TechSoup Global: Transforming technology in Africa, one donation at a time

TechSoup, a transformative technology solutions company with a philanthropy programme in technology, launched its first fully global technology donation called TechSoup.Global, aimed at non-profit organisations (NPOs) in Africa, on the 18th of November this year. The donations allow NPOs in every corner of Africa harness the profound power of technology for greater impact at  a significantly lower cost plus providing other forms of support to the sector.

Previously, TechSoup only operated in four countries in Africa. South Africa became a TechSoup partner country back in 2006, was followed by Kenya in 2009 and then Egypt shortly after. During that period, Botswana was added as an extension of the South African programme. Techsoup had an Asia-Pacific, South America, and North America expansion, with Africa being left on the back burner left, but now a new opportunity presents itself for the continent with the introduction of TechSoup Global.

David Barnard, Vice President of TechSoup Africa, shared the reasons for the company’s latest move on the continent with Ventures Africa, as well as his expectations for growth and development through accessible technology solutions.

Ventures Africa (VA): Congratulations on the recent launch of TechSoup Global. What were the factors that facilitated the expansion of your network from just four countries in Africa to all 54?

David Barnard (DB): There are about two or three reasons for this. First of all, there was a high demand from non-profit organisations in many countries in Africa that were not served via TechSoup until the launch of TechSoup Global. At the time, because of the rules we work with and all the big multi-nationals that are very country-specific, if were in Kenya and Kenya was the focus, then we were unable to serve Tanzania. People became aware of the problem, leading to an increase in requests demanding that we allow other countries to benefit from the programme as well.

I think, compared to the rest of the world, Africa was probably the continent that was affected by that kind of polar discrepancy the worst. Finding a solution had to be bigger and global and we had to get companies to start thinking beyond the ones that they preferred and take the product donation programme to them in order to make this truly global. Previously, we worked with non-profits in about 100 countries in the world, before the introduction of TechSoup Global, but with it, the programme has expanded to about 236 countries.

Microsoft was the first of many partners that wanted to go truly global and we now have a platform that can provide that service to all countries, including 50 additional countries in Africa and this is just the starting point. The next big thing would be to get our other corporate partners to follow Microsoft’s lead because all of them, similarly, also picked the countries in which they wanted TechSoup to make their products available.

More often than not, the potential benefit of this programme is significant, even if we only charge five to six percent of the retail price of the technology for many organisations that ordinarily spend a lot of money.

I really believe that it is in this continent this can have an impact on the sector. Tens of thousands of organisations are now able to access technology which were they previously unable to, because of the cost barrier that technology presents.

So, that is the driving force. There’s a global push and at the same time, a very specific one in Africa, but ultimately the aim for TechSoup Global is to give every non-profit the opportunity to benefit from technology, reducing the challenges these NPOs face.

VA: Were there any particular challenges with launching TechSoup in Africa, digitally or resource-wise?

DB: I think it’s a combination of factors. Obviously, setting up in a traditional TechSoup way meant a ‘by-country’ programme, which involved identifying a partner, investing in that partner, setting up a country platform around this programme, which were all kind of ‘stand-alone’ implementations. But now we have a global platform, where you can sit in Timbuktu and serve millions, because it’s more about relationships and technology.

Technology, on our platform, enables us to provide a new range of opportunities, especially where you have global ones. A company like Microsoft wants to work global and we are the platform through which they can make their products available to non-profits. In the same vein, I hope that in time, this platform, can tap into other local opportunities for the countries it is involved in Africa. So basically develop local solutions and services in specific regions across the continent. This is obviously not a process that can be done in a day, this is a process that we will work towards, because now, for the first time, we can go to a local tech company in Africa to say, “we’ve got a platform, methodology, approach and a reach across Africa and the rest of the world. If you have something that you would like to see delivered, in whatever form or shape, to the non-profit sector, we can aid you.”

We have the mechanism now to help reach the non-profit sector in all of Africa, using relationships with what I would call key non-profit stakeholders across the continent to disseminate information in terms of awareness and understanding. Also we are working with big NGOs, membership organisations and foundations with significant presence across the continent.

The non-profit sector in Africa is probably a couple of million organisations, I don’t think that there’s a hard fact as to what the numbers are if you add all the ‘big’ countries together as well as those in between. Yes, many of them are small, with funding constraints, but this is a sizeable sector in Africa that is procuring and utilising technology and TechSoup helps them to get better at using and appreciating this technology, while at the same time promoting awareness among service providers, about how they can better serve and respond to the technology needs of non-profits on the continent.

In time, TechSoup will make the significant contributions to strengthening the sector across the continent.

VA: TechSoup’s mission is to help non-profits by providing them with subsidised services. But in the long run, how will this affect technology in Africa in other ways, if you think that it will?

DB: I think you have to look at it in layers. Our primary activities started with being about connecting non-profits with the technology they required to function. We are working with big IT multinationals and others to help them create a flow of their solutions at affordable prices to non-profits around the world. We are now extending that model on a larger scale across Africa.

That’s the unique characteristic and contribution of an organisation like TechSoup. But on so many levels, what we do today is so much more than that. We have a very specific interest in the intersection of technology and improving governance and government practices around the world, starting with civil societies and non-profits. So, technology in the hands of non-profit organisations is in the forefront of working out policy issues, education issues, and so on, with a notion of transparency, increased accountability and using technology from an innovative point of view.

There’s a big event we started in Kenya, just hosted in South Africa last year and we’ll be taking to Ghana next year, called “Buntwani” with a specific focus on West Africa. At the event, we discuss what we can really do with technology in addressing the aforementioned issues.

On another level, the same model that we use for the product donation programme of TechSoup Global, in validating that non-profits are legitimate in order for them to benefit from our offerings, would provide a similar service for all U.S. foundations operating in Africa, where their guarantees are taken through different validation processes.

It started from a historical base, but it has developed new dimensions and the value proposition ultimately is to support and have a deeper impact on Africa. We are also conscious of the clampdown on non-profit and civil societies in some parts of Africa and investing in these areas is one way of bringing something to the table.

VA: In your opinion, what is TechSoup doing differently from other similar companies, beyond offering subsidised rates, to improve non-profits?

DB: I think that the TechSoup model is very unique. We are serving about 700,000 organisations around the world and that was before the introduction of TechSoup Global. There are millions of other organisations out there, that have benefitted from TechSoup today. From a historical point of view, also given the relationships that we have with the non-profit sector, I don’t think that there’s any other company that can claim that sort of track record.

With this relationship comes a certain level of opportunity, as well as responsibility. I think that it’s important to understand that with that responsibility you can bring value to the non-profit sector. So there’s a need to be conscious about relationships, requirements, needs and to try to be as responsive as possible. I will be the first person to say that – even before my time – TechSoup has not done justice to its obligation in Africa. So we can dwell on the past or fix it by saying, “what is going to be different going forward?”

We now have a certain value proposition, with which we can hopefully unlock significant opportunities for the non-profit sector in the continent. That’s exciting and it’s challenging, but I think that if we get it right, we can bring some meaningful contribution and change for the sector across Africa.

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