9Needs is one of the first recipients of an innovation grant from The Innovation Edge. We will use this to demonstrate how Decentralised Applications (DApps), built using a cutting-edge new computing technology, can help organise, replicate and scale up interventions for Early Childhood Development (ECD).

The Innovation Edge offers a platform for testing the feasibility and effectiveness of Bold Ideas that can fundamentally change early life experiences for children - to give them the best possible start, right from the start.

The 2015 World Development Report describes how children in poor families differ dramatically from children in richer families in their cognitive and other abilities. The differences have powerful and enduring consequences for the person’s future health, well-being, education and survival. This results in enormous loss of human potential for themselves and society.

9Needs is a startup incubator for digital technologies that can greatly impact on people’s wellbeing. We hope to contribute towards growing the next generations of healthy, happy children who will reach their full human potential.

9Needs is a startup incubator for digital technologies that can greatly impact on people’s wellbeing. We hope to contribute towards growing the next generations of healthy, happy children who will reach their full human potential.

Take the example of Vuyo, a 4-year old boy living in a shack  in a sprawling urban settlement outside of the city of Durban. Hungry and bored through lack of stimulation, his impoverishment is made worse by the fact that he became an orphan in his first year of life, when his mother died of AIDS.

The current political opportunities in ECD in South Africa make it particularly timely for designing programmes and business models that can be replicated across a range of contexts throughout the country, reaching, at least, the 2.5 million children 0-4 years who are living in poverty.
— Hands-on Learning Brief: ECD Special Issue. DG Murray Trust, June 2014

Thabo’s grandmother recently heard about a local organisation that runs community playgroups for children Vuyo’s age.

Youth volunteers from the community are trained and incentivised by the organisation to coordinate these playgroup activities, in which caregivers also participate to provide care for the children and enhance their own parenting skills. This provides  a safer and more stimulating setting where for children from Vuyo’s community to play together, learning basic social, language and numeracy skills that will help lay the foundations for their future learning and school years. But Vuyo’s grandmother, who relies on social grants to buy staple food for the 6 children in her care, has no idea how she could ever afford to pay the participation fees for Vuyo to join the playgroup.

The economy of this sprawling urban township is not geared towards meeting the basic human needs of children such as Vuyo, who must struggle to find ways to survive and to be included in opportunities to find his way out.

Recognising the needs of children such as Vuyo, the DG Murray Trust is leading an initiative to establish a Social Franchise model that will create and support community organisations, like the one that Vuyo’s grandmother has heard of, to  expand access to community playgroups across South Africa.

Taking into account the challenges in current ECD service and programme delivery in South Africa, an ECD social franchise would need to focus on a number of key issues: Greater consistency of programme delivery (and hence outcomes), increased support to small and stand-alone operations, faster expansion at lower costs, and the use of information technology as an enabling component for aspects such as monitoring and reporting, for example.
— Hands-on Learning Brief: ECD Special Issue. DG Murray Trust, June 2014
Vending Machine

9Needs will work in partnership with this initiative to implement DApps in ways that could revolutionise how the Social Franchise will operate and scale up. 

In this context, we could imagine DApps as being the virtual equivalent of a smart vending machine that is able to cost-effectively decentralise and automate the business rules and administrative functions of the social franchise. So how will this operate?

You will already have your own experiences of how a vending machine conveniently quenches your thirst when you deposit coins into the machine in return for a drink. Without thinking about it, we enter into basic contracts with these mechanical vendors, exchanging our payments for promised products. We have the freedom to select our favourite food or drink from the range that is available in stock. If the machine is out of stock and cannot fulfil this contract, we trust that we will receive our money back. 

Vending machines operate autonomously after they have been set up. They do not require an intermediary person to complete each transaction, so they can run 24/7. This makes vending machines extremely convenient, low-cost and scalable. So they can be made available wherever people need them and can be stocked with the products that people want. 

Technologically advanced and ‘connected’ modern vending machines are even capable of predicting which products will be more popular at a specific location and can forecast periods of higher demand, based on historical usage patterns. They can signal when their stocks are low or when they need more coins for change - triggering human interventions to restock the machine.

Vending Machines can effectively become a form of decentralised semi-autonomous organisation, operating almost like a franchise business, when they are programmed to manage their own resources, make automated decisions and engage people, as necessary, to service their requirements. 
The next generation of vending machines will be even smarter and connect to people through mobile apps in ways that will open up new worlds of possibility. For instance, a vending machine will be able to automatically recognise a named user and dispense their preferred combination of products for a specific time of day (afternoon tea with milk and one teaspoon of sugar, for instance). Payment for this will be triggered through a digital transaction. The user will be notified on their phone that they have received loyalty points to encourage them to return and they will be offered rewards (such as a free drink) for getting their friends to also use the service.

Mobile Vending

Now imagine if we could create a (virtual) vending machine that reliably meets some of early development needs of children! This could ‘dispense’ coupons for playgroup sessions, issue incentive points and rewards for attendance, process payments for caregiver services… The possibilities are almost endless!

To build this, 9Needs is creating DApps as programmable tools that can convert the standardised business rules that define how the ECD social franchise operates, into modules of executable code that are stored in a decentralised global network of computers. (We will provide a technical description of how this will work, in a future article).

Just as a vending machine can’t deliver anything of value without human inputs, these DApps will still require people to transact with them for the code to run and produce anything. For this reason, we believe that this technology is inherently human-scale and democratic, which aligns with our philosophy of social development.

People will interact with DApps through their mobile phones - using smartphone Apps, or even basic SMS. A transaction can be as simple as a person sending a message such as ‘Pay Fees’ to specified number.

Each DApp takes a highly specific input - such as this message, and executes precisely what it has been coded to do. In this case, the DApp could trigger an electronic payment from an education fund to a Children’s Playgroup Coordinator. DApps are extremely versatile and can be told exactly what to do - including through a consensus process. Parents in the community could vote by SMS to agree on a day of the week when a playgroup would run. A minimum number of subscribers could be required for a playgroup to become registered, and so on. 

Social Franchise operators will customise DApp templates for their specific circumstances. They can even test out new new services and incentive options using DApps and then share ones that prove to work with other members of the social franchise network. We are excited about the potential for DApps to power inclusive innovation and experimentation in this way, driven by people at the service delivery interface with communities.

In future, Vuyo’s grandmother could send an SMS to an advertised toll-free number that will automatically issue her with a free voucher for Vuyo to attend his first playgroup session. By helping to run a playgroup session once a month, as a caregiver, Vuyo’s grandmother will continue to receive free vouchers for Vuyo to continue participating in the playgroup and to start benefiting from social inclusion and structured learning that will help lay the foundations for his future.