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UNICEF to fund local tech startup

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has announced that it will sink funds into a Cambodia-based tech startup as part of an initiative that uses venture capital to develop open-source technology solutions that improve connectivity, real-time data collection, identity technology and learning.

UNICEF’s $11.2 million Innovation Fund will invest $92,000 in Chatterbox Dating Mobile, or Chibi. The funds aim at integrating the tech company’s software into the UN agency’s RapidPro Platform, “allowing less-literate populations to inexpensively access content without needing to read text messages”, UNICEF said in a press release.

Chibi founder Dave Wilke said yesterday the funding will allow the company, whose flagship product was a rural dating app, to focus on developing new platforms.

“We previously developed an SMS chat service, which is still in use, but now our company mainly focuses on providing Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and SMS solutions,” he said. “The goal of the project is to break down the economic and accessibility barriers to building telephony applications.”

Wilke said the same technology used to create Chibi’s dating app had already been applied by various humanitarian projects.

“[The technology] is already being used in a project related to maternal health by the NGO People In Need,” he said, explaining that the project allows new mothers to become registered with UNICEF and receive a weekly IVR phone call with general health information.

He said that there were many other commercial applications for which the technology could be applied, such as by banks to deliver SME or IVR verification codes to customers, or by marketing firms to deliver advertising.

Wilke noted that once the technology is open-source it could spread quickly throughout Cambodia’s business and development community.

“By releasing all the technology as open source, we hope to get as many companies and organisations as possible using it and build a sustainable business on providing solutions around the technology,” he said.

According to UNICEF, the venture capital approach to tech funding allows the agency to “quickly assess, fund and scale open-source solutions that have been developed by companies in new and emerging markets”.

“UNICEF has adopted some of the successful features of venture capital approaches to shape the Innovation Fund. These include the focus on early stage investments, a portfolio approach and the selection criteria for investment,” said UNICEF spokeswoman Iman Morooka.

She added that Chatterbox met all of the mandatory requirements to build on tech-based solutions, including submitting in-depth technical and financial proposals while having developed a prototype that can generate public, real-time measurable data.

“The aim of the Innovation Fund investment is to support technologies and solutions that will help advance children’s rights and improve their lives by supporting communities of problem-solvers in creating products that can be repurposed, adapted, and scaled,” she explained.

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