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ICT4D is Better Than Apple at Pleasing Its Customers

By Wayan Vota on February 8, 2012

In a recent post wondering what Steve Jobs would do in ICT4D, Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS fame bemoaned the lack of customer focus in ICT4D and expected that Apple would do better:


Apple would see people as customers, and they’d be carrying out what they’d see as a commercial transaction with them. This approach would mean they’d have to build something the customer wanted, and that worked (and worked well). Since it would have to sell, if successful it would by default be financially sustainable. Part of the problem with the largely subsidised ICT4D “give away technology” model is that no-one is ultimately accountable if things don’t work out, and regular business rules do not apply.

With all due respect to Ken, I have an issue with the idea that ICT4D is not serving its customers. Look at any successful ICT4D organization and I say that it builds exactly what its customers want, understands perfectly their business rules, and delivers it in a efficient commercial transaction – better than Apple ever could.

We know our customers needs

ICT4D buyers are looking for cool projects they can brag about to their friends and colleagues. Quick and cheap events that claim impressive return on investment. Better yet, the ability to show off shiny gadgets that get good press. None of our customers want to pay for a decade of R&D, nor would they ever tolerate secrecy in design or finances. So we build on the cheap, show them every penny, and fight to be leaner than the next in a highly competitive marketplace. We even fill out 20, 30, 50 pages of requirements just to get our customers attention.

Funders our our customers

Be not fooled by the talk of beneficiaries or financial self-sufficiency. ICT4D isn’t working with people who can afford iPhones, or often even feature phones. We are working with the poor. Nor are the poor our customers. They don’t pay us, and most likely never will. We are working for the funder. Bi- and Multi-laterals, international NGOs, even national governments, smaller organizations, and wealthy individuals – these are our customers. They are who we sell to. And we sell well. We sell exactly what they want, exactly how they want it, and at the exact price they are willing to pay.

Apple failed with funders

Anyone learn on an Apple IIe in school? A generation did before Apple walked away from the market, giving the enterprise and institutional buyer to Microsoft. Apple couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with the long sales cycle, the focus on vendor lock-in and the need to be infinitely flexible for the client. Now Apple is back in boardrooms and classrooms, but not via the IT department, but via the consumer. A better sales strategy overall? Arguably. But not one where Apple was successful with the funder as customer.

So don’t make the mistake of thinking that Apple knows every customer. Or of thinking that ICT4D does not. Any successful organization owes its success to building exactly what the customer wants.


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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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