When Toshihiro Nakamura was sent by the United Nations Development Program in 2007 to the West African nation of Sierra Leone, one of the world's poorest countries, he began to feel at odds with the nature of his mission there.
It took time before political measures began to have an effect on people's lives.
As a U.N. worker, he lived in a large house, employed domestic helpers, and was driven to and from work. Such a lifestyle prevented him from gaining a direct sense of the actual poverty that surrounded him.
In the past, Nakamura had been impressed by water-purifying straws developed by a Swiss company. They were equipped with a highly efficient filter that made it possible to drink muddy water through them. They cost less than $10 (1,020 yen) each, and seemed considerably more practical than the water purifiers costing several million yen that Japanese companies offered to international organizations.
Nakamura took a leave of absence from the United Nations Development Program. He later quit the U.N. program to focus on development aid and founded Kopernik, a nonprofit organization. Kopernik is active in solving problems related to poverty in developing countries, by making useful technology available to rural areas.
In only four years it has assisted around 200,000 people, providing affordable, useful and innovative products to developing countries through superior efficiency.
The NPO, with a staff of 60 and an annual revenue of approximately 130 million yen, now extends a helping hand to East Timor, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Kenya.
"Under conventional aid programs, innovative technology and local needs often don’t meet while costing a lot," Nakamura, 39, said. "The result is aid hardly reaching remote villages, where aid is earnestly desired and needed. I wanted to create a system to change such a situation."
Kopernik was named after Nicolaus Copernicus, the 16th-century Polish astronomer and mathematician who put forward the theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, out of a similar desire to bring about positive change.
It seeks donations via the Internet, which are used to cover the cost of purchasing and transporting five to 20 products and staff on their travels. Kopernik is also focusing on the expansion of sales outlets called Tech Kiosks for the goods the NPO handles, and plans to increase their number in Indonesia to more than 80 within the year.
In his efforts, Nakamura applies the social business method.
In some areas, women and children are burdened with having to collect water several times a day, while in areas with no electricity, households must use lamps lit with oil.
Such conditions deprive children of access to education, affect people’s health and increase household burdens, continuing the cycle of poverty.
Kopernik created a system to connect the means to solve problems through supporters and recipients on the Internet.
The system works as follows:
A university or a company with high technology capabilities develops a large but light water tank or a small solar-powered battery charger; the information is posted on the Internet so it can be contacted by NGOs that want to distribute the device to impoverished areas, and by individuals and companies that want to donate money for their purchase.
In addition, universities and companies have developed many simple high-tech products for developing countries. Small-sum lending platforms, such as KIVA in the United States, have become widespread, making it easier to gather funding from individuals. (Hitoki Nakagawa, Asahi Shimbun, Japan)