Travel | People | Culture

The Kopernik Revolution

Images courtesy of Ewa Wojkowska.

Where are you from and where are you now? How did the Indonesian connection develop?

Toshi Nakamura is from Osaka, Japan, and I am originally from Poland but grew up in Australia. Both of us have worked in international development for the past 10 years. I worked for UNDP in Indonesia for over 4 years (2003-2007) and Toshi for 2 years (2005-2007). We have also worked in Timor Leste, Sierra Leone, Laos and Thailand (and most recently in New York). Between us we have worked for the UN, World Bank, NGOs and the private sector. And we’ve worked on a wide range of issues from working to improve access to justice for the poor, to public sector reform, elections, and recovery from the devastating earthquake and Tsunami in Aceh. We are now coming back to Indonesia to be close to our partners across Southeast Asia.

Indonesia is a very special place for both of us – and we are so excited to be coming back. A big factor in making the decision to move back was the high quality of human resources and infrastructure in the country.

How did Kopernik come about, and what is the vision behind this initiative?

As mentioned, we’ve worked in international development for the past 10 years and we have been privileged to work for the UN, and really lucky to meet many amazing and dedicated people who work tirelessly to make the world a better place. At the same time, we knew that in order for development to be more effective, new ideas and innovation were necessary. Yet so frequently, we felt, in the UN things are done the same old way that they’ve been done for years. The community of ‘development experts’ tends to be very small and rather closed – and is not conducive to spurring innovation. We knew that so much innovation is taking place in the private sector and wondered why these two worlds remained so separate.

We wanted to do something about it. Since September 2007 we’ve had so many different ideas. Some bordering on the ridiculous. The problem we wanted to solve has always been the same – how can real development problems, faced by real people, be solved in a more effective way? And we wanted to tap into the potential of a much broader community. The model has evolved almost daily and then in early 2009, we came up with one model of solving long-standing development problems by asking people of various professional backgrounds for bold ideas. The foundation of this model was a clear statement of issues, articulated by the communities in developing countries who are living with those problems.

But, based on our own experience, we instinctively knew that it would be difficult to get a clear statement of challenges. We then came up with the idea of reversing the idea. Why don’t we start with the proven ‘solutions’, and let the communities (represented by local organisations) articulate instead how they want to use the solutions (technology) to solve their existing problems. This was a little ‘Copernican Revolution’ for us, as we are now starting with supply (a menu of possible options to solve common development challenges) and then from here our partner organizations can articulate the demand. And given that so many challenges are common to many developing countries (lack of clean drinking water and lack of power supply for example) – we think it makes a lot of sense. Honouring my Polish background we decided to name our venture ‘Kopernik’, the Polish name of this great Polish scientist.

What does Kopernik do? How did you go about setting up and financing the organization?

Kopernik is a technology marketplace for the developing world. We connect life-changing technologies (such as water purification and solar-powered devices) to the people who need them in the developing world. Kopernik also provides access to crowd-funded financial subsidies.

We work in six different areas: water and sanitation (lifestraw, q-drum, solvatten); health (glasses, solar-ear); ICT/Mobile (n-computing); Education (n-computing; Ingrisi; freedom toaster); Energy & Environment (solar lamps & lanterns); Agriculture (currently in discussion with potential partners such as drip-irrigation companies) as these comprise the most common challenges in developing countries at the community level.  

From our menu of technology that addresses these common challenges, local organizations, working with local communities, can select the most appropriate technology for their needs. As we continue to grow we want to give people in developing countries choice in the types of solutions that are available to them. This has been a missing factor in existing development assistance where one solution is typically imposed.

Amazing, life-changing technologies are out there but are not reaching those that really need them. The producers of the products speak of two main challenges that they face: one, distribution, and two, the cost is still too high.

Through Kopernik we want to address these two main challenges by enabling those who need the products to access them through our website and provide financial subsidies towards the purchase of the technology through individual donations. We started by talking to technology providers (companies), technology seekers (local NGOs) and piloting a number of projects in Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Sierra Leone.

As co-founders, we have invested our own money for the start-up capital of about USD 50,000. We have also received additional operational funds from a Japanese Entrepreneur support organisation, called ETIC (, and a partner from McKinsey and Company.

AdSpecs are self-adjustable eyeglasses that allow the individual to correct their own vision. This addresses the lack of trained optometrists who are able to prescribe properly corrected eyeglasses.

What is Kopernik’s business model?

We have 3 sources of revenue to sustain the operations of Kopernik

1. Institutional donor support for operational costs (grant funding)
2. 5% fee from technology providers for products sold through our site
3. 5% transaction fee for donations made through the site (significantly below industry standard)

What were the typical challenges you faced in setting this up?

The website development has been and continues to be a real challenge. Also getting the word out about Kopernik, driving traffic to our site and converting that traffic to donations remains our priority.

Who were your first mentors?

No particular individuals but more the amazing co-workers and leaders we have had the opportunity to work with and meet throughout our careers.

How in your view has Kopernik impacted peoples’ lives thus far? Who are the people and families that have benefited?

Half of the 1.1 million people in Timor-Leste lack access to clean water, a problem that is only exacerbated in the dry season. Last October we received a proposal from Centro Feto, a local women’s organization in Oecusse. We learned of their need for LifeStraws, a slender device that effectively filters water as it is being used. Centro Feto would then distribute the straws to still more rural women’s groups in hard to reach areas. As this was the pilot, I arrived in Oecusse to help distribute the LifeStraws to the women’s groups selected by Centro Feto.  Typically this process would be undertaken by Centro Feto themselves. I decided to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of the LifeStraw in front of the women: in a dusty village, an older woman handed me a bucket of dirty water. “This is the best we’ve got!” she said, half joking and half serious. So I dipped my LifeStraw into the water and had a drink. Two local women leaders, Filomena and Juana, tried it after me. They were convinced. One woman said the LifeStraw would be especially useful when she was working in the field, far from her home. Others were excited that their children would be able to take the LifeStraws to their school, which doesn’t have a clean water source nearby.

I also went to Manado, Indonesia, to deliver the AdSpecs – the self-adjustable glasses. We received a request from CBM Indonesia a local organization providing eye-care for the poor. They wanted to distribute the AdSpecs to the poorest segment of society who weren’t able to afford a visit to the optometrist or eyeglasses.

In Igbotako, Nigeria, we have recently funded a project to provide 150 solar lanterns to enable students to study at night in an off-grid rural area. One in four people (globally) currently do not have access to electricity or proper lighting. Most households use kerosene for lighting and every year millions are severely burned or killed by kerosene lamps. The benefits of solar lanterns include improvements in health, longer productive hours, savings from not buying kerosene, longer studying hours. The lanterns are currently on their way to Igbotako and will be distributed in early May.

What have you learned since starting this project?

One thing that has really struck us since starting is that a small amount of money (compared to the size of funds that the UN typically manages) can make a huge difference to people’s lives.

We have also been really humbled by the amount of people that support Kopernik and want to help us.

Finally, what has been somewhat overwhelming (but certainly reaffirming) is the huge demand for the technology from developing countries.

In a perfect world, what will Kopernik be in 5 years?

In five years we would have reached 2.5 million people in need of technology and have significantly improved socio-economic productivity. We believe that technology has a leap-frogging effect on realizing human potential.
In 5 years Kopernik is the go-to platform for appropriate technology for the developing world.
While we are currently focusing on ‘off the shelf’ technology and a ‘grant’ model, we will soon begin new service lines that include micro-lending for businesses and entrepreneurs as well as a DIY technology line (more low-tech products that can be developed locally using locally available materials).

What in your view are the most effective tools and methods to raise public awareness of the ways individuals can participate in helping the lives of those less fortunate?

Well this is the million dollar question for us! A combination of the on-line and off-line. Using people’s existing groups and networks (these could be faith-based, school or interest based) seems to be the correct formula. Use of social media and traditional media are certainly necessary.

Social entrepreneurs are particularly active in areas such as: children health, climate crisis, problems with pollution, human rights, literacy in poor areas and others. Arts and culture are rarely mentioned in the literature and world practice on social entrepreneurship. What is the impact of social entrepreneurship on the cultural sector?

It is true that arts and culture don’t get as much attention as they should. One way Kopernik helps organizations working in this important field is through access to ICT and educational tools.

The power of social networking and mobile communications is starting to get used to spread innovative new ideas and drive engagement in social change. What forms of social entrepreneurship are taking advantage of the existence of the new technology? Could you give examples of other online spaces for social entrepreneurship and comment on their usefulness?

Social networking and mobile communications are extremely important to us and we are constantly searching for effective ways to engage people through these means. We have plans for a mobile platform in the near future.

There are plenty of online social entrepreneur spaces including,, of Ashoka – to name the key players. They are certainly very useful for connecting with other like-minded individuals and organizations working in the sector (and have been very useful for us).

For us what is critical is not only engaging those who think alike but going way beyond this circle and engaging a much broader community.

What sort of development needs do you think Indonesia needs to focus on?

While Indonesia as a whole has reached lower middle income level, there are still many places that lag significantly behind in water, sanitation, health, education, and agricultural outputs.

I hear you’re moving to Ubud, why have you chosen to that cultural hotspot on the Island of Bali?

The human resources in Bali are excellent, it’s quiet so that we can focus, living costs are reasonable, and it’s so beautiful. We are so happy whenever we are there and given that we are very mobile and can live anywhere it just made so much sense to choose that as a place to base ourselves.

How do you see yourself contributing to Indonesia and what attracts you to this nation?

In addition to disseminating the great technology featured on Kopernik there is great potential in Indonesia for locally created technologies. There are also several hubs of innovation across Indonesia that we want to tap into and support. So while there will be some support to technology seekers we really want to support the evolution of technology providers in Indonesia.

Here’s a video from Kopernik showing the life-changing impact of technology:

Ewa Wojkowska was interviewed for Edition 5 of Expat Indonesia. For more on Kopernik, visit

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