David Shields is the co-founder of GEM Project, an organization based in South Africa that uses a mobile payments platform to reward volunteer service in local communities. Through an easy-to-use mobile interface or USSD technology, users can browse local opportunities, and sign-up to volunteer, all with just a few clicks on their mobile phone. In return for their service, volunteers earn “GEMs,” a currency of rewards points equivalent to one South African rand, which can be used to buy goods and services ranging from movie tickets to electricity bills.
The GEM platform (GEM, as in “Going the Extra Mile”) is compelling for users from all parts of the economic spectrum – from high-income professionals looking for volunteer opportunities, to low-income workers looking to supplement their income. And across the whole spectrum, local communities benefit from increased volunteering.
The Background: Establishing a volunteering mobile payments platform in South Africa
Born and raised in South Africa, David studied Journalism and Politics at university, and like many young professionals, his first job out of school was in the digital technology industry. David met his eventual co-founder, Camilo Ramada, through their shared love of acting, a hobby they both pursued in their spare time. Originally from Uruguay, Camilo has spent roughly ten years in mobile payments and has experience implementing payment systems everywhere from Uruguay, Brazil, and the Netherlands to, now, South Africa.
Before Dave and Camilo first conceived of GEM, they spent time discussing both economics and politics in South Africa – including the country’s unemployment rate and wide income disparity. From these conversations, they started to envision a mobile payments platform that would help improve quality of life in South Africa by using people’s free time instead of their disposable income.
“We thought about our target audience for the platform: students, the unemployed, and the elderly, for example. For those populations, time is often a more readily accessible commodity than money.”
Practically, GEM operates through partnerships spanning multiple sectors. Established as a nonprofit organization itself, GEM partners with local nonprofits, NGOs, and other civil society organizations who require volunteers to identify and schedule volunteering opportunities. On the day of the volunteer activity, GEM sends the host organization a group of registered volunteers, and once the event is completed, the host sends the list of attendees back to the GEM administrator, who is able to issue GEM payments within three days. GEM volunteers don’t even need to create an accountthey receive an SMS straight to their phones, click a link, and immediately access the GEM shopping application, where they can spend their hard-earned GEMs in a number of ways.
“As we build out the shopping platform with various goods and services, we try to appeal to every possible user. Volunteers can spend GEMs on gift certificates to high-end retailers and restaurants, but they can also use them for groceries, utilities, and other basic goods. In this way, we’re giving middle- and high-end users a starting place for finding volunteer opportunities, plus additional incentive to go the extra mile. For users who are lower-income, we’re helping them engage in their communities as volunteers in a way that’s more affordable.”
If you’re wondering how all of this is funded, so was I – and that’s where the private sector comes into play. Companies in South Africa are legally required to reinvest a portion of their earnings back into the community through service initiatives, so GEM has partnered with private companies who finance the GEMs as part of their corporate social responsibility activities. Looking ahead, David and Camilo are aiming to partner with a large South African bank in order to increase GEM’s capabilities as a mobile platform, aiming to one day allow users to pay remittances and transfer funds with GEMs earned on the platform.
Looking Back and Looking Ahead: Previous Challenges and the Vision for the Future
In Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile payments platforms and cross-sector partnerships are both key drivers of development. David and Camilo have created a product that rests at the intersection of both, and it is all fueled by charitable giving of time and money. That is quite the innovation, but it took time and commitment to reach this point.
Two years passed between development of the GEM concept and launch of the actual platform. Until David and Camilo were able to secure funding, GEM was just a pipe dream. They were eventually given the opportunity to pitch their idea at a Global Innovation Competition in Kenya, finishing in the top 10 out of several hundred applicants, and earning themselves the investment needed to make that pipe dream a reality.
As of this writing, there are 2,375 active users, 1,946 of whom have earned GEMs, and 15 nonprofit partners are benefiting from their volunteerism. As these numbers continue to grow, David looks forward to scaling GEM’s operations throughout South Africa. Having launched in Johannesburg, they plan to expand to Cape Town, Pretoria, and Durban – and because mobile penetration in Africa is so high, they will look to other African nations once the organization is ready to go international.
Words for the World
For David, much of his motivation behind GEM stems back to “why.” Educated, energetic young professionals could go straight into a well-paid position and never worry about the quality of life of others. He would remind everyone to fight that instinct: it is worth the extra time and effort to build something from scratch that makes the world a better place.