Envaya is an innovative platform that helps civil society organizations establish a web presence and that connects them with grant makers, volunteers and other grass root organizations. It also has a product, Envaya SMS that allows anybody to connect a web service and enable it to be used to send and receive sms anywhere in the world for free.
The product will be particularly useful to developers looking to build SMS based services.
Chukwuemeka Afigbo recently interviewed the organization’s founders during a Google+ hangout. Check out the interview transcript below. You can also watch the interview on YouTube below.
Chukwuemeka Afigbo: Welcome everybody. I have here, Jesse Young and Joshua Stern from Envaya. We’ll be getting to meet you guys to find out what you are about and know a little bit more about your platform especially Envaya SMS, your thoughts about current technology trends in Sub Saharan Africa and just to get to know your thoughts so that people will get to know what you are about.
Joshua Envaya: I am Joshua Stern. I am Envaya’s Executive Director and Co-founder with Jesse…Before Envaya, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania where I was doing IT infrastructure development work working with community organizations around Tanzania to set up basic hardware infrastructure to get online and use computers. Before that, I was a Stanford Computer Science Graduate.
Jesse Envaya: My name is Jesse and I am the Chief Technology Officer of Envaya and as Josh said, Josh and I as well as our colleague founded Envaya about two years ago. Before that, I actually met Josh at Stanford freshman year and we were coincidentally in the same dorm and at Stanford, I ended up studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I stayed for an extra year to do a co-term degree while Josh went off to the Peace Corp and was also involved with being a teaching assistant for the Introductory Computer Science courses at Stanford.
Chukwuemeka Afigbo: How did Envaya come about?
Joshua Envaya: The idea for Envaya came about when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Within the last five years in Africa, there has been an explosion in terms of the level of accessibility to the Internet and the cost of computing is down, accessibility has gone up and people in rural communities, some of them with cheap netbooks and USBs, somehow find a way to get online. But a lot of these users have very limited tools to actually use the Internet in any meaningful way. In my work as a Peace Corp Volunteer, I worked for community based organizations which are grassroots development organizations ranging from local reforestation projects to local advocacy groups. Despite the great work that these groups are doing, they are incredibly isolated from each other and the larger development sector that is trying to support them. A lot of them know what the Internet is but there was this software gap and a lot of the existing technologies online are heavy, high bandwidth and not necessarily easy for a new Internet user to use and not really optimized to address community challenges. So we launched Envaya first as a platform for grassroot development organizations, civil society organizations (CSOs) to help them establish a web presence and then from there calling other CSOs and connecting them with other organizations that support them such as development agencies, grant makers and volunteers, etc to give them tools to better communicate with grassroots organizations.
Chukwuemeka Afigbo: So basically you create technology tools for NGOs to enable them do what they do best so they focus on their core competence and they rely on the collaboration tools that you provide?
Joshua Envaya: Exactly. We develop custom software as well. The real idea is that there is a wealth of experience at the grassroots level. They just need better tools to get their story out.
Chukwuemeka Afigbo: In terms of some of the key tools and key services and products that Envaya has for NGOs, can you tell us some of the major tools that you have developed?
Joshua Envaya: Sure. For the grassroots CSOs the interface has really been built from the ground up to be usable in very, very low bandwidth environment by users with very limited computer skills. So every aspect has been made to be incredibly simple and easy to use and there is a lot of technical aspects that goes into making a software platform for a low connectivity developing world environment.
Jesse Envaya: Things like when people upload images, they upload it from a digital camera that they want to publish on the web. Those files can be maybe 2MBs and can be very slow and expensive to transfer on a regular web browser but they have a phone that has sms capabilities so a lot of what we do is adapting to those different means of communication. We enabled people to use Envaya for sms. We developed a product called Envaya SMS that allows anybody to connect a web service to enable it to be used to send and receive sms anywhere in the world. And that’s pretty powerful.
Chukwuemeka Afigbo: Yes the product you just mentioned now, Envaya SMS is pretty powerful and if I understand it correctly, it is really an sms gateway on a phone, right?
Joshua Envaya: Yes, it is really simple. We developed this because of the larger Envaya platform, we wanted to enable sms and mms for users to be able to use the system. Users who can’t necessarily get to a basic connection. But in launching an SMS service, it really needs to have a local number and to do that you need an sms gateway and in Tanzania and Rwanda where we launched this and in most Sub-Saharan Africa countries, there are sometimes power problems, and sometimes the Internet goes out and so having a solution that requires the Internet or consistent power is not going to have very reliable uptime. So with Envaya SMS you just require a logically cheap Android phone, a local SIM card for whatever local service you want to use as long as you have access to a data plan or wireless internet, it can handle power outages and internet outages anywhere in the world and you have got yourself a gateway.
Jesse Envaya: Again to explain a little bit more about how it works. So I have got an Android phone here on which we installed our app: Envaya SMS. Envaya SMS is just a thin layer that forwards incoming SMS messages to a server somewhere on the Internet and the server is what actually implements the service that responds to each message. You don’t need an Android phone at all to send messages. They can use whatever phone they have. You just send a message to the phone number that you have to the Android phone, the phone receives the message, it will forward the message to the server, the server will respond with a reply and the phone will forward that back to whoever originated the message
Chukwuemeka Afigbo: So let me get this straight. What this means as a developer who is developing an SMS based service, at the initial testing stage, I don’t need to worry about getting a short code or long code. I can just get an Android Phone with Envaya SMS on it and implement my web service, right?
Jesse Envaya: Yes. at http://sms.envaya.org, there is a lot of documentation on how to get the server to communicate with the app on the phone. There is also example code and libraries at least for PHP at the moment. It is very easy for developers to set up. All they would need is to get an Android phone and to get a sim card with service on some mobile network but you don’t need to talk to any mobile network because it asks you to pay thousands of dollars just to set up a short code. You don’t need any physical hardware because you can use something like Amazon web services for your server. it’s pretty simple to set it up..
Joshua Envaya: An even beyond testing In terms of scalability of the service, it is powerful and if you are trying to scale across multiple countries, in each country all you need is a local SIM card and one of these phones with Envaya SMS running on it. We are using it in a full production environment.
Jesse Envaya: The person who is maintaining the phone does not have to be a developer with the ability to really understand programming and APIs. All they have to do is know how to use a phone so it makes it easier to maintain.
Chukwuemeka Afigbo: What is your strategy for Africa and what are some of your plans for the future?
Currently Envaya is in Rwanda and Tanzania. Since launching in Tanzania in May/April 2010, there are over 750 CSOs using Envaya in Tanzania which is over 25% of the country’s civil society organizations and so that’s our user penetration which is really remarkable for any web service and is especially remarkable for a web service in a country like Tanzania…Right now, we offer services for both grassroots CSOs and also for larger agencies, impact evaluation systems bringing monitoring reporting systems…and working with larger agencies and NGOs to make their processes easier and electronic. As we expand in the future, we are expanding both geographically and technologically. So that means entering more countries…currently next on the road is the rest of larger East Africa, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, Eastern DRC and also looking at some West African countries. Programmatically, we are talking to a lot of development agencies and NGOs and build out the second part of Envaya leveraging a lot of the optimizations and tools we have built that work in low connectivity environments for grassroot CSOs or larger NGOs to help them better communicate and do their jobs. We are currently working in Tanzania with the largest grant maker for CSOs in the country as well as numerous organizations and agencies.
Chukwuemeka Afigbo: That makes senses…so back to technology for a bit. Given all the investments you have made in technology building the Envaya platform, Envaya SMS, just out of curiosity what technologies are key or excite you or you’d like to see more of?
Joshua Envaya: I think the most exciting thing in Africa is really just the dramatic increase in accessibility to the Internet in terms of price drop of netbooks and price drops in usb modems and Android phones given that a couple of years ago when we launched Envaya a usb modem was more than $200 and now you can get one for $15 and Android now you are starting to see them in rural communities whereas a year ago smartphones were just for the elite. The direction where things are headed, I think there is a lot of opportunity for beyond even Envaya with civil society/development problems in terms of delivering technology tools…
Jesse Envaya: I also find exciting how tools like Envaya SMS makes it a lot easier for African developers to develop all kinds of services based on SMS and integrations such as mobile banking… it just opens up possibilities for what people can do.
Joshua Envaya: If you look at Tanzania where less in 2009 than 5% of the country’s civil society has any website..most of them were very basic normal really awful websites that were very rarely updated, often down… Civil society just wasn’t using the internet and in less than 2 years since Envaya launched there it has spread like wildfire.