Toshi Nakamura and Ewa Wojkowska worked for the United Nations for a decade in Indonesia, Sierra Leone and across Asia. Although they saw some very interesting projects and important initiatives, they also saw a tremendous opportunity to do things better. Especially when it came to delivering life saving technologies to those who needed it most.

Kopernik in action in Lombok, Indonesia

That’s how Kopernik, the organization they co-founded, was born. Kopernik brings technology to those in the developing world by connecting companies manufacturing the technologies with local organizations working on the ground with the funders who want to make a difference. Since starting in Feb. 2010, it has already implemented 41 projects in 11 countries and reached 52,000 people.

Wojkowska worked in Timor-Leste, one of the poorest districts of East Timor in Southeast Asia, ten years ago. Back then there was no electricity. When she returned last year there was still no electricity. “So much money has gone into the development of East Timor by the UN and the member states,” she said. “Yet I saw very little progress. Since we started Kopernik one and a half years ago we have distributed over 3,000 solar lights in the district. Now it is lit up with solar lights if you drive through after dark.”

On Kopernik’s website they showcase a menu of about 60 technologies, such as solar lights and water purifiers, necessary items in most developing countries. Local organizations choose which technologies are needed in their community. And then a request for proposals is posted on the Kopernik website and crowd-funded by individuals and corporations that want to help solve these issues. Once the proposal is funded Kopernik uses the money to purchase the technologies and ship them to the local organizations that distributes it to the end users.

A critical component of Kopernik is that the technologies are not given away for free, says Wojkowska. “Our local partners actually sell the technology to the end user sometimes at full cost and sometimes at a heavily subsidized cost,” she explained. “It depends on the local context and the local purchasing power.” This is important, says Wojkowska, because the organization doesn’t want to create a dependency. “It’s a much more equal partnership when people are actually paying for the technology and it’s much more sustainable.”

Sales pitch contest for women technology sales agents

The organization’s flagship project is the Widow project in Indonesia, where business opportunities are being created for about 20,000 women. The way it works is that Kopernik sells the technologies- like a biomass stove- to the women at a low cost and the women then sell it to their community and keep a commission. One woman in her 30s, who was living on less than $1 a day, sold 50 water filters in two weeks, says Wojkowska, and earned $60 in commission in that time. “She didn’t know she had this tremendous skill,” she said. “She now has become a role model to others.”

(Photos © Kopernik)