Catalina Escobar On MAKAIA’s Mission
The SXSW Community Service Awards occur at 6:00 pm on Monday evening, March 12 at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin. One of the honorees for 2018 is Catalina Escobar from Medellín, Colombia, who is the co-founder of MAKAIA. This non-profit organization strengthens capacity for social development through technology, innovation and international cooperation. The name MAKAIA means “to build” or “to do” in Miskito (an indigenous language from Honduras). This name represents the objective of MAKAIA: to build partnerships and relations oriented to social and economic development. Catalina (at center of the photo above wearing black jacket) spent a few minutes telling us about her experiences and her goals for SXSW 2018.
How will receiving a 2018 SXSW Community Service Award impact you and your work?
With this award, our work can be visible to the world. We will be able to find new partners and donors in order to have greater scope and social impact. We will also learn about others doing similar or complementary things so we can learn, work together and co-create. In addition to this, by attending SXSW for the first time (first time in Austin as well), I will have the opportunity to learn a lot, to meeting people and to networking.
What led you to co-found MAKAIA?
I have always believed that we are all responsible for building a better world and each of us has something to contribute, wherever we are, whatever we do. Also, I always wanted to have my own business, I just never thought that it would be a social business because I used to think that social actions were things that people do on the extra time. I never thought that this would be a full time job. It was also an internal drive to “do something” but also a market opportunity. When I came back to Colombia, after living and working abroad for more than 7 years, I realized that non-profits and social projects needed support with technology and with international cooperation. So that was the market opportunity that I saw and led me to found MAKAIA. MAKAIA means to build or to construct, in Miskito, which is an indigenous language from Honduras.
What can you tell us about the overall ecosystem for technology and startups in Colombia and Medellín?
Is very dynamic. Medellín used to be the most violent city in the world and now is a hub for innovation. We have gotten this far thanks to the entrepreneurial drive that is very common in Medellín, great public policies and a very dynamic social and private sector.
What would you say are the top issues facing Colombia regarding use of information and communications technology?
We have several issues that limit the potential of technology. Contents: there are not enough relevant contents, apps and tools in Spanish. Adoption: digital skills are still a challenge and are key to build a digital society that uses technology for development. Unfortunately is very common to see initiatives that just give away computers or tablets, but don’t provide the skills to use them. Connectivity: most urban areas in Colombia are connected but once you go to rural areas, there are a lot of challenges. There are areas that are not connected at all. On the positive side, the peace process is a great opportunity to solve these issues. At MAKAIA, we are doing projects in those 3 fields (contents, adoption and connectivity).
MAKAIA’s work is based on two pillars, Technology for Social Change and International Cooperation and Partnerships. Regarding the second, it is your experience that the world is moving closer to or further from the spirit of international cooperation?
I think is both depending on the context, countries and region. International cooperation has existed forever but has evolved over time. There are more and more reasons to cooperate, to learn from others, to share knowledge and resources. But at the same time there many countries that are closing their borders. Other countries have so many internal challenges that decide to focus on that before cooperating with others.
You spent six years working at the World Bank building web-related collaboration and knowledge sharing. Could you share a success story and your greatest frustration?
When I worked at the Development Gateway (when it was being led by the World Bank), I led a network of more than 10 initiatives in Latin America that in the early 2000s was thinking how internet could drive development. I think we were forward thinkers and many of the things we did and led then, are still applicable today. I am also very happy to say that many of the people I met during those years, are now partners of MAKAIA. My greatest frustration is that I think the Development Gateway did it’s spin off too early and many of us didn’t finish or did all the things we wanted to do.
Your organization is involved with a huge number of projects, from promotion of responsible digital lifestyle to increasing connectivity in rural areas for coffee growers and addressing the monitoring of air quality in Colombia. What are your top priorities for MAKAIA for 2018?We need to design a sustainability model for the rural connectivity project for coffee growers. Right now is financed by Lavazza Foundation as part of their inclusive business initiative, but at some point it needs to be self-sustainable. We need to find a way that we can still provide contents, connectivity and digital skills with a social business model behind it. We need to imprive the way we manage knowledge. MAKAIA is based on knowledge and we need to improve the way is organized, shared, managed and used. We are going through a leadership change in MAKAIA. I am no-longer the Executive Director because MAKAIA was mature enough to have someone else managing it. We hired an amazing Executive Director and my role as co-founder is to design the long term sustainability plan for MAKAIA. Part of this is to create a for-profit business that can help MAKAIA continue being self-sustainable.
If you had to pick your three greatest successes at MAKAIA so far, what would they be?
First, transforming an idea into a sustainable organization that has served thousands of non-profits and social projects in Latin America. Second, being able to build a great team of more than 30 people, having a great Board and great partners. We have always believed that we can’t do everything by ourselves. Third would be creating www.Nodoka.co. In 2013 I led the development of www.nodoka.co, a data and information driven initiative to promote resource mobilization, knowledge sharing and effectiveness in social sector. There are more than 3000 organizations registered in Nodo Ká and using our online contents and tools.
Can you tell us about some lessons you have learned from your work in Colombia that are applicable to the global audience?
Technology needs to close social gaps and not digital gaps. What I mean by this is that technology needs to promote social, economic, cultural development, etc. Is not about just providing devices and connectivity. ICT adoption, contents and connectivity need to go together. We need to teach “uses” of technology and not tools. Technology drives development when we stop thinking about the devices and we start thinking what people “do” with them. We always need to identify what people will use technology for, how it will help them solve their issues, learn, and at the end, how it will change their lifes. A farmer has different technology needs than a teacher. It can be the same technology but the uses are different. We need to be very careful about the way we promote technology, it needs to be equitable, otherwise it can increase gaps. For it to be equitable needs to reach all regions, be affordable, accessible and relevant. We can’t do this alone! All sectors have their role and we need to engage in public-private-social partnerships.
Can you tell us about some of the sessions at SXSW 2018 you’re most excited about attending?
I am looking forward to the sessions related to Social Impact, Intelligent Future, plus Code & Programing, because are the ones mostly related to our work. This will allow me to see new things, trends and get inspired. I am also very curious with all sessions related to blockchain, because there is so much information and talk about it, that I really want to learn if and how, it can also be used for social impact. In general, I am interested in sessions that will help me think and envision how technology can drive development and decrease current development gaps.
Read more about the SXSW Community Service Awards via this interview with Teresa Sansone Ferguson, the emcee for this year’s event. Entry to this event at the Driskill Hotel on the evening of Monday, March 12 is FREE — you do NOT need a badge to attend.
Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, the world’s most unique gathering of creative professionals. He also tries to write at least four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts often cover tech-related trends; other times they focus on books, pop culture, sports and other current events.