Stern discusses strengthening grassroots in Africa providing the “last mile”

In the October 13 seminar entitled, "The Last Mile: Grassroots Development and Technology in Africa” Joshua Stern, executive director of Envaya, and Jesse Young, CTO of Envaya, shared their insights into how software could be used to strengthen grassroots development in Africa. Envaya’s mission is to build and deploy a software platform that provides “the last mile” of connection between grassroots activists and the larger development sector. 

Stern suggested that one of the biggest challenges in the development space currently was the lack of coordination between the community-based organizations, the NGOs and the foundations. He further argued that a system is only as strong as its weakest links. He therefore suggests that it is important to strengthen the weakest links. In the case of Tanzania and many other developing countries, Stern argued that the weakest link was in the connection between the community-based organizations and the international NGOs that often provided critical financial support. The community-based organizations are essential to focus on because they are embedded within the communities they are working in and have institutional memory, and they stay with the communities unlike international organizations and volunteers that come and go.

In Africa, Stern argued, there is a pretty robust grassroots civil society but often people are working on very similar work and do not know one another. Furthermore, organizations have trouble navigating secure funding. There is therefore a huge potential for collaboration. In particular, there is room for greater leveraging technology. Stern argued, “Despite leaps and bounds in hardware infrastructure, software is still tailored to the developed world.” Community organizations have therefore not been able to take advantage of the IT revolution. Envaya fills this gap by providing software that is optimized to work with infrastructure in these localities, thus enabling these organizations to make use of the connectivity that is now becoming available to them.

Josh and Jesse inspired us with the vision of Envaya to provide a technology platform for civil society organizations in developing countries so that communication and collaboration can take place beyond the occasional conference.  Young discussed the technical details Envaya’s innovation that enabled the rapid spread of their platform among the grassroots organizations in Tanzania and elsewhere.