When Joshua Stern, a graduate of Stanford with a degree in computer science, served in the Peace Corps in Tanzania from 2006 to 2007, one thing soon became clear.
"The major takeaway there," he tells Fast Company, "was that the best development work being done was being done by these local groups, community-based organizations."
The small groups were often the most effective—yet they had no web presence, no effective way to communicate with other small NGOs or to raise funds online. In 2008, Stern came back to California to work for a time at the startup Apture, but he'd left his heart in Tanzania. By early 2010, he and a few others had founded Envaya, whose mission was to boot up the small East African NGOs that had so impressed him. Now, a year later, 250 grassroots organizations in Tanzania use Envaya. The company has caught the attention of no less than Google, which gave Envaya a seed grant.
Envaya sites are simple but elegant. There are very few bells or whistles but they contain the basic information you'd want to know about a given organization. The simple design was crucial, since for many of these groups, the best way to access and update these sites is through cell phones with a simple mobile browser.
"The connection there is very slow, the organizations' leaders typically have minimal computer experience, and many don't speak English," says Stern. "Envaya works in a low-bandwidth environment, and works in Swahili," taking advantage of a drop-down menu that toggles any site between English and Swahili with the help of Google Translate and a volunteer who cleans up what's lost in translation.
Before Envaya, the alternatives for an organization wanting an online presence were not good. "It's really expensive over there," says Stern. "It will cost you $500 to $1,000 to get a custom website built there, and most of them look like something from Geocities circa 1996. Plus the organizations can't update them themselves." Not only can Envaya-assisted organizations update their own content via a web browser on a laptop or phone, but Envaya has plans to enable them to update content through SMS, meaning even cell phones lacking Internet access can be used to maintain a website.
Tanzania is increasingly wired, though—it has changed greatly even in the three years since Stern ended his Peace Corps stint. He'll often be in the sticks somewhere and stumble across a kid with a cheap laptop and a USB Internet connection. As for cell phone usage, it often seems to Stern that Tanzania is ahead of the U.S., in some ways. "Cell phone penetration in East Africa right now is huge," says Stern. "I'll often get a better cell phone connection out in the middle of nowhere there than in San Francisco."