Skoll Scholar, MBA and above all, Engineer, Ashley Thomas, shares her story, not of HOW she got to be at Oxford, but WHO.
As I sit in a 150-year-old book shop (very new by Oxford standards) listening to Duncan Green, Oxfam GB’s chief strategic advisor, discuss his book How Change Happens, I’m again struck by how lucky I am to have ended up here, at Oxford, and as Skoll Scholar. In thinking through how I have managed to arrive at this moment, my instinct is to create a neat narrative: In 2008, as a freshly minted mechanical engineer, I moved to Ethiopia to work as a product designer at iDE, a NGO building social enterprises and agriculture value chains in Africa and Asia. Since then I have worked as an engineer and innovation project manager for some of the best (in my humble opinion) social enterprises: Evidence Action and MKOPA solar, and dabbled in some policy work managing the DFID resource centre on climate and environment. Building on my experience in the water sector, I then read for an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management prior to my MBA as part of the 1+1 programme at Oxford, in theory preparing me to solve the worlds’ water problems through my own social enterprise.
However, after listening to Green’s view of the non-linearity of change, I am tempted to reframe my story not as a narrative but as the summation of ripples in a web of complex relationships and interactions. If you can forgive my ramblings in non-linear narrative, I want to tell the story of my path here framed through the relationships that don’t make it onto a CV, and instead focus on the cast of characters that sent the right ripples into the network that guided me to this fantastic place.
Katherine McIntyre: My grandmother is the embodiment of tenacity. She was a flight controller in the Canadian Air Force during World War II, a travel writer in the USSR during the 1980’s, current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line, and in few days, at 93 years old, will be travelling from Toronto to Oxford to see my MSc graduation. She has traveled to more than 45 countries, published in over 30 newspapers and journals and has founded 3 companies. I can only aspire to emulate her singular focus, fearless independence, and her lifelong curiosity.
Left: Ashley Thomas, Right: Katherine McIntyre
Left: a young Katherine McIntyre, Right: Katherine McIntyre holds the current record holder for the oldest person to do a zip line
Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.
Paul Polak: I met Paul when I was nineteen, naïvely aspiring to fight global poverty, but I only knew about top-down traditional development organisations. From attending his lectures, receiving his mentorship through the Intentional Development Design Summit (IDDS), and ultimately collaborating at iDE, Paul introduced me to a new way of thinking. Instead of a charity approach, Paul showed me an untapped market of 1 billion people seeking to lift themselves out of poverty. Paul’s enabling, entrepreneurial approach strongly resonated and has become central to my own philosophy.
Carlos Machan: Carlos is one of the most creative product designers I have ever met. Born in rural Guatemala, his engineering knowledge is all self-taught. I met Carols in 2007 while he was an instructor on the International Development Design Summit at MIT and continued to work with him in Guatemala, where he taught me how to weld, design, and build my first water pump, the very skills that landed me my first job at iDE.
It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar
iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: In Addis, our engineering team founded a workshop/office/guest house that was the backbone of our product development. It was also the location of many bonfires, beers, and late night pontification. It was here, in front of this bonfire, where I first heard about the Skoll Scholarship, and began dreaming of becoming a Skoll Scholar. It took 8 years of indecision, dreaming, and three failed attempts at the application before it became a reality.
iDE Workshop and Engineering Team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
MKOPA Engineering Team: This crew is one of the brightest, most driven, and friendliest teams I have ever worked with. From Eric, standing at 6’2” and with a sense of humor to match, to Berita, easily a foot shorter in stature, but making no compromises in heart or brains, this group of people embodies the types of teams I hope to continue to work with. They also solidified my desire to get an MBA. While they were begrudging the fact I’d “no longer be an engineer”, working with them made me realise that if I hope to run a company like MKOPA and a team like this one, I have a lot of learning left to do.
While this is absolutely not an exclusive list, these are some of the threads in fabric of the story of my path here. From the nascent daydreams over Ethiopian bonfires to making the decision to come to Oxford after working on a manufacturing line in Dongguan, China, studying an MBA at Oxford through the Skoll Scholarship is the realisation of the network of friends, colleagues, places, and events that have guided me to this fantastic place.
Oxford’s Fierce Compassion – Series of Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2016.
MBA student, maladySean Peters gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Water: Tenacious, sales Collaborative Responses to a Global Crisis’.
Access to water has never been more critical. The 2016 World Economic Forum Global Risks Report Water lists water as among the top 3 risks for negative global impact, and is ranked as the highest perceived risk over the next ten years. The newly minted Sustainable Development Goals list goal number 6 as to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all”. But how do we get from where we are today to a world where everyone has access to clean water and sanitation? And what can we learn from the last twenty years of work by development organizations, foundations, and social entrepreneurs?
Starting off Day 2 of the Skoll World Forum, J. Carl Ganter (Managing Director and Co-Founder, Circle of Blue) opened our discussion with three accomplished panelists:
Eleanor Allen (CEO of Water For People), journalist and photographer, reports on global freshwater issues (competition between water, food and energy
Neil Jeffery (CEO, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor), WSUP
Gary White (CEO and Co-Founder, Water.org).
The discussion opened with an overview of the differences that have emerged over the past twenty years in trying to manage water globally. The first major difference is that there are many more organizations paying attention. Gary White, who started this work in the 90’s, noted the incredible proliferation of water-focused organizations in recent years. “When we started, we were one of the only ones,” White said. ‘Today, there are hundreds.”
The tone has changed as well. Twenty years ago funders didn’t understand the problem. “We used to spend 90% of our funder meetings simply explaining the problem to them, and in the end funders just wanted magic bullets in the form of new, catchy technologies” noted Jeffery. “Today, this is no longer a technical issue. The problem now isn’t that we don’t have the technology – we do. The next hurdle is trying to stimulate the demand side.”
So how do we stimulate demand? Part of the problem is access to financing. Currently low income people around the world pay a premium for water or sanitation services, but don’t have access to financing that could make these costs lower for higher quality access. By opening up financing and providing access to high-quality technology (water pumps, toilets, etc) at affordable prices, the short run benefit is healthier communities that are spending less of their time and money on getting access to water and sanitation. The hope is that over the long run these kinds of models will “pull” future financing and greater impact. “At this point we know what works and what doesn’t on the technology side”, said Allen. “We need to build these markets so that access can persist beyond the engagement with NGOs.“
While much progress has been made, there’s a long way to go. The session concluded with a universal message that is important for all of us to remember: The importance of collaboration between people, between organizations, and between institutions. “At Skoll, we build relationships,” White said. “We’re all in this together. It is critical that we work together to solve these problems.”
Research Fellows, Aaron Krolikowski and Robert Hope of The Skoll Centre’s Small Grants Research Programme, have contributed to The Smith’s School of Enterprise and the Environment Water Programme by leading a focused research topic on determinants of customer payment behaviours.
Aaron Krolikowski writes for the Skoll Centre Blog, an introduction to the research paper.
Fig 1: Wards and Offices
Water customers in urban Africa often struggle to pay their monthly bills, so much so that an estimated 500m USD is lost annually to nonpayment. Due to an inability to pay or a reaction to unsatisfactory service provision, these losses contribute to critical gaps in financing and further reduce service reliability. Skoll Centre-funded research has found that the expansion of mobile money and other electronic payment options across East Africa may partially address this long-standing problem.
Fig 2: Pay Points
Using a unique dataset containing over 500,000 water payment transaction records from Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), researchers from the Water Programme at Oxford’s Smith School for Enterprise and Environment found that mobile payment systems are positively influencing customer payment behaviours. Water customers that integrated mobile payment systems into their payment practices paid water bills more frequently and made greater contributions to overall utility revenue when compared with those who only paid water bills at utility offices.
Fig 3: Mobile Money
Dar es Salaam’s water utility was the first in sub-Saharan Africa to offer customers mobile payment options. In 2009, a new business facilitated the integration of the utility’s billing system with mobile payment channels like M-PESA and Airtel Money. Focused on mobile payment aggregation, Selcom Wireless helped the water utility 1) expand physical payment locations beyond 14 brick-and-mortar payment offices to encompass over 2,000 wireless pay points scattered throughout the city at pharmacies, kiosks, and grocery stores; and 2) to enable bill payment from anywhere and at any time using mobile money.
Improvements to payment behaviour were most evident when customers used both water offices and mobile-enabled options. Distance matters as well; customers living far from water offices were more likely to use mobile money and pay points. For water utilities, or any public service provider, mobile payment options can support improvements in financial stability while simultaneously extending the reach of service delivery.
Fig 4: Payment Options
Diversification of the payment landscape enables the creation of new models of service provision and increases customer choice in where, how, and how much they pay. As populations around the world become more familiar with electronic payment options and other mobile-based innovations, new opportunities continue to emerge in the water sector. One example is from Nairobi (Kenya), where the city’s water and sewerage company partnered with social enterprise Wonderkid to provide SMS-based meter-reading (Jisomee Mita) and complaint lines (Maji Voice). Another initiative from Bengaluru (India) is NextDrop, which works with utility staff to alert customers to water provision schedules. Mobile innovations like these bring water utilities closer to customers, help to increase operational efficiencies, and improve revenue collection; all of these are necessary if universal and equitable access to water services will be achieved by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal 6.1).