A 2020 Opportunity: Bring Technology to a World in Development

Overview It’s cliché for a technology company to claim that it wants to make the world a better place. But at this year’s C Space Studio at CES 2020, I interviewed two leaders who really do believe tech can help save the world. In fact, they’re counting on it.

Boutheina Guermazi is the director of digital development for the World Bank Group, the international organization that helps governments foster economic development. Bill Sonneborn is senior director of disruptive technology and funds at the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the part of the World Bank Group that invests in private businesses to help emerging markets. The two traveled to Las Vegas to promote the Global Tech Challenge, a new partnership between the World Bank Group and the Consumer Technology Association (CTA)

“This is a call for action to help the tech community to come up with clear ideas to help development challenges,” Guermazi said.

“We know that the digital part of the economy is moving faster than the traditional parts. So looking at development challenges with 21st century solutions is very important.”

The challenge calls for ideas about digital health, the gender divide and climate change. Health care is up first.


The African Health Care Opportunity: Just Add Innovation

Now through February 25, the IFC TechEmerge Health Challenge seeks innovative solutions for health care challenges in East Africa. Sonneborn described a compelling need — and a compelling business opportunity.  

“It's a part of the world where you have one doctor for every 5,000 patients, compared to 15 doctors to 5,000 patients here in the U.S,” Sonneborn said. “You have a health care market that's growing in excess of 10% per year. It's on its road to be a $100 billion market opportunity. You have the fastest growing population in the world in Africa, that's going to end up having 50% of total population growth over the next 20 to 30 years.” 

Sonneborn said that in East Africa, health care providers aren’t as familiar with advanced medical technology that’s more common (and competitive) in the U.S. and Europe.

But IFC has the opportunity “wrapped with a bow” for companies who want to change that. It has partnerships with about 300 facilities like hospitals, doctors’ offices and clinics, representing a total of 6.5 million patients. It understands local conditions and regulatory issues. 

IFC even has seed funding at the ready. And that’s just the beginning.

“If we get commercial success, we'd like to invest in those businesses and scale this big in every emerging market around the world,” Sonneborn said. “Because the problems in East Africa are no different than the problems in the Middle East, the problems in Central America or the problems in South Asia.”


Closing the Digital Gender Divide

Applications will be open soon for innovators to help tackle gender equality through digital technology. The World Bank Group Digital Development Director of Digital Development Boutheina Guermazi finds the issue deeply concerning. 

“Today 50% of women still do not have access to connectivity,” she said. “We cannot be talking about an inclusive digital economy if the gender dimension is not addressed.”

Although the World Bank Group’s perspective is global, Guermazi knows technology’s impact is measured in individual human lives. She thinks of women in Kenya earning money with mobile payments.

“In many parts of the world,” she said, “technologies have offered an opportunity for women to be active players.”

Guermazi said the gender equality challenge will look for innovation in three areas: digital access, digital skills and “content that is geared to the needs of women.” The goal is “to make sure that these innovative solutions have a home.”


Hope for 2020 and Beyond

Applications open in February for the third part of the challenge, a call to help cities and communities in developing countries build resilience to climate change and disaster — through disruptive technology.

Although climate change didn’t come up in my conversations with Guermazi and Sonneborn, it’s clear that overall, they are both optimistic about the potential of innovation.

“We're very much looking forward to thinking outside of the box,” Guermazi said. “A lot of the problems require outside-of-the-box solutions. And how can we do it without technology?”

Sonneborn agreed: “We're investing in large and disruptive technology businesses now at the IFC because we think that's the leapfrogging solution to development goals.

“I think we have an opportunity with tech investing for good to make a huge impact this year, and for the next five to 20 years.”

Watch the full interview with IFC Senior Director of Disruptive Technology and Funds Bill Sonneborn.

Watch the full interview with the World Bank Group Director of Digital Development Boutheina Guermazi.

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Learn more about how we are looking for solutions for some of the world’s biggest problems, and submit your solution to the Global Tech Challenge. 
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