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10 Questions with Khanjan Mehta

Most of us do very constructive things with our phones: We order pizza from Domino’s, make prank phone calls to the Joneses down the street, or sext. But do we use them to solve poverty around the world?

That one is solely on Khanjan Mehta and the WishVast Venture. Curious as to how my personal class-interrupter could be so charitable, I spoke with Mehta, the principal investigator of WishVast, to get the skinny.

Onward State: How does WishVast work?

Khanjan Mehta: From a business or economic self-sustainability viewpoint, WishVast can be considered a business networking start-up. From a sustainable vision standpoint, WishVast helps build trust, optimize resource utilization and supply chains, connect people and expand their social networks, facilitate P2P trade, and help people emerge from poverty. WishVast allows its users to join groups of local relevance to exchange information, meet new people, and build trusting relationships. WishVast users can send text messages to the entire group to advertise themselves, their products or services, or get access to resources. Upon the completion of a transaction over the WishVast network, users can exchange points to rate the quality of their interaction. Over time, these points add up, allowing individuals to quantify their trustworthiness, and leverage that score when meeting new business partners.

OS: Where did the idea for the WishVast project come from?

KM: A multidisciplinary team from Penn State used social network analysis to examine “who you know” social and economic network knowledge systems among rural women agro-entrepreneurs in Northern Tanzania and the role cell phones play within these networks. The study illustrated practical connections between social networks and cell phones in creating sustainable cooperative business models, providing market information, and identifying entrepreneurial champions. The study revealed that 96% of the women agro-entrepreneurs used cell phones for their business and spent about half of their disposable income on cell phone usage. Every day, they made numerous phone calls or sent text messages with the same information to a number of people in their business network. They indicated that they would be profoundly happy if they had access to a “mailing list” of sorts that would enable them to get their message out to as many people as they need for the price of a single text message because it would save them a significant amount of money.

Based on several such interviews, six years of experience working in East Africa, and understanding of social network and trust, I conceptualized the WishVast cell phone-based social networking system.  Since then our team has revisited the field frequently to field-test WishVast systems, collect additional stakeholder input, and to close in on the project’s business plan. A number of students and other faculty members have done a phenomenal job moving WishVast forward.

OS: Where did the name come from?

KM: The word “WishVast” is derived from the Gujarati word “Vishwas”, which means “Trust.” The primary social outcome for this venture is a more trusting environment which fosters social and economic development.

OS: What’s your personal goal of WishVast?

KM: I really really really want to see WishVast function in Kenya and other parts of the world in a sustainable manner. I envision WishVast as a critical tool through which our users will have improved livelihoods, have improved relatedness with a network of entrepreneurs, and have improved human agency.

OS: What does a “principal investigator” do?

KM: The PI is responsible for managing the project, developing the technology, implementing it in various scenarios and fostering partnerships to commercialize the technology. The PI cannot do all of that and hence works with collaborators–faculty and students and external partners–to meet the objectives of the project from a teaching/learning, research and entrepreneurial engagement perspective. The PI is the CEO of a project in the academic environment.

OS: What makes cell phones so important to WishVast?

KM: WishVast is a cell phone-based social networking and trust building system. There are 4.1 billion cell phone users in the world. It is estimated that 97% of the people in Tanzania have access to a cell phone (BBC 2005) and the numbers in Kenya and South Africa are comparable. It has become increasingly common to find farmers, fishermen, and other producers in developing countries using mobile phones, text messaging, and the internet for marketing their products, performing comparison shopping, or coordinating their supply chains.

The cell phone has gone from being a rare, expensive item used by the business elite to a pervasive, low-cost personal item that has become the world’s leading telecommunications technology, with a profound impact on the social connectedness of users. Cell phones are now able to reach people in remote places but lack practical and inexpensive systems to access market information, participate in the market, and maintain, manage, and expand their social networks.

Cell phones help maintain long distance business connections as well as social ties and promote the establishment of new, casual (weak-tie) friendships. Weak social ties may be very beneficial because they lead to new resources and larger networks, in turn, resulting in more opportunities and more money. Attracted by the 4.1 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide, more than thirty start-up companies are developing applications to provide social networking on cell phones for western markets (New York Times 2008). WishVast is an attempt to address the market for cell phone-based social/professional networking applications in the developing world.

OS: What led to the decision to travel to Kenya as opposed to another country?

KM: I have been working in Kenya for the last 6 years and have developed good networks there. Kenya is one of the leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa in terms of cell phone usage and innovative technologies. Kenyans are amazingly entrepreneurial and open-minded, which makes it a pleasure to work with them and pilot WishVast in Kenya.

OS: What organizations help with WishVast?

KM: We have a number of partners in Kenya including the Children and Youth Empowerment Center (CYEC) and Kobe Projects, a technology transfer NGO.

OS: Has WishVast had the results you were hoping for?

KM: We have had tremendous validation, but we are still far from where we need to be. If WishVast makes money or saves money for the users, word-of-mouth spreads like wildfire. Last summer, we were inundated with hundreds of individuals and small businesses that were curious and interested in using WishVast. We kept our group small because we wanted to test the system thoroughly, we did not have the resources to handle more users, and we simply could not afford the thousands of potential text messages.

So we know that we are creating value for our customers and they all love WishVast. However, we really need to develop the final technology very quickly and close in on the business model. This is very doable if we can find the appropriate resources – students with a twinkle in the eye and fire in the belly who want to see WishVast succeed.

OS: How can students get involved in WishVast?

KM: We specifically need programmers and web developers on the WishVast team. However, there are many aspects of WishVast and all students are welcome. We are at a very delicate phase right now. We are partnering with NC State University in implementing WishVast in South Africa in the tourism sector. Other parties have also shown interest. The onus is on us to develop the final technology and get WishVast off-the-ground.

There is a three-credit effort in the spring semester. Students need to sign up for EDSGN 497C (Design for Developing Communities) and EDSGN 452 (Projects in Community Service Engineering), Section 3 (WishVast). Students can always contact me if they have any questions.

About the Author

John Dempsey

John is a Junior majoring in Journalism from Hazleton, PA. He is so awesome that sharks dedicate a week to him.
Likes: Video games, vigilante justice, irony, talking bears, Burt Reynolds, El Chupacabra, coloring books, chainsaws, and Australians.
Dislikes: Zombies, clowns, zombie clowns, turtleneck sweaters, Apple, poor mustache grooming, nuclear winter, Roman architecture, guacamole, robots, LCD TVs, the color yellow, Velcro, ceiling fans, sprinklers, tornadoes, Belgians, squat thrusts, and romantic comedies.

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