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eBay founder puts up R6m to fund SA mobile innovation project

Philanthropic investment firm The Omidyar Network, owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, on Tuesday announced a US$825 000 injection into a South African mobile-focused technology company, the Praekelt Foundation.

The cash injection was made in the name of supporting “pioneering use of mobile technology to drive positive social change”.

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The Omidyar Network is an active investor and, to date, has committed more than US$383-million world-wide to for-profit companies and non-profit organisations. The investment is aimed at companies that “foster economic advancement and encourage individual participation” across various investment niches that include micro-finance, entrepreneurship, property rights, consumer internet, mobile technology and government transparency.

Other well-known investments via Omidyar’s “Consumer Internet and Mobile” arm include Linden Lab (Second Life), Digg, Creative Commons, Seesmic, Meetup and Jimmy Wales’ Wikia.

Over the last two years, the firm has also granted more than US$30-million to organisations such as Kenya’s Ushahidi, Refugees United, Global Voices and FrontlineSMS.

The Praekelt Foundation grant was funded through Omidyar Network’s “Government Transparency” investment arm.

Praekelt said the cash injection will be used to extend the Foundation’s mobile technology platforms across Africa.

“Mobile penetration in Africa has reached the tipping point where over 45% of the population can be reached directly via low-cost mobile channels, enabling truly mass reach,” Gustav Praekelt, the co-founder of the foundation that bares his name, told Memeburn.

Built to take advantage of rapidly growing mobile penetration throughout the continent, these mobile platforms will provide the technological foundation and infrastructure for a variety of initiatives focusing on healthcare, education, human rights and government transparency initiatives.

“Omidyar Network is deeply committed to furthering the use of mobile technology to engage citizens on issues of importance to them, advance economic opportunity, and catalyse positive social impact,” said Stephen King, investment partner at Omidyar Network.

“Praekelt Foundation has been a leader in Africa in providing open source, mobile tools to educate and motivate citizens on crucial issues. Omidyar Network is proud to help extend their successes and apply these tools to advance transparency and accountability across the continent.”

Through its Government Transparency investment area, Omidyar Network invests in organisations that use technology and media platforms to provide access to information and tools necessary for citizens to participate in the governing process, shape outcomes important to them, and hold governments to account.

The Praekelt Foundation said it looks at projects that use “low-cost technologies in a novel way to drive down the cost of interaction thus enabling us to reach audiences at the base of the pyramid”.

Such projects include “Please Call Me’s” for social impact messaging (Project Masiluleke); Ushahidi’s application for crowd-sourced information to ensure free and fair elections in Kenya or critical disaster relief in Haiti; or Integrating information portals into the “operator deck” to provide zero cost information to users (Young Africa Live).

In October, Omidyar Network and Hivos announced the creation of the Africa Transparency and Technology Initiative, an investment fund that supports the incubation of technology-driven initiatives in Africa that give citizens the tools to hold their governments to account.

Praekelt emphasised that the grant was “about the potential for the institutional growth and expansion”.

“Praekelt Foundation strives to be a leading mobile technology incubator for tools and services that benefit the poor. We believe this relationship with Omidyar Network will bring us closer to achieving this goal — both in Africa and in other emerging markets.”

Apart from designing and implementing new mobile tools, the Praekelt Foundation works in close partnership with NGOs and governments to help them reach their constituencies.

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