Envaya: Inviting Grassroots NGOs online, Creating a Platform for Interaction
In November, I uncovered Envaya's work mentioned briefly in a posting about Tanzanian innovators on Afrinovator. I reached out and spoke with its cofounders, heard more of their story, and decided that an organization profile would be valuable:
Envaya is a new initiative and nonprofit website (software) platform for NGOs, specifically community based organizations (CBOs) across Africa, developed by two computer software engineers in Silicon Valley and one Tanzanian civil-society organization coordinator. Personal outreach is a central part of the idea so the platform is temporarily bound to Tanzania. A Tanzanian team explains the system through an ongoing series of free workshops for grassroots NGOs. A mostly Tanzanian and American non-profit advisory board provides firm guidance to the platform.
For the past six months, through seminars and meetings across Tanzania, the Envaya team has worked to engage civil society organizations around Tanzania with the new content and services support that they offer.
The near-universal mobile phone access around Tanzania and Africa has already defined the ways that grassroots organizations function. It is now routine to find organizations communicating across their district, city or regions. Internet presence is an unrealized opportunity for most CBOs. Envaya is founded on the idea that a specialized internet software can offer formal and semi-formal organizations in Africa three things:
- improved communication,
- streamlined reporting,
- painless transparency.
By these three headline objectives, Envaya feels it can help CBOs, stakeholders, and their support institutions to communicate their successes and expectations about their work as mobile internet reaches out into society, just as the mobile phone did over the last 10 years.
East African ICT successes like M-PESA have taken off by putting a human face on banking. For a web platform it is not clear that this is required--plenty of websites around Silicon Valley have taken off without face-to-face marketing. Based on the team's start in East Africa, Envaya considers it crucial.
Explaining the Platform by Seminar
One of the co-founders, Joshua Stern volunteered with Peace Corps Tanzania from 2006 on the island of Pemba. His experience in his own community led him to use uncompensated training seminars around Tanzania in order to explain the Envaya platform and build the online community of CBOs. Tanzanian seminar leaders adapt the presentation to local needs. Participants take ownership because they value their time and involvement in exciting ICTs with clear productivity benefits.
In many African countries, stakeholder meetings and staff trainings are the main tool to transfer skills and techniques. The approach is occasionally critiqued in government and can feel incredibly tedious for dispersing important ideas. Still, it is a powerful forum for airing new practices in a setting where mass media has only lately reached any sort of critical mass.
Seminars can be friendly and accessible in a way that most foreign technology is not. Besides the main message, they establish useful rapport between users. The users can then continue to work together via ICTs to solve problems they may encounter. So far more than 200 organizations across wide Tanzania are using Envaya after attending the seminars. Buses and public transport bring seminar participants together and then return them to their home organizations, and sign ups are increasingly occurring through pure word of mouth.
When I talked to Joshua about why he did not get on Social Networking sites like Twitter and Facebook earlier, he told me that they wanted to prove their concept before making too much chatter. The team knew that the great majority of their target users were as yet unreached by any internet site. The value of their work is rooted in introducing a good solution and explaining it with a personal touch.
Until recently, Envaya has been a fairly simple, though carefully crafted, content management and social blogging site for CBO users around Tanzania. An example use would be Fadeco Community Radio in Karagwe, TZ. It has been designed with complete cross-language localization in Swahili and it has been thoroughly optimized for low bandwidth and small screens for distraction-less information exchange by organizations. Internet familiarity in Tanzania is fairly low. Internet pipes in East Africa are often overworked and slow. Many target users are just now becoming comfortable with computers in workplaces. Senior organization leaders users are easily intimidated by complicated interfaces. These are challenges that deserve more attention than existing solutions can offer.
The Monitoring and Reporting component of the site is coming online soon. It allows users to file ongoing reports as required by support institutions that offer funding like Foundation for Civil Society. The inspiration for Envaya partly came out of collaboration with environmental organizations like Community Forests International CBO also from Pemba in Tanzania. It expanded from its environmental focus because any grassroots organization needs to share its progress to justify itself in its activities--whether it is planting trees, spreading awareness or sharing knowledge. Through this reporting, Funders can see that their support is making a difference and local stakeholders can see that their community is being made better.
Traditionally, reporting has been done using paper forms that are hard to review after they are submitted for funders or community members. The paper records require vast amounts of space to store, are difficult to reach, and so they are rarely accessed. Envaya guides organization leaders to use a computer or their phone to file these reports. The extra flexibility with improved ICT can change the way reports are written and consumed for the better--effortlessly sharing the documents with stakeholders and funding institutions.
Tanzania, in particular is a very wide country. Mobile phones and even Facebook reduce the sense of distance between people, but a platform like this can flatten communication across existing NGO boundaries through openness. As the platform encourages organizations to be transparent in their work, it will be easier for funders to clarify their goals and communicate more effectively with new organizations all around the country. On the other side, rural CBOs often struggle to reach out and understand funders’ perspectives and get frustrated when they cannot pursue their social programs in their communities. Envaya can streamline these exchanges by minimizing the potential miscommunications. In this way, transparency has clear value for all users.
Envaya is taking the latest social technology closer to grassroots NGOs as few others are prepared to do. Any civic-oriented Tanzanian organizations are especially invited by the staff to create their own Envaya site. http://www.envaya.org. Other visitors can visit a featured site, linked from the home page.
The project has an open Knight Foundation proposal with more details about future plans and collaborations and their open source PHP codebase is available on github.
Disclosure: Since starting work on this article, I have been invited to work with Envaya's community as a volunteer outreach partner and engineer.
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