, a South African native, earned his $3.6 billion wealth by monopolizing the small goods market in New York City. According to Forbes, his philanthropic efforts focus on Swaziland, where he supplied approximately 10,000 people with starter capital for small businesses. Kirsh states that 70 percent of his recipients are women with a 70 percent success rate for his program overall. He also hopes to make Swazi schools the first in Africa to boast guaranteed computer literacy for all graduates.

Folorunsho Alakija hails from Lagos, Nigeria and is Africa’s richest woman thanks to her very profitable ownership of an oil block in the 1990’s. Since then, Alakija has expanded her $7.3 billion enterprise to real estate around the world, notably $200 million worth in the United Kingdom alone. With her money, Alakija founded the Rose of Sharon Foundation in 2008 which aids orphans and widows in her native country of Nigeria.

Mohamed Mansour has an estimated $2.3 billion fortune from his investment company the Mansour Group, which owns Egypt’s largest grocery store Metro and Egypt’s McDonald’s franchises, among other businesses. Mansour founded the Lead Foundation, a nonprofit that has provided over 1.3 million loans to small business endeavors and under-privileged women in Egypt. Mansour also chairs the Mansour Foundation for Development, which strives to eliminate illiteracy, poverty, and disease in order to expedite the development of Egyptian society.

Emily Bajet

Sources: Daily Mail, Forbes, Rose of Sharon Foundation, Mansour Foundation For Development

Bill Gates Responds to Skepticism of Foreign AidUS foreign aid has recently been thrown into the debate of where to cut government spending. Many Members of Congress have expressed doubt as to the effectiveness of foreign aid and the United States’ responsibility of providing foreign aid to third world countries. In his annual letter, Bill Gates wrote a response to these many concerns asserting that foreign aid works and the United States should continue funding this vital program.

Bill Gates begins his argument by addressing concerns that foreign aid is ineffective and only goes into the hands of the corrupt. By using the example of an organization he supports, GAVI Alliance, Gates is able to explain the specifics of foreign aid in a way that is often ignored. GAVI uses all of the donations it receives to provide vaccines to developing countries. Gates reiterates that the organization does not send cash to these countries, only vaccines. This is one way nonprofits and USAid can bypass possible corrupt political leaders.

Another way GAVI ensures its funds are not wasted is by only operating in countries that have provided evidence of a strong enough immunization system to administer the vaccines to a majority of children. These countries are required also to pay a percentage of the cost of the vaccines. Gates reminds us that China was once a recipient of such aid and now pays the full amount for vaccines. He also stresses how methods for measuring accountability and effectiveness have greatly increased and countries failing to meet certain criteria no longer receive assistance.

Not only are assistance organizations addressing corruption and government accountability, but studies have also shown these organizations to be achieving their goal of reducing global poverty and hunger. GAVI has contributed to the decrease in children dying each year (down by one quarter) by providing 370 million children with vaccinations. That means 2.4 million children’s lives have been saved in about thirteen years, since GAVI was created in 2000.

Gates acknowledges that there is still some corruption when dealing with foreign aid, but that does not mean the US should stop sending assistance. Foreign aid is working, and eventually recipient countries will build their economies to the point where they no longer require aid. The implications of such development mean a larger market for US products and a more secure world, not to mention drastically better living standards for formerly impoverished people.

Bill Gates calls for US politicians to be the moral leaders of the world. Such actions will not only ensure international respect but also international influence. He urges the US to follow the example of Britain and other countries devoted to foreign aid and continue funding for foreign assistance programs.

– Mary Penn
Source: Daily Mail
Photo: Gates Foundation