Social Networking Websites: A Way Out of Poverty

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


Social networking websites also known as, Web 2.0 – the name given to the new wave of internet businesses and websites such as YouTube and MySpace that are transforming the way people interact with the Web – has been dubbed the social web for its power to bring people together. The label has been derided as a marketing gimmick by some, but many argue there are a number of characteristics to Web 2.0 that make it something different and a valuable tool for entrepreneurs seeking ways out of poverty.

The new Web 2.0 applications offer many free software tools stored online, from accounting and business related tools, to new multimedia ways to communicate for free. Unlike Web 1.0 sites, which offered information to passive users, Web 2.0 sites allow interaction and comment. These qualities have meant Web 2.0 can be used to build communities and social and business networks. By being able to store vast quantities of information online, it becomes faster to work and reduces the painful delays brought on by slow connections.

All these new tools are making it easier and easier for entrepreneurs to work from home, in internet centres, or anywhere there is a wireless connection, and is slashing the costs of managing a business. All the applications are online so there is no need to be hidebound by one operating system or hardware capability. The number of internet centres has increased significantly all over Asia and Africa, bringing the power of Web 2.0 to millions more people.

Linking mobile phones and the internet is also remarkable. It is becoming more and more possible in Africa to send messages to weblogs via text messaging, to post photos and videos, or to stay connected with a community, advocacy or business group via messaging to its website.

“Web 2.0 is a pre-occupation of ours that can be beneficial in fighting poverty,” said Tobias Eigan, founder and co-executive director of, a web portal dedicated to promoting Web 2.0 in Africa. “It is really relevant for Africa. It makes the internet a read and write function, it is more user-friendly – that dynamic is going to make a big difference. It is so much easier to upload content with Web 2.0. It will build the capacity of local institutions and society and that will improve the lives of people – it will be much easier to fight poverty with this connectivity.”

Two other champions of the Web 2.0 way out of poverty are Waleed al-Shobakky, science and technology reporter for, and Jack Imsdahl, a consultant and technology commentator. While they admit subsistence farmers and the illiterate will not directly benefit, those who are students or are working in proximity to computers will definitely benefit. They point out how rapidly mobile phones have been taken up by the poor and that this is being driven by the new services they offer.

There are still profound obstacles to more rapid take-up, however. Internet connection speeds will have to get better and more will need to be invested in this area. Web 2.0 tools will also need to be adapted to local languages if they hope to get past those who speak major web languages like English.

Entrepreneurs in the global South can now easily sign up to a vast array of e-newsletters that are sent to email accounts and keep on top of trends and innovations in their field. The relative anonymity of these email lists mean subscribers are less likely to be judged on their physical circumstances.

Published: March 2007


Afriville is a Web 2.0 service and an African Caribbean social network started by two Nigerian web entrepreneurs in their twenties, Folabi Ogunkoya and Lawrence Bassey-Oden.

Afriville is a community website along the lines of the famous MySpace. Users are free to message and post profiles. The difference is that the user is able to choose how closed or open the networks are. The site features a state of the art music management system which allows African and Caribbean artists to get straight in touch with their fans.

“We have created a solid app(lication) with features that will give the big players a run for their money,” said Ogunkoya.

African entrepreneurs have already stepped in with other Web 2.0 offerings. These include: (an African YouTube), (news sharing), (social networking), Yesnomayb (online dating).

Both Yahoo! And Google offer extensive free online tools for entrepreneurs and businesses that integrate seamlessly with their email services.

Kabissa: Space for Change in Africa: An online African web community promoting and supporting the transition to Web 2.0 services in Africa. Offers lots of opportunities to meet people throughout Africa and learn more.

Alexa: Here can be found a detailed break down by country in Africa of web use and site popularity and trends.

Digital Divide Network: A website linking together initiatives and offering opportunities to debate current issues and problems.

Global Voices: An initiative from the Reuters news agency to aggregate the global conversation online from countries outside the US and Western Europe.

Free Web 2.0 tools for entrepreneurs:

Wikis: Here is a detailed article on wikis – collaborative websites that allow authorised users to rapidly and easily change the content of pages – and a detailed list of free or low-cost wiki services.

>> Blogging (an online diary): – A free, easy-to-use, online service owned by Google. – Blog from your mobile phone, free. – An easy-to-use, free service with good support for photos.

Movable Type – An open-source, free, easy to use, online publishing system popular with bloggers.

WordPress – Another easy, free, and popular online publishing system popular with bloggers.

>> Aggregators (these are programmes that gather links and resources off the web):

AmphetaDesk – One of the first news aggregators to really catch on, it’s still popular.

Bloglines – Allows bloggers and webmasters to search, subscribe to, publish, and share RSS news feeds online. – Aggregate content from your favorite Web sites and share them with others.

Feed Demon – The news you want delivered to your desktop.

Technorati – A real-time search engine that keeps track of what is happening in the world of blogs. is an excellent resource for all the latest developments in Web 2.0 and how to access free or low-cost resources. Being based in the US, it gets the inside scoop on cutting edge developments in Silicon Valley.

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator. 

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Dabbawallahs Use Web and Text to Make Lunch on Time

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


The developing world’s rapidly growing cities are bringing with them whole new ways of living and working. One rapidly expanding category of citizen is the office worker. A symbol of growing prosperity, the office worker also tends to be a time-poor person who often must commute large distances between home and workplace.

These long commutes mean that many workers have lost the old ability to go home for lunch. This has led to an expanding new field of business: catering to all these office workers’ appetites.

Every morning Mumbai’s legendary dabbawallahs (it means “box-carrier” or “lunchpail man”) fan out across the city to collect freshly prepared lunches from people’s homes and restaurants. They then efficiently use the transport network to quickly deliver lunches to the customers’ workplaces. Once just for the elite, the dabbawallah lunch has become the norm for Mumbai’s middle class office workers. Lunches are packed into small, metal tiffin boxes, ingeniously organized so each component of the meal is sealed in its own section and kept warm.

With a plethora of religious and cultural practices, Indians are particular about what they eat. In Mumbai there are 200,000 office workers receiving cooked lunches every day delivered straight to their desks. This is done by an army of 5,000 dabbawallahs. While their delivery accuracy was already impressive – only six deliveries in a million go astray – they realized they had to adapt to the city’s rapid changes. In addition to their network using trains, hand-carts and bicycles to get the lunches to desks, they have turned to the internet and mobile phone SMS text messaging to take orders.

It is a 125-year old industry that has grown at the rate of five to ten per cent a year and all are paid the same no matter what their function in the business.

With foreign direct investment into developing countries surging – according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), it rose by 12 per cent from 2005 to 2006 – the number of office workers is on the rise too.

The trend is especially pronounced in India, which is on track to overtake the United Kingdom as the world’s fifth largest economy by 2010, according to investment bankers Goldman Sachs.

India’s cities are booming. Mumbai is one of the top five global megacities as well as the world’s most crowded metropolis. The dabbawallahs are an excellent example of how a business can move with the times.

A key component in India’s new-found success has been a willingness to do things better and become more efficient; the key to this is often information technology. The new technology for the dabbawllahs has been built for them by software engineer Manish Tripathi – he has even been adopted as an honorary tiffinwallah.

“When people move to Mumbai for work, and need a lunchbox carrier, who do they ask?” he said. “They ask their friends, or their neighbour. Now, they just need to go to the website and they can find out how to get in touch with us. They can also get in touch with us via SMS.”

The move online has been a great success said Tripathi: “We get 10 to 15 enquiries more a day via SMS and the website.”

Raghunath Medge from the dabawallahs cooperative said they are also making money by selling advertising on table mats. They have also turned to being a health service: they distribute health advice, beginning with this year’s World AIDS Day. An “AIDS kit”, comprising a car calendar and fliers on testing and counseling tied neatly with a red ribbon, was distributed ahead of World AIDS Day December 1.

“The kit was attached to empty lunch boxes and delivered to about 100,000 clients’ homes,” said Raghunath Megde,

Targeting hungry office workers is a goldmine for others too: in Saigon, Vietnam, the Ben Thann restaurant capitalised on its proximity to an area with a fast-growing office worker population to increase its profits. “Since our restaurant began serving lunch for office workers our business has increased by 60 per cent. This increase in number of guests enjoying the new menu was the main reason for Ben Thanh’s decision to introduce a buffet lunch,” said Nguyen Thi Thu Thao, deputy manager of Ben Thanh Restaurant.

In the past, the dabawallahs were visited by Prince Charles and British entrepreneur multimillionaire Richard Branson, to study their working methods. It looks like this next round of innovation will equally grab the world’s attention.

Published: December 2007


  • The New York Times has an excellent slideshow of the dabbawallahs at work: Click here to view 
  • The official website of the dabbawallahs:

“I think you [David South] and the designer [Solveig Rolfsdottir] do great work and I enjoy Southern Innovator very much!” 

Ines Tofalo, Programme Specialist, United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation
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20 Years Ago

It was 20 years ago this month (September 2001) that the GOSH Child Health Portal was launched in London, UK. The award-winning website was called “One of the three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors”.

“Making sure that your child has helpful, easy-to-read information will make a significant difference to their time in hospital. I am sure that this website will prove very useful for children and their families.” Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Britain’s best-loved children’s hospital and charity, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children NHS Trust (GOSH), contracted me to lead a two-year project to modernise the hospital’s web presence and take its brand into the 21st century. GOSH is both Britain’s first children’s hospital and a pioneering child health institution (along with its partner the Institute for Child Health). The hospital’s outstanding reputation meant the project was carried out under intense public, media and professional scrutiny, and required a keen awareness of new media developments and the needs of the hospital’s patients, their families and the public.

The project was developed in three, distinct phases. Screen grabs from these phases are now available for download and evaluation. They also include web traffic statistics. This unique snapshot of a complex project as it unfolded, should prove useful for other e-health practitioners.

Phase 1: ealth-Portal-Proj...
Phase 2: ealth-Portal-Proj...
Phase 3: ealth-Portal-Proj...

In 2001, the project also launched an interactive Christmas child health advent calendar offering top tips from health professionals on how to have a safe holiday season. The PDF can be viewed here:

A great way to track the historical development of a web project is to use the Wayback Machine’s internet archive here. By typing in the web address (for example,, and, you can see a chronological history of the website by month.

Read here about the child health portal project’s vision and strategy, its launch and overall impact. Or download a brief Powerpoint presentation here: GOSH Powerpoint.

In 2003, the UK’s Guardian newspaper called the Children First website one of the “three most admired websites in the UK public and voluntary sectors,” and a UK government assessment called the overall GOSH child health web portal a role model for the NHS.

In 2006, The Times of London called Children First the Top Child Health Website in its Wellbeing on the Web: The Best Portals survey (November 11, 2006).

The GOSH Child Health Portal Team circa 2002.

What we did 10 Years Ago

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