HOME > ENGLISH > INTERVIEW > What We Need to Face in Order to Combat Poverty around the World Toshi Nakamura Co-founder and CEO of Kopernik, a non-profit rganization


What We Need to Face in Order to Combat Poverty around the World
Toshi Nakamura
Co-founder and CEO of Kopernik, a non-profit rganization

There are a great number of people in the world who are affected by poverty.
There are children in the world who can’t attend school because they need to make countless long trips every day to secure enough water.
Many mothers making far less than enough can only hold their children tightly as they face grinding poverty.
The cruel realities of poverty around the world can hardly be imagined by those living in Japan and other developed nations.
As the CEO of Kopernik, the non-profit organization he co-founded, Toshi Nakamura is working to alleviate the problems posed by poverty through internet fundraising.
We caught up with him recently to ask him about his vision for the future of his work.

The first time that Nakamura saw for himself the poverty in developing countries was during his work for the UN. He had come into contact with developing countries in connection with development official development assistance (ODA), which normally comes in the form of loans from one government to another. Three and a half years ago, Nakamura left his position at the UN to begin a new challenge..
“I really felt that there was something missing from the efforts being made by the United Nations,” Nakamura explains. When it comes down to it, ODA loans are basically about compromises between governments. The details of the support are worked out between the diplomats who meet and talk with each other. Because these conversations are limited to those who are directly in charge of the decisions, it includes nothing of the perspective of the “ordinary people,” the poor who will actually be affected in those countries. This makes trying anything new to solve the problems in developing countries difficult, and as a result the support rarely makes it all the way to those ordinary people living in poverty.
“In order to truly solve poverty, there have to be alternative systems. Then we have to be able to deliver what the people actually need,” he says.
These were Nakamura’s thoughts in setting up Kopernik, the non-profit organization intended to create a new system that connects NGOs in developing countries, the companies and universities that have the technologies people in those countries need, and third-party donors through the internet.


Kopernik’s launch was far from smooth, however. “Up until that point, I had been working on the basis of the trust that people put in the UN. With Kopernik, there were hurdles we had to overcome even in seeking donations,” Nakamura says.


Understanding local needs through communication with residents
From Kopernik’s offices in Ubud

First of all, they had to make a serious effort to raise their level of name recognition. In order to do so, Nakamura saw no other way than to build up a record of achievements and results. In the short three and a half years since its founding, Kopernik has successfully completed nearly 60 projects, from the launch of each one, to the search for sponsors, to seeing through the steps on the ground to bring to over 90,000 people in 11 developing countries technologies that will change their lives for the better. Each of these projects has been able to bring real assistance to the “ordinary people” in the developing world.
“Some of the most popular ones with local residents are solar lights, water filters, and portable cooking stoves,” says Nakamura. These are tools for lighting up their days, purifying life-sustaining water, and preparing food. Technologies that satisfy these needs are indispensable in their everyday lives. The technological solutions to these needs made possible by Kopernik dramatically benefit the lives of the people who receive them.
“By bringing solar lights to a remote village in East Timor, we’ve been able to improve people’s lives. Children can now study even after dark, and adults are able to do work at night to generate extra income. Most people in that village were buying kerosene every month to use for lighting, so they have been delighted that solar lights can be charged up using sunlight, and become even more cost effective the longer they are used.”

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that local residents always fully embrace all of the products that are made available to them through Kopernik's projects. Even though these projects are partially funded by donations in order to adjust the price to one that is suited to the local market, the local residents are still consumers and as such have their own preferences and opinions about the products and technologies.
“For example, the type of water purifier we had initially introduced used ultraviolet rays to eliminate bacteria, but it was really unpopular when we demonstrated it for the local residents. When we let them try another type of purifier from a different manufacturer, they were satisfied. One major point here is that there’s no way to know what will work without actually taking it to the people who will use it and letting them try it out.”

Knowing what is needed

On March 11, 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck Japan.
Nakamura, who just happened to be in Tokyo on business right when the disaster hit, got in touch with people at the disaster site to ask if there was anything that Kopernik could do to help. “Looking at the list of things that were needed, we saw that portable lights and batteries were included. We realized that with lifelines severed, the victims of the disasters faced a lack of lighting.”
Kopernik immediately put together a shipment of solar lights and sent them to the disaster areas. This is the type of aid for the victims of natural disasters that Kopernik provides in addition to its other projects. In the case of Japan’s recent disasters, the goods were paid for completely by donations. Even after concluding the donation of aid goods to the disaster areas, some of the same technologies were also sold in Tokyo and in other places outside of the disaster areas in response to emergency needs. “Solar lighting like this is a truly simple technology, but it has proven to be extremely powerful.”
In Japan, there is a tendency to think that only technologies that use electricity or that are complicated to operate can be considered beneficial or on the “cutting edge.” In actuality, however, “low-tech” technologies can be even more beneficial (which is to say, useful) in these situations.
It turned out, however, that when the time to deal with disaster actually came, what was needed was something even simpler.“The reason that we at Kopernik were able to respond so immediately to those disasters is that the conditions at the time in the disaster areas where lifelines had been cut off were very much the same as conditions in poor villages in the developing world. Kopernik was able to respond without delay because of its familiarity with exactly these conditions,” Nakamura explains.

Kopernik also serves as a consultant to many of the large numbers of businesses that are interested in new markets in the developing world. The most important thing for them to understand in those situations is how completely different the environments in those places are from that of Japan. “We want to start by getting them to understand local needs. We really want them to challenge themselves to actually go to these places and see those needs first-hand.” In order to distribute technologies to these kinds of developing countries, Nakamura is trying to establish “technology stores.” “There are already small shops in rural parts of developing countries where daily items like shampoo are sold. By setting out samples from different companies in such shops, those businesses are gaining a more detailed understanding of local needs and using these shops as logistical bases,” he says.
“Alleviating poverty is very important, of course. Still, when the work to do so starts and ends with charity, the effects of that work are neither spread nor sustained. This type of experimentation leads to a greater understanding of the needs in the developing world generally. In other words, rather than just alleviating poverty, this kind of work leads to opportunities for the creation of new markets.”

Toward simplicity

The things that are most essential to understanding the needs of local people and reliably providing solutions are building trust-based relationships and maintaining an ongoing exchange with local residents. In Nakamura’s view at least, this is perhaps the smallest of the obstacles Kopernik faces in its work.
“We’re all human beings, so there’s no reason that we shouldn’t be able to come together and understand each other. We all recognize when we’ve been slighted and when we’ve been helped. If we can understand each other’s religion and culture, there shouldn’t be any problems.”
Through graduate school and wide travels abroad in conjunction with his post-grad endeavors, Nakamura’s belief that there is no reason human beings shouldn't be able to understand one another has grown continually stronger. It is exactly this kind of motivation that has carried Nakamura through his studies and his work throughout the world that leads to real change in the world.

Where is the wellspring of energy that Nakamura draws upon to sustain the challenge of eradicating poverty?
“The thing I look forward to most these days is spending time with my daughter, who just turned two,” he answered.
Now that he lives across the street from Kopernik’s headquarters in Ubud, Indonesia, Nakamura says that he goes home to have lunch and see his daughter. Quiet time spent playing and reading books with his young daughter fulfills him.
“As often as we take on new challenges, there are always factors that exceed our estimates. Still, even that holds a certain interest of its own. Other than that, I exercise and make sure to eat and sleep well, because all of that’s important, too.”
Nakamura’s way of living is as powerful as it is simple.



Toshihiro Nakamura

Co-founder and CEO of Kopernik, a non-profit organization

After receiving a law degree from Kyoto University and a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Nakamura worked at McKinsey and Company among other places before working in development planning at the United Nations. Throughout all of that, his work has been based in areas as varied as East Timor, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, New York, and Geneva. Using all of that experience, in 2010 Nakamura co-founded Kopernik, which is currently headquartered in Ubud, Indonesia.


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