• Inventor and Social Anthropologist: Ken Banks
    Ken Banks is an anthropologist and engineer.

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    Ken is the founder of kiwanja.net, “where technology meets anthropology, conservation, and development.” He devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world and has spent the last 15 years working on projects in Africa.

    In particular, Ken is the inventor of FrontlineSMS, a free text messaging system which allows anyone with a mobile phone to communicate with large groups of people. Since most of the developing world uses basic mobile phones, but large areas lack internet access, FrontlineSMS allows people to share vital information for free.

    The users of FrontlineSMS constantly invent new ways to use the program. Citizens in Nigeria used it to monitor elections in 2007. Physicians in the Philippines use it to communicate with patients in remote, rural areas. Farmers in El Salvador use it to receive the latest information on market prices.


    “I fared very poorly in school,” Ken admits.

    But growing up on the small island of Jersey, in the United Kingdom, he was always aware of the world around him, both locally and globally. His mother was involved in botanical gardening, and he regularly visited the Jersey Zoo. He was also fascinated by the nature documentaries of David Attenborough, which he watched on television.

    In addition to watching television sets, Ken also took them apart! As he says on kiwanja.net, Ken’s fascination with technology “began at an early age, with the dismantling of old TVs and radios, and the chance to play with an early Commodore PET computer.”

    As he grew up, Ken also developed a passion for travel, especially to the “incredibly complicated” continent of Africa. He lived in various places in Africa, including Nigeria and Uganda, for 18 years.

    FrontlineSMS was developed at Kruger National Park, in South Africa. The rangers and park personnel needed a way to communicate with local villagers who lived near the park, but the park lacked access to a reliable internet connection. Most of the villagers did not have computers. But most of them did have mobile phones, which were equipped to text.

    Realizing this communication problem was widespread throughout the developing world, Ken set to work. “I wrote the software in five weeks at a kitchen table. I made a generic communications platform that could be used for almost anything, and I made it free.”


    “Seeing what people are doing with our technology. We just never could imagine how innovative people are.”


    Ken says that convincing people to invest in the developing world can be difficult. “You have to know what language to use. I say ‘developing countries,’ and businessmen turn up their nose. But if I say ‘I’m working with emerging markets,’ their eyes light up.”


    “For me, geography is the different ways technology can be applied to different settings, with different parameters.

    “Geography is a funny subject; it can be almost anything. . . . I have a friend who did a paper on the geography of punk music.”


    Although Ken grew up in a developed country, Britain, he has lived in different parts of the world for long enough to realize that “the technology we take for granted is so important in developing countries.”

    “We need to let people find solutions to their own problems,” Ken says. “Sometimes, we don’t do that. With FrontlineSMS, the end user does everything—they determine how it’s used, when it’s used, where it’s used.” In five years, FrontlineSMS has been used in more than 150 countries, by thousands of people.

    It allows farmers, fishers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and citizens to “take their idea and run with it. It’s economic and political empowerment.”


    “Get out and do something,” Ken advises. “Take an interest in the world, and travel.”


    Ken is enthusiastic about the number of good wildlife-based computer games available. National Geographic Kids has dozens of fun, web-based games.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    anthropology Noun

    science of the origin, development, and culture of human beings.

    Encyclopedic Entry: anthropology
    botanical garden Noun

    place where plants and flowers are grown and displayed for education and study.

    Commodore PET Noun

    (19771982, Personal Electronic Transactor) early personal computer.

    conservation Noun

    management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

    Encyclopedic Entry: conservation
    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    David Attenborough Noun

    (1926-present) British naturalist and television broadcaster.

    developed country Noun

    a nation that has high levels of economic activity, health care, and education.

    developing world Noun

    nations with low per-capita income, little infrastructure, and a small middle class.

    development Noun

    growth, or changing from one condition to another.

    Encyclopedic Entry: development
    dismantle Verb

    to take apart.

    emerging market Noun

    nations that are experiencing rapid economic growth and industrialization.

    empower Verb

    to give authority or power.

    entrepreneur Noun

    person who starts and manages a business.

    fare Verb

    to succeed or cope.

    farmer Noun

    person who cultivates land and raises crops.

    fascinate Verb

    to cause an interest in.

    FrontlineSMS Noun

    text messaging system that allows people to communicate with large groups.

    generic Adjective

    general, not trademarked or copyrighted.

    innovative Adjective

    new, advanced, or original.

    Internet Noun

    vast, worldwide system of linked computers and computer networks.

    market price Noun

    value of a product in an open market. Also called market value.

    parameter Noun

    guideline or characteristic.

    physician Noun

    medical doctor.

    rural Adjective

    having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

    social anthropology Noun

    study of human cultures, such as language, religion, custom, and law. Also called cultural anthropology.

    software Noun

    electronic programs of code that tell computers what to do.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    underdeveloped country Noun

    country that has fallen behind on goals of industrialization, infrastructure, and income.

    zoo Noun

    place where animals are kept for exhibition.

    Encyclopedic Entry: zoo

For Further Exploration