Frustrated by the tendency of iNGOs to emphasize project delivery over cultivation of local expertise, Sonja has created a new approach to ensure that those with lived experience in and knowledge of local context in the Majority World drive the design and implementation of technology rich solutions to local problems.
Note. While the Ashoka Fellowship celebrates the innovation and impact of systems-changing social entrepreneurs, we recognise that co-creation and collaboration are important to a Fellow’s success. Therefore, when Sonja's name is credited below, it often represents her, her Co-Founder colleagues Patrick Meier and Andrew Schroeder, the bright and indispensable team members of WeRobotics, as well as the hundreds of highly talented and deeply generous local experts that make up the diverse world of the Flying Labs Network.
The New Idea
Sonja has developed a new framework to ensure that local experts across the Majority World have the know-how and power to drive technology-rich solutions to developmental challenges their local communities care about most. This Inclusive Network model intentionally limits the power footprint of iNGOs by cultivating respect for the ‘power of local’, and by convening national and regional actors committed to the same work in a shared governance and implementation model.
Having worked in large organizations, startups, and in the humanitarian and tech for good sectors for more than 25 years, Sonja launched her model’s first iteration, the Flying Labs Network, in 2016. Local demand in Nepal, Tanzania, and Peru for better access to drone and AI technology set things in motion. WeRobotics then helped to convene local organizations, universities, and research centers in these first 3 countries as “knowledge and collaboration spaces” for drone use for positive social impact. Sonja and her colleagues enabled technology transfer through training in drones and data collection. They also convened donors and technology partners to support locally selected and administered projects. The success of these very first Flying Labs soon led to demand for the same in many other countries. Since 2018 and playing the role of “network implementer and facilitator”, WeRobotics has enabled the creation of the Flying Labs Network and another 30 Flying Labs across Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Flying Labs are independent and demand driven. They decide together with local partners when and how to apply technology to address local challenges related to the SDGs. More than 220 local experts and 175 local partners across the Network are now engaging both private and public sector organizations to implement these locally generated and/or administered projects. The network continues to grow organically at a constant pace.
Sonja acknowledges that ideas similar to the Flying Labs Network - and the Inclusive Network model powering it - have emerged in the tech for good sector. But their focus has been mainly on the ‘what’ – i.e., access to technology – rather than on the ‘who’. Sonja’s model is unique in how it cultivates respect for agency and lived experience in local contexts and offers a blueprint for catalyzing and expanding local expertise. WeRobotics plays a part in supporting local experts to upskill and gain access to knowledge, opportunities, technology, and contacts, but all Flying Labs are independent and locally led. Flying Labs have started to facilitate knowledge transfer across the network, completely independent of WeRobotics. India Flying Labs leads a masterclass for other Flying Labs on advanced drone use. Panama Flying Labs convenes regional conferences for the sharing of best practices across the Latin American network. And WeRobotics itself is already planning its exit as facilitator in the next four years. The Inclusive Network model is therefore starting to shift what ‘aid’ looks like in the Majority World, and Sonja’s prolific writing and speeches on the topic are starting to get attention from colleagues at other iNGOs, the UN, World Bank, International Red Cross, and WEF.
Traditionally, iNGOs based in the global north have neither prioritized listening to local experts in the Majority World nor enabled them to build local capacity and acquire technology to address challenges that they consider most pressing for their own communities. These iNGOs have instead focused largely on project and aid delivery that, while honoring organizational missions aligned with noble goals, do little to ensure that local populations acquire power and resources. The UNICEF Office of Innovation, for example, delivers projects in the Majority World based on their mission to use technology to help more children live better lives. While noble, that focus does not ensure that local communities build capacity to sustain improvements and address future challenges on their own. This results in focus on what is delivered to communities in need and, at times, how that support is delivered. Moreover, iNGOs’ focus on central planning, supply chains, and provisions is problematic. It sustains Western-based bureaucracies, emphasis on technology over local experts, and outdated thinking about who is best placed to solve problems.
Sonja witnessed these problems first-hand while working in South America and Africa for five years. International organizations, she recalls, “were always about the projects, not the people.” This tends to reinforce colonial narratives by delivering help rather than cultivating local expertise and control. Sonja also learned while establishing one of the first Flying Labs in Nepal that in the wake of the 2015 earthquake there, international organizations started using drones to acquire data on how best to manage recovery without consulting with local communities first. Limited familiarity with drones meant their unexpected use frightened many, which only added to local communities’ stress at such a difficult time. Inadequate attention to the communities themselves meant iNGOs’ focus solely on a technological solution was, in fact, harmful.
Sonja has expanded the reach and impact of local experts in the Majority World by implementing replicable Inclusive Network architecture as demonstrated by the Flying Labs Network, facilitating the transfer of opportunities and existing projects to Flying Labs, and initiating dialogue with iNGOs about their power footprints and steps they should take to reduce them.
Specific roles, responsibilities and frameworks create Network architecture that is easily replicable and transferable. To start a Flying Labs, for example, a local organization, academic institution, or research center that has already demonstrated interest and a track record in the application of drones, AI, and data for positive social impact and wishes to set up a local knowledge and collaboration space will approach WeRobotics, which is the Flying Labs Network’s implementer and facilitator. WeRobotics then conducts an evaluation process, a multi-step process including an evaluation by an existing Flying Labs operating in the same geographical region as the applicant. Once the application is vetted, WeRobotics then licenses the hub as a member of the Flying Labs Network. This license is reviewed and renewed annually for a nominal fee. WeRobotics engages international and regional tech partners such as hardware, software, and platform companies from the drone and GIS sectors to provide the new Flying Lab with access to their technology. These tech partners can then learn about the extent to which their own technologies fit with local context. Flying Labs also recruits additional actors such as Civil Aviation Authorities, academic institutions, and civil society organizations to collaborate with and support it locally. Local clients are recruited, as well, to help generate income. Senegal and Panama Flying Labs support the work of municipal governments, for example. This incremental, locally driven cultivation of an ecosystem provides the Flying Labs more robust support and opportunities. WeRobotics has facilitated the growth of a global network of more than 30 Flying Labs through a franchise model. It incorporates feedback loops into yearly license renewal calls to ensure that it is honoring its commitment to facilitating rather than running the Inclusive Network. This preserves the ‘local first’ approach at the heart of Sonja’s model.
WeRobotics transfers opportunities and projects to local experts rather than administer them themselves. As such, Sonja’s organization is creating an example for how other iNGOs can and should act to ensure that local expertise is cultivated. Between 2019 and 2021, the Inclusive Network model has enabled the transfer of nearly 346 project opportunities from iNGOs and international companies to Flying Labs. The Flying Labs have also implemented 117 of their own projects during this period and partnered with 187 local organizations. They have hosted 60 knowledge-sharing events to strengthen the local ecosystem and trained more than 2,500 professionals locally on integrating drones in their own work. Uganda Flying Labs is training university students in the use of drones in agriculture. Bangladesh Flying Labs is training disaster management personnel on drones use to strengthen their impact. And nearly 75% of the Flying Labs network engages local youth in the use of drones through STEM learning workshops. All the while, WeRobotics has transferred 45% of its revenue to Flying Labs. Updated numbers can be found at werobotics.org/impact.
More than 200 local leaders across the Flying Labs Network are independently using their expertise to lead projects they themselves have chosen to implement. Women make up 26% of the Network – double the industry average. Flying Labs are also building local capacity from the ground up. In Ethiopia, for example, there are currently no government regulations relating specifically to drone use. There is also no local actor to cultivate a drones and AI ecosystem. An organization there, the latest applicant for a Flying Labs currently in the evaluation process, aims to use its partnerships to build up demand for drones and AI across the country. Local experts are therefore leading change.
The Inclusive Network model ensures that solutions to developmental challenges are generated and administered locally rather than in Geneva or New York. iNGOs that act as network implementer and facilitator, as WeRobotics does for the Flying Labs Network, commit to an ‘end game’, or eventual exit from the Network. WeRobotics will leave the Flying Labs Network altogether, for example, handing its implementer and facilitator role to the Flying Labs themselves. A number of iNGOs are in ongoing conversations with WeRobotics about how to transition to an Inclusive Network approach. Successful implementation will offer another proof point for other iNGOs. Sonja has sent out proposals to support the launch of three more Inclusive Networks in 2022: one with an industry leader in GIS software, one with a network organization supporting innovation centers across Africa, and one with a US-based foundation integrating data science in the social good space in the Majority World. WeRobotics shares detailed reports and concept notes with iNGOs and others to highlight their learnings on Inclusive Networks and localization. Its Shift the Power Strategy is also engaging other iNGOs in conversation about how best to measure reductions in their power footprints across the Majority World. Sonja and her colleagues have shared five preliminary metrics and made an open call for iNGOs to join them in refining and adopting them.
Sonja’s personal philosophy is that life doesn’t happen to us unless we consciously choose inaction. Our choices give us agency over how situations unfold. It is little surprise that her favorite quote, by American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, reads: “Great dreams begin with the dreamer.”
Sonja remembers always wanting to be an entrepreneur when she was young, and she set her mind to developing patience, fortitude, and passion. She credits her parents for giving her the courage to ask ‘why’ and actively step up for inequality and discrimination, even though this comes with certain risks, especially in conservative communities as the one in which she grew up and that wasn’t receptive to challenges to the status quo.
Sonja used these learnings when, at the age of 18, she and her best friend chose not to put up with a teacher’s verbal abuse towards women that had gone unchecked over time. They came up with a solution that they proposed to the teacher, but it fell on deaf ears, and because that teacher and the school head were good friends, Sonja and her classmate were expelled for making trouble. Sonja’s parents both supported her decision to challenge that expulsion by going to the school board. An enquiry ensued. Both the headteacher and the teacher in question would be dismissed, and Sonja and her classmate returned to school. Sonja points to this challenging experience as one of the first times she realized the importance of both power and lived experience. She and her best friend had experienced the verbal abuse and took risks to act on it at school. They would overcome that power imbalance to make positive and impactful change.
After her various studies, Sonja’s entrepreneurialism and skill at design thinking earned her multiple professional opportunities. She was at the height of her career 15 years ago when, while traveling in Namibia, she was in a serious car accident. It left her in dire health, and she was forced to spend many months at home to heal. She took the opportunity to take stock of her life and decided she wanted to follow a new path. She wanted a job that was more meaningful. She started to do yoga to help with her recovery and remains a disciplined practitioner to this day.
After having been dealt a second serious health scare shortly after, Sonja felt like she had been given two chances to make big changes in her own life. She felt emboldened and decided to act. She ended a long-term relationship and left her job. She soon had the opportunity to set up operations for a new French philanthropy endeavour for conservation efforts in Brazil, Botswana, and Tanzania. The organization built local teams to help carry out its projects. That experience, which showed Sonja both the promise and perils of iNGOs working in the Majority World, would set her down the path of WeRobotics. She witnessed that European ways of doing things didn’t translate elsewhere, and that while talent is distributed equally across borders and continents, opportunities are not. Motivated by her firm belief that ‘humility hasn’t killed anyone’, Sonja would then develop a new framework that honors local skill, builds local capacity, and pushes iNGOs to give up power so that the ‘power of local’ expertise could flourish.