Billions of people are living in poverty, dying from hunger and preventable diseases, and struggling to stay alive amidst violence and war. Traditionally, global leaders assumed the only way to help was through short-term humanitarian aid and by fostering political and economic development over the long term. Over the last century, this strategy has both helped and failed billions of people.
Here at Singularity, we are seeing something different: the first group of innovators living in extreme poverty and war zones are now creating successful companies and organizations despite their circumstances. The world has now reached a tipping point of digital saturation where innovators can still access cutting-edge technologies, communities, and customers online despite what is happening in their physical environment. Both humanitarians and traditional investors need to pay attention, as these innovators will be key drivers in solving social problems and driving economic development.
Extreme Innovator 1: The Refugee as CEO
In 2016, one of our Singularity alums, Hla Hla Win, co-founded 360ed, one of the first ed tech companies in Myanmar. In a country stricken by deep poverty and a broken education system, Hla Hla grew 360ed into a successful business serving hundreds of thousands of children as well as creating local jobs. When the war broke out in Myanmar, Hla Hla went into hiding and had to flee the country.
While just a few years ago, it would have meant a certain end to her work, instead something incredible happened. Because 360ed designed their educational resources to work offline, hundreds of thousands of children continued to learn despite the war and pandemic completely shutting down the school system.
Even more remarkably, 360ed released a new product, re-established their company as a global entity, and doubled their students even as their co-founders and staff were literally on the run. Despite the chaos around them, digital technologies allowed them to expand their services at a time when children needed them even more than ever.
Extreme Innovator 2: We Have No Roof or Windows, but We Have Artificial Intelligence
Brainy Swaibu is SingularityU Kampala’s Global Chapter Ambassador and founder of Spectrum Transformative Services, an educational organization serving local youth and refugees living in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement deep in the jungle on the Uganda-Congo border. Brainy’s classroom was recently destroyed by a storm, and it has taken months to raise the money to repair the building.
Despite the circumstances. Brainy has intermittent access to electricity and the internet, and now, like everyone else in the world, access to generative AI. This has been game-changing for Brainy and his students. Brainy is using ChatGPT as a teaching assistant, a strategic planner, a grant writer, a marketing director, a partnership director, and an all-around assistant.
In the classroom, Brainy will teach a lesson in person and then have the students huddle around his battery-charged laptop and learn the same lesson from an AI. Afterward, he talks with them about their experience, also teaching them how to properly use AI and, more broadly, digital literacy.
Brainy is also using his team of AIs to carry out his moonshot. He wants to launch a digital innovation center at his school, where his students and local refugees can learn about advanced technologies through partnerships with local and international tech companies and build companies creating solutions for clean energy, water, food, healthcare, and more.
Brainy then wants to scale his solution, transforming refugee settlements around the world into universities and innovation centers. While Brainy lacks a good building, reliable electricity, and money, he has a global vision, a top-notch team of human and AI collaborators, and a plan to change the world.
Extreme Innovator 3: I Need to Walk My Dog Before the Bombing Strikes
Igor Novikov is SingularityU Kyiv’s Global Chapter Ambassador, an advisor to President Zelensky, a frequent guest on Deadline: White House, and a key team member for a collaboration Singularity hosted to help Ukrainian amputees access free high-tech bionic arms. Traditionally, wars meant isolation and economic collapse, but Igor and millions of other Ukrainians have managed to continue their work despite the chaos around them.
While a key reason for the continued work includes access to the internet, there are other technologies also helping. One time Igor sent a note to me and my Singularity colleagues stating he needed to postpone a meeting as his app was warning him there would be a bombing soon, and he wanted to walk his dog before things got too noisy. While the situation isn’t exactly ideal, Igor and tens of thousands of others are still able to work and lead at the highest levels, often working from their bomb shelters.
The World Has Changed
According to traditional thinking, Hla Hla, Brainy, and Igor should not exist. The humanitarian sector believes that a person should not try to innovate until after they have escaped extreme poverty, war, or whatever ailment they are facing. Similarly, the traditional business and investment sector believes it is too risky to invest in or hire a person in such circumstances.
Yet, against all odds, we are seeing these unlikely innovators (and likely thousands more that we do not yet know about) succeed. This success is grounded in the rapid spread of new technologies. As more and more people have access to the internet and decentralized energy, they also have access to artificial intelligence, digital banking and financial technologies, their customers and communities, and tools that can provide warnings or other assistance to help keep them safe.
These changes mean that humanitarian organizations and investors also need to change the way we are seeing the world and behaving. We need to shift our mindsets from viewing these innovators as charity cases to instead seeing them as talented innovators who will come up with unique and powerful solutions that will work precisely because they were crafted at the heart of their challenge: 360ed’s educational solutions are actually purchased by customers in war zones because they were designed in the midst of a war and actually work. That is the beauty of the product. If Hla Hla had waited until things were more stable, there would be no product.
In 2006, Mohammed Yunis was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for creating the Grameen Bank and the concept of microfinance. Yunis believed that poor, rural women living in extreme poverty could uplift themselves out of poverty and contribute to the economy. In the 1980s, when Yunis started his work, everyone else viewed these same women as charity projects, too high risk for loans, and ultimately, problems and drains on the economy. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Today the microfinance industry is now projected to reach $304 billion in 2026. The problem was not one of money but of our own mindsets blinding us to the possibility of human potential.
Today we are at a similar crossroads. As satellites plaster the skies at an astounding rate, as artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies reach people living in the most vulnerable circumstances, billions of people now finally have the power to participate in the digital economy and society. There is a massive opportunity here for not only these new innovators but the entire world to benefit from their work if we can open our minds to it.