Kopernik Connects the Developing World with Appropriate Technology


Kopernik videoSometimes, utter frustration can lead to solutions – as it did when 30-somethings Ewa Wojkowska and Toshihiro Nakamura realized that the barriers of cost and distribution of innovative technological products that could improve the quality of life in developing countries kept them from getting to where they were most needed.

To solve that, they invested about $50,000 of their own money, according to Wojkowska, and created Kopernik, an online store to “connect breakthrough technologies with the people who need them most”—as the company’s tagline explains. They piloted it successfully in a few countries in the summer of 2009, and publicly launched the store on Feb. 19, 2010.  Kopernik also received  $4,500 for additional operational funds from ETIC, a Japanese organization that supports entrepreneurs, and a $5,000 grant from a partner at McKinsey and Company, says Wojkowska.

How Kopernik works

Kopernik goal is to get cost-effective, life-bettering technological products to people in need in developing countries.  To accomplish that, its online store showcases various technological products such as inexpensive portable water filters, eyeglasses with self-adjustable lenses and household solar units to treat and heat water. Non-governmental agencies in developing countries who are interested in the technologies register with Kopernik (.doc) then submit proposals (.doc)—that are vetted—and explain how they’ll distribute the goods to those who need them.

When the necessary money has been raised, Kopernik orders the product from the tech company or NGO that invented it and sends it to the local organization.

Kopernik business model

As a way to help other NGOs understand which technologies may be best for them, each agency that has received a product is required to leave pubic feedback about the usefulness and functionality of the technology.  This feedback mechanism lets “Kopernik give voice and choice to local communities and organizations—simple elements that are so frequently missed in international development efforts,” explains co-founder Nakamura.

Visitors to Kopernik can review the proposals and feedback, and then donate to the projects they support.

Kopernik charges a 5 percent commission to donors and those providing the technologies as a way to finance the project, including its reviews and evaluation and shipping costs.  It also assesses an average of a 2 percent to 3 percent transaction fee to cover credit card or Paypal costs.

Looking ahead

While the response from technology seekers and providers has exceeded Kopernik’s expectations, the organization has also realized that—even though the site gets much traffic and positive response—“the conversion into donors and resource mobilization more broadly takes longer that we had anticipated,” Wojkowska says. But Kopernik understands that and is rising to the challenge. “In order for us to differentiate ourselves from the others, we are refining our site to have a much stronger technology online store look and feel,” she explains.

“So, stay tuned,” she adds.

Jennifer Hicks is a freelance journalist and the lead editor of SmartBrief on Sustainability, a free daily e-newsletter that offers a round up of the day's most important news for businesses and consumers interested in sustainability issues. Her work has appeared on several health, business and political Web sites.

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