Open Session - ICTD 2012
March 12, 2012, Conference 3, 10am-1pm
Co-Chairs: Amit A Nanavati, Anupam Jain, Arun Kumar, Jerome White, Nitendra Rajput (IBM Research)

Session contact: Anupam (ajain at


The last 5 years have seen an interesting momentum in the growth of technologies primarily meant for developing regions. Various research conferences, diverse social and technology platforms have seen an upsurge in ICTD literature as the world sees some amazing ideas and innovative solutions to problems that have the potential to help the next billions. It is a well known fact that the end users addressed by these efforts have a very limited financial income. But has there been enough research done in the area of financially sustainability for projects done for this population? We may have funds for good research work, good field studies and pilots but we may not always have enough funding for full scale deployments of these wonderful technologies to continually help the next billions in the long term.

There's an imminent need to figure out ways to generate enough revenue from 'within' the development projects themselves and hence make them self-sustaining. The advent of Web 2.0 enterprises that offer everything for free to end users and generate income via third parties (like advertisers etc.) is one example of how financially sustainable models can be created for technologies where charging the end user may not be a viable option.

Though we may touch upon technical, social, and organizational sustainability during the session if and when required but we intend to primarily focus on financial sustainability of ICTD Projects.

In particular, the session raised the following two questions:

  • 1. Do we really see lack of financial sustainability as a problem in the ICTD space?
    • - If yes, what steps should we follow next to act upon it ?
    • - If not, how can we ensure that ICTD projects make continuous and long term impact?

  • 2. How can the academic community help?

Linda Raftree, Plan International (ppt)
Leslie Dodson, University of Colorado-Boulder (ppt)
Dr. Kentaro Toyama, School of Information, University of California, Berkeley
Dr. Richard J. Gowen, IEEE Foundation (ppt)

Abstracts of the talks presented:

Linda Raftree: Financial sustainability in ICTD must be based on a real local need. It requires creativity and a good understanding of client (end user), context, capacity, culture, connectivity and cost; and cannot be divorced from other aspects of sustainability. In places where the market doesn't work, financial sustainability may not be possible via 'BoP' end users themselves. Private sector involvement can be a challenge when profit and development motives clash (capitalism doesn't usually look out for the most marginalized). Public and donor funded projects also have their issues. Some promising models exist, but scaling can be a challenge when context varies.

Leslie Dodson: Developing a financially sustainable ICTD project requires us to integrate development objectives with business principles. This requires us to frame technology and social mission initiatives in terms of creating value for customers and investors. This presentation will explore various social enterprise business models to help guide practitioners and entrepreneurs in devising financially sound ICTD programs

Kentaro Toyama (Title: True Sustainability): Break-even financial sustainability is extremely difficult to achieve for projects having meaningful impact in development. There are, however, models based on public or donor funds which have proven sustainable for decades. Whatever the model, though, what's required for true sustainability is local organizations knowing how to keep things going --including funding -- even after all the external folks leave.

Richard J. Gowen (Title: Foster Financial Sustainability): An examination of successful fostering of technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity in contrast with the challenge of leveraging financially sustainable information and communication technology for the developing world.

Group Discussion
4 groups were formed (each having about 6-8 people). As a rough guideline, the following two questions were put:

  • 1. How can we enable ICTD projects to make a continuous long term impact ?
  • 2. What can we do about this (short term and long term) within the academic community?
    • like
    • start another forum?
    • make a SIG (formal/informal)?
    • start publishing on ideas/business models?
    • others?

All the four groups presented a summary of their discussion at the end. These were the key points from their presentations:

Group 1
  • (Best Practices - Answering the first question of the GD)
    • - Making sure that technology is local with local support (so infrastructure available locally)
    • - Local Partners
      • - for financial sustainability, we need to partner with business experts to design since they have good experience
    • - Evidence of impact
    • - Feedback loops
    • - engage local researchers
    • - Consider sustainability from the 'start'
    • - Start from the problem/need and not from the technology
    • - Learn from other projects - failures/successes - lessons learnt
    • - Access to currated and open info
    • - research to find relevant resources
    • - Need to build awareness of 'all of the above' among project designers, donors, implementors.

  • Second Question (What can the academic community do?)
    • - Partner with practitioners
    • - Provide research for existing projects (or do the project), not just theory
    • - Think like practitioners (develop and 'test' models)
    • - Ensure research is useful

Group 2
  • - Group discussion highlighted the importance of partnerships (public, private) in general
    • - how is the distribution of power (governance) across all the entities (who is benefitting and who is controlling)
    • - motivation of partnering? (understand the 'needs' of the stakeholders to get any partership working)
    • - there can be non-planned uses of the technology (or their can be secondary benefits)
    • - alignment between different parts of the project is important (just one part cant be sustainable while others are not sustainable) (called 'Program Management')
      • - but not sure who would do that
    • - but the alignment would have a net effect synergy
    • - most important stake holder for sustainability will be the local community.
    • - Instead of just being a consumer they can have more active roles like micro investors, provider of labor, work, knowledge,research data. So they could be a part of the value chain which could make it more sustainable

  • - How can academics contribute
    • - helping to disseminate knowledge
    • - provide platforms to diseeminate knowledge (like providing commons license - so the IP is not owned by one person or entity)
    • - a lot of times we reinvent the wheel at several occasions and several locations and we can do our bit to align all these wheels together to get the car moving in the 'forward direction'

Group 3

  • - Access to technology
    • - Cellphone is good, useful - everyone sees it's benefits
  • - Awareness
    • - Lots of places dont have local expertise, so everything is generally imported. Local skills, local ownership is really a key.
  • - Application of Technology
    • - Its imp to prove the value of the technology. In some cases, measuring the impact is hard
  • - Role of the govt
    • - May have a real enabling role
    • - Can make huge investements
    • - Can bring down the costs so everyone can afford etc.
  • - Cultural Environment
    • - Key to sustainability is the local community - their ownership and their demand for the product
    • - Capacity of the local community, awareness of their rights, to be able to use ICT to full potential
    • - Incentive for providing services on the phone to telecom companies
    • - what the revenue base is for the telcos (if they are charging per minute, increase services will yield increase usage will yield increased revenue)

Group 4

  • - Started with a case - Broadband in Liberia
    • - Prioritization of connectivity - who gets connectivity first?
    • - similar to 'ICT came in and then we figure out what to do with it'
    • - Funding
      • - Govt had a lot of stake in it - good because govt can steer the project to it's objectives
        • - but the question is what are the objectives
      • - Objectives (social, economic etc.) need to be set in the foresee environment or in the market environment
      • - And the whole array of activities will make it sustainable or not
      • ICT in 'itself' is not driving that question
      • In this case, what the country wants to achieve using ICT is driving the question
  • So, overall direction in which we want to go together is where the sustainability lies in
      • (also the private sector has to play a large role in it. Govt itself may not be able to do it. Regulation will mediate in the process)


The session drew participants from different domains and contributed very interesting insights. Almost everyone believed that local community plays a very big role in the success/failure of an ICTD project and their involvement in the entire cycle is critical (instead of just being 'end-users'). Private and public involvement has their own set of challenges but both play a crucial role in enabling ICTD projects worldwide. People also believed that the final goal for ICTD projects is long-term impact and being financially sustainable is a means and not an end. There are different ways of sustaining a project financially but it largely depends on the ultimate goal of the project.

Next, it would be interesting to move ahead on this by inviting case studies of ICTD projects that people have come across which have proved to be sustainable/not sustainable with a few reasons of why it succeeded/failed. There's a link to case studies below. A few are already added based on what was received from different sources. Please add your own with a brief argument on its sustainability (about 50-100 words) (Request you to keep it short and crisp wherever possible). We hope that this will further help the community relate the ideas discussed above to real-life experiences and also draw some interesting patterns from whats already being done.

Case Studies

Please add any other comments/thoughts here (Format: Name, Affiliation: This is my comment)