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Internet Donations Alleviate Poverty and Create New Markets


Have you ever heard of a non-profit organization called Kopernik? It’s difficult to sum up the work that Toshi Nakamura, a former member of UN staff closely involved in studying the world's poorest communities, has been taking on since he founded Kopernik. To put it simply, he has been working to connect the poorest communities in the world with simple technologies for the developing world. Clear as mud, right? Even with a vague understanding of what that might mean, it may be hard to visualize what it actually looks like. Here’s one real, concrete example of their work in action.

In East Timor (also known as Timor-Leste), there is a tiny village on Atauro Island. Though there are roughly 2000 households in this small village, because of the villages isolated location, there are hardly any places with electric power, meaning the residents of the village use kerosene for light at night, or go to bed with the sun. The majority of the people who live there are engaged in fishing or agricultural work, meaning their incomes are heavily affected by the weather. One thing that they need in their lives is a reliable source of light. With reliable light sources, children are able to study even after dark, and people can take on extra work to be done at night to supplement shortcomings in their income due to weather. The thing this un-electrified village needs is light that doesn't require electricity.

Atauro Island, East Timor, the isolated and un-electrified area where Kopernik’s project provided solar lights.

As soon as Kopernik got the request from local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for solar lights, which exist in developed countries but not in developing countries like East Timor, it launched the project to supply those lights. The overall project budget was created based on the types and quantities of solar lights chosen by the local NGOs.

The actual solar light that was provided.
Co-founder and CEO Toshi Nakamura. After earning two advanced degrees and spending time as an intern at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Nakamura worked as a foreign capital management consultant. He founded Kopernik in 2010 after working at the UN Development Projects for Timor-Leste and Indonesia. Currently, he resides in Ubud, Indonesia, where Kopernik has its headquarters.

Cost of 200 solar lights + shipping costs × applicable taxes + handling fees

Kopernik then publishes the project information and lists pricing information on its website in order to find donors to cover these costs. Donations of every level are accepted from both companies and individuals. Donations can be made for the cost of just one solar light, for a number of units, or for any amount specified by the donor. Then, Kopernik buys the solar lights from the manufacturers in bulk and transports them to the target area. Rather than being distributed for free, the solar lights are sold through local NGOs. The prices for these lights when sold locally through this project are of course different from the prices in developed countries. In order to keep them within reach of the local people, these solar lights are sold at $12.50 (US) on Atauro Island (about half of what the normal price would be in a developed country). This amount is equivalent to roughly three months’ worth of the kerosene local residents would use otherwise, but the price of a single light has been set so that with continued use, it will allow the cost to be recovered right away. “By selling these products rather than distributing them for free, it allows us to hear the voices of the local people,” Kopernik’s co-founder and CEO Toshi Nakamura explains. By selling them, Kopernik places an emphasis on avoiding disruptions to the local economy. In this way, rather than ending with charity, these endeavors create new beginnings.

New markets in the developing world

What’s revealed by selling these products locally rather than giving them away is the true needs of the local people. When local populations are given things for free, they don’t complain. Even if the product they have been given is rather difficult to make use of, they use it anyway without complaint because it came at no cost to them. If a local person has purchased the same product, however, he or she is a customer. This way, rather than a relationship of benefactor and beneficiary, the relationship becomes a more equal relationship between producer and customer. As soon as that happens, the true feelings of the local people can come out. They can tell the makers of these products if they are too hard to use, if they want the product in different colors, or whatever else. Precisely here is where the new opportunities exist.

Most developed countries are now flooded with goods, their markets saturated, and many businesses from those countries are now looking to developing countries to find new markets. Nevertheless, many stumble straight out of the gate when it comes to determining what to sell and through what routes and at what price to sell it, in many cases bringing development projects in developing countries to a standstill. What Kopernik does is to serve as a consultant to companies that want to do business in developing countries. Nakamura has chosen the city of Ubud in Indonesia as the headquarters for Kopernik, and is continuing these types of activities there locally. In addition to those in Indonesia, Kopernik is operating projects in eleven different countries across Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, and maintains strong ties with local NPOs across the areas where its projects are based. It is precisely because of cooperation with these local NPOs and building relationships of trust that allows Kopernik to understand the real needs of the people in these areas.

By viewing these activities from a business perspective rather than as simple works of charity, these projects can lead to both aiding the development of local economies and helping businesses break into new markets, instead of merely fulfilling their corporate social responsibility. This is one reason that rather than one-off projects, Kopernik focuses on building independent systems that are sustainable in the long term. “Until now, the necessary technologies were not getting to the people who actually needed them,” Nakamura says. “With Kopernik, however, now we are able to bring these technologies from the people in business and academia who possess them directly to the local NPOs and thus the people who need them. By enabling this, the donations received through the internet go directly towards changing the lives of the people for whom they are intended.”

Using the internet, so close to us in our everyday lives in developed countries, Kopernik brings action against poverty in the world directly into the communities where they are most needed, many formerly thought too far to be reached by other means. In doing so, they are simultaneously working to alleviate poverty and to open new markets in the developing world. This is an enormous contribution and leads to new challenges, which we here at Faust Adventurers’ Guild find fascinating and exciting.


Kopernik connects three critical elements using the internet: local NPOs and similar organizations in developing countries, the businesses and universities that have technology that can be used by the developing world, and the people who make donations to make it happen. Kopernik’s web site makes it easy to see all of the different projects currently underway and instantly see the fundraising status for each project. The technologies are brought directly to local organizations, meaning that donations go directly to where they are needed rather than passing through an intermediary.


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