For the past three years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has hosted TEDxChange, a TEDx event with the goal of spurring action around the ideas supported by the foundation. This year, host Melinda Gates introduced seven speakers–a theologian talking about faith and family planning, and children featured in the film The Revolutionary Optimists–who all discussed topics related to the event’s theme of “positive disruption.” We talked to her after the event to learn more about some of the things happening around the world that Gates considers to be most disruptive–in a good way.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that M-Pesa, a mobile money system spearheaded by mobile network operators in Kenya and Tanzania, has had on its millions of users since launching in 2007. Gates believes that it’s one of the most innovative technologies out there. “More people in Kenya are moving money through the M-Pesa system than the banking sector,” she says.
In Tanzania, Gates encountered a women’s savings group (a group where women collect money, make loans, and fund businesses) with three members, all of whom used to put money in a lockbox. Now the women are using M-Pesa instead. Their account has a six-digit PIN, and each member knows two of the digits for safety purposes. “To me, that’s incredible innovation and disruption,” she says.
Why has M-Pesa been so successful? One of the reasons, Gates believes, is that it was developed by Safaricom (the biggest mobile network operator in Kenya) with people living in the country. She points out that “the developing world is littered with pilot projects” designed without a local perspective. These will rarely succeed.
Gates cites Digital Green, an organization that helps farmers in India and throughout South Asia to create educational videos for other farmers, as an example of how communication can create social change. Digital Green solves a few problems: the issue of farmers not trusting advice from people outside their communities, and the challenge of quickly disseminating important information about farming practices. The organization hopes to reach one million farmers in 10,000 villages over the next three years.
Melinda Gates is known for her safe sex advocacy; at last year’s TEDxChange, she made a splash with a speech promoting universal access to contraception. She believes that this can only happen from a bottom-up approach–not by setting huge goals and trying to systematically implement them (sometimes coercively, as with India’s forced sterilizations in the 1970s). “This is about…educating the women and giving them a decision. Let her make the decision, but educate her,” says Gates.
The Gates Foundation does have some goals of its own–specifically, to get 120 million more women access to contraception by 2020. But, says Gates, “It’s very hard to connect to 120 million. It’s the human story that really moves people.”