Fair trade software on the agenda but Dutch businesses not ready to buy it

There is already free trade chocolate and coffee on supermarket shelves, but two Dutch tech entrepreneurs are trying to add free trade software to the mix

Corporate responsibility and sustainability are high on the agenda at most Dutch companies, but fair trade software can’t seem to get its foot in the door in the Netherlands.

Coert Prins, social entrepreneur and director of Incentro Africa, launched the Incentro subsidiary about a year ago in Nairobi, Kenya. It links up Dutch and African software developers to transfer knowledge from the Netherlands to countries in Africa.

Prins said that as corporate social responsibility has been a hot topic in the Netherlands, he expected a “fair trade” label on the company’s software to be in high demand – but nothing was further from the truth.

“I have visited numerous companies and almost everyone was inspired, but nobody would buy it,” he said. “The concept of fair trade software was too new and people want certainty, particularly in IT.”

Fair trade software initiator Andy Haxby, owner of IT company Competa, agreed. He has received no commercial orders through his projects in Kenya.

But that doesn’t mean Haxby has had no social or sustainable impact on the country – on the contrary.

Haxby worked at Shell before he started up Competa , which develops software for multinationals, in 2010. “I had always been interested in supply chains and was reading a book about fair trade,” he said. “My company had a lot of subcontracts, so I was really looking for a new way to do business, so that clients would come to Competa directly.”

At that time, many companies were struggling to make their corporate social responsibility and sustainability efforts clear, he said. “All of a sudden, all the pieces of the puzzle came together and I envisioned software development in a fair trade way.”

Haxby sought the help of a former Shell colleague who had a lot of experience in developing countries, and together they investigated the feasibility of fair trade software.

“We went to Nairobi because the political climate in Kenya was reasonably stable, education is quite good and there is already an existing relationship with fair trade,” he said.

Economic standards low

The former Shell men found out that the level of education in Kenya was pretty high, but the economic standards by which businesses operated were extremely low. “Kenya is a country that thrives on agriculture, so most graduate IT students failed to find a job,” said Haxby. “The only jobs available are with the government or the large telcos, but they outsource almost all complex IT projects to Europe or the US.

“Most graduates start their own company or try to get self-employed commissions, but they have absolutely no clue as to how to run a company.”

Typically in Europe, entrepreneurs start a business after gaining some experience in the industry, said Haxby. “African people lack that experience, so most startups are led by enthusiastic, ambitious people with absolutely no management experience,” he added.

Haxby and his companion tried to fund projects in Nairobi with grants, but with little success, and the feedback was confusing. “The first time we were rejected by the Dutch government because it said there was no market for IT in Kenya,” he said. “The second time we were told that we were actually disturbing the local market with our plans.”

Grant from Germany

One of the consultants involved in the pair’s grant application told Haxby about the possibility of getting a grant from the German government. They applied for one and it was granted. Competa then established CodePamoja, its first Kenyan project.

“We have set up a training facility where we train graduates in scrum and agile,” said Haxby. “That was really necessary as the education system in Kenya is very individualistic. Students don’t learn to collaborate – not in college, nor at university.

“There are a lot of bootcamps for technical skills available in Kenya, but almost nobody builds up experience with a real project. And that is exactly what we wanted to offer, but it is hard, because Dutch companies play safe. They want proof, a product or a demo, but we were not able to show them that, as we had no launch customer.”

Eventually, The Hague University of Applied Sciences and the Kenyan government granted CodePamoja two projects to build portals.

The project was a success. Not only did more than 100 Kenyan graduates participated in two years, but about the same number of Dutch students also worked on the project.

“We needed a Dutch team to collaborate with the Kenyans, but it would be too expensive to let our own people participate,” said Haxby. “So we collaborated with Dutch students. As a pleasant side-effect, we now have a huge pool of talent that we can use for expansion within Competa.”

Local collaboration

To help the project succeed, Haxby collaborated with two local organisations, teaching them a lot about project management, scrum and agile. “They are now doing projects that they couldn’t have done two years ago, because at that time they lacked the knowledge required,” he said.

A second project is about to start, again funded by the German government. But finding Dutch organisations that want to buy fair trade software is still is a huge challenge, said Haxby.

Incentro Africa’s Prins agreed, saying: “When people hear about software from Kenya, they instantly think it is offshored and therefore cheap. But that is not the concept of fair trade.

“The same goes for products – it is too far away and of too little concern to people. Fair trade chocolate, for instance, has been around for a long time, but only since Tony’s Chocolonely marketing and branding campaign has there been more interest in it.”

The Fair Trade Software Foundation has been launched as a not-for-profit organisation to enhance the model of fair trade software, said Haxby. “This coheres with a new project – the development of a portal to promote this concept and bring people together,” he said.

“For example, The Hague University and the University of Utrecht are collaborating on this project. Eventually, I hope ever more organisations, educational institutes, governments and non-governmental organisations will participate, because this is the way to stimulate the African economy and close existing gaps.”

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