A Computer Engineer's Unlikely Impact Journey from Pakistan to Sierra Leone

Usman’s gumption and diligent use of our courses have helped him win competitions, get an unlikely job, and set him up for a longer-term career in making a difference.

January 22, 2015

Usman Khaliq is one of +Acumen’s most diligent students. He has signed up for at least 19 +Acumen courses and completed 10 so far. More importantly, Usman applies the lessons from these courses to make a difference in his community. And thanks to the +Acumen community, his life took an unexpected twist; Usman is currently helping to seed the civic tech movement in Sierra Leone.

In the spring of 2015, Usman Khaliq graduated from the GIK Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology, a private research university located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. As his friends accepted software development jobs or management positions in multinational companies, Usman sat down with his mother in their kitchen and told her: “I’m moving to Sierra Leone.”

Usman had grown up in relative comfort in Pakistan. “I never faced as many economic hardships as many people in my country do,” he says. He had gotten a good education and come from a stable home. “Yet, I felt this disconnect between how the middle class was progressing and how the rest of the country was still living in dire poverty.” 

He first came across the idea of using technology for social development while studying engineering in university. Then he read about Acumen and realized that there were various companies and people working in this social impact space. “I knew that Pakistan was a poor country and I wanted to do something that could move people out of poverty. If you look at any economic indicator right now, Pakistan is nowhere near close to the level of development that it should be at. I believe that people who have technology and engineering skills should do something to change this.”

In 2014, during his final university year, Usman took the course on Human-Centered Design offered by +Acumen and IDEO.org. It changed his world view. “At our university, we heard about design thinking, but it was never taught,” he says. “The closest thing we learned was basic web design and basic notions about UI and UX. When I took the +Acumen course, I realized the importance of going out and talking to customers, and ideating and prototyping with your users in mind.”

His appetite for learning about the social impact space grew as he took more +Acumen courses: Making Sense of Social ImpactFinancial Modeling for the Social SectorMarketing at the Bottom of the PyramidMarket Segmentation, and Scaling Repeatable Models. He put his new knowledge into practice when he joined a team of university students to develop a marketing strategy for a water purification technology; the strategy won an award in the Unilever Talent Hunt and was one of the top 6 ideas presented to Unilever’s senior management team in Pakistan.

With this project, Usman got featured in one of +Acumen’s newsletters which caught the attention of Joe Abass Bangura and Salton Massally, two emerging leaders in scaling technology solutions for social change in West Africa. Their work with UNDP during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone enabled international donors’ funds to be converted into mobile money so that 47,000 frontline responders to the ebola crisis could be paid; they got awarded the prestigious 2016 Responsible Business Award.

Joe and Salton were looking for a new research and development lead for their team at iDTLabs when they read about Usman’s project. “If I just had an engineering degree, I don’t think they would have considered me,” Usman says. “But the fact that I took a human-centered design course and had been spotlighted by +Acumen made them realize that I had commitment to the social issues they were working on and, even more importantly, I could bring familiarity with a methodology and design process they valued.” So they offered Usman the job.

Despite his family’s and friends’ concerns about the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Usman took the leap and boarded a flight to Freetown. After just five months of living there, he picked up enough basics in the local Creole language and was using it to run human-centered design focus groups and prototyping sessions.

He ran the human-centered design process for the development of two major projects at iDT Labs: one is a mobile application that connects patients to doctors via interactive voice recordings (IVR) so that people have a reliable source of medical advice; the other is a project that seeks to ‘Uberize’ mobile money so that people in unbanked areas of West Africa can become mobile money operators, giving those around them access to the financial system.

Using human-centered design methodology regularly, Usman realized that, no matter how many times he applies it, he always learns something new. “When we wanted to run through how the app would connect people across West Africa to qualified doctors, we built cardboard prototypes first. Then we mocked up basic wireframes and tested them with close to 90 people. When you actually talk to people, a lot of preconceived notions get thrown out the window,” he adds.

“Originally we thought that because so many people in Sierra Leone have feature phones and Whatsapp is so popular, they would want to use SMS to text their doctors. But we quickly realized that most people were not comfortable sending sensitive health information via text. Without prototyping and talking directly to end-users, we never would have learned this so quickly.”

“Due to the +Acumen human-centered design course, I am able to apply this approach directly to the work we’re doing in Sierra Leone. It helps our startup think through the right processes right from the get-go,” Usman adds. “Without the +Acumen courses, I feel I wouldn't have other ways to access learning opportunities about social entrepreneurship.”

Beyond the ‘doing’, Usman is becoming an advocate for human-centered design. He is currently working with iDT and Code for Africa to develop the ‘Code for Sierra Leone’ chapter; its mission is to encourage the use of technology to bring about social and economic change in the country. The chapter already held two events this year to help programmers collectively hack five promising social impact project ideas. Eventually, Usman would like to tackle problems of poverty back home, in Pakistan, but his impact has already been global.

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