How Happy Accidents Change Small Economies

What role can technology play in addressing the imbalance of trade issues encountered all over the world?

How can everyday people turn their local knowledge into an international business platform that attracts both domestic and international investors? And can this venture be socially responsible and encourage sustainable development?

As the CEO and founder of iSTARRT, the Institute of the Sustainable Transfer of Advanced Renewable Resource Technology, my goal is to transfer cheap, easy-to-replicate green technologies that improve access and use of water, energy, agriculture, architecture and health. This is achieved by using the intelligent designs of resource-constrained yet highly-innovative people who have found ‘life-hacks’ to advance beyond some of their basic development issues.

My organization had been accepted to participate in the phenomenal Changemakers Institute (CI) sponsored by the Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking, a 7-week incubator for Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (SISE) ventures. CI gave me the necessary instruction and instrumentation to develop my ideas as fully as I could, enough at the time to apply for the Changemaker Catalyst Award. As this is a technology transfer company, the plan for Changemaker Catalyst funding was to attend the ELearn Africa conference in Cairo. There, 85% African attendees populate this extraordinary exchange of knowledge and practices including hands-on workshops to perfect the use of digital technology to spur development. The pedagogy of digital storytelling is of special interest for me specifically for overcoming the language barrier across the globe. I was looking for experts in the field and how they have been evolving with the new developments in digital learning.


As fate would have it, this near perfect opportunity to further my social innovation social entrepreneurship training fell short of reality. Essentially the timing for flights, visas and the like was too hurried to make the trip within the budget I had allotted. And I mourned this mistake, but only briefly… I had, at the time, been completing my dissertation titled: ‘Releasing into Conflict Zones: Exploring the Spatial Drivers associated with Urban Insecurity and its Impact on the Reentry of Criminal Offenders released to Insecure Environments in the City of New Orleans’. I had a paper based on the first of three papers in my dissertation accepted for an International Relations Conference focusing on Security. Not just any conference, but the CEEISA-ISA joint conference on Politics of international relations which was held at the Centre of International Relations (CIR) put on as a collaboration with the Central and East European International Studies Association (CEEISA) and International Studies Association (ISA). This conference is one of my all-time favorite convergences of brilliant IR minds who tackle everything from cyber-security to the yielding of power all across the globe. I volunteered at the 2015 conference in New Orleans and got Goosebumps at a number of sessions. The intelligence in the room is palpable. The conference was happening from June 23 to 25 2016 at the University of Ljubljana, in the Faculty of Social Sciences, in Ljubljana, Slovenia and I believed I could use my Changemaker Catalyst funds to kill two birds with one stone.      

I took this as an excellent opportunity to leverage some of the extraordinary contacts I had met through my Taylor Center brokered interaction with the Changemaker Ashoka U conference. CI offered us an invitation to volunteer for the conference which included entrance to this globally renowned conference. There I took the liberty of joining the European council of Ashoka U for lunch and became fully convinced that the European model of SISE was demonstrating an entirely new vision for SISE that I absolutely wanted to engage. I had a strong commitment with Paulo Rossi, CEO of the University Institute of European Studies.  


IUSEFOR and its academic partners have developed Master-level SISE courses wherein they endeavor to ‘increase specific economic, law and social skills for graduates’ to provide a social innovation base for new entrepreneurs. The idea in my joining Paolo in Turin was to A) tour the SISE accomplishments and current undertakings; B) to begin a conversation around bringing my international social innovation and entrepreneurship venture into their framework; and C) to spark a conversation about bring American students into the European SISE community, which has been advancing the SISE agenda in many innovative ways for the past decade with intensive albeit competitive government-based funding. Below is an exemplary framework of the SISE lifecycles as IUSEFOR structures their student’s ventures. 


Sadly, Paolo had a family emergency and would not be able to host my efforts with his organization during my trip. My alternative was no light weight however. One of Tulane’s most beloved International Development professors, Nathan Morrow had invited me for years for the Food Security Summer Institute at the beautiful Convent of St. Maria del Giglio in Bolsena ( There he and his wife Sabrina, another brilliant development professional, teach classes on food security, food aid & food sovereignty. The convent is situated atop a village on the outskirts of a massive volcanic lake formed when seven volcanos collapsed on each other. Its close to the ancient walled 12th Century city of Vitebro

Nathan is one of the primary developers of the Ushahidi ( a crowdsourcing app that was used during the Haitian Earthquake to allow people to crowdsource data with their cellphones to assist people trapped under rubble, saving their lives when time is most precious. For a number of days, I was able to consult with Nathan and determine a number of preferred pathways for both my international development practice and the future of ICT4D options. This all in the background of beautiful Bolsena was sort of heavenly. Sort of a work all day, and as the sun set, walk down to the lake and swim in crystal clear water type-thing. Not bad, not bad at all.

I planned to tap Nathan’s deep knowledge and got more than I bargained for. Not only did I get a complete vision from my work within the latest Information and Communication for Development (ICT4D) frameworks used by United Nations affiliated organizations and other development groups, his wife Sabrina was working on development projects that were centered on Transitional Communities and shared them with me as well. I hadn’t heard of these before but they seemed to be deeply in line with the concept of I-STARRT whereby communities begin to converge around solutions to their common problems, not just at an individual level but also advocating for economic and political infrastructure that is innovation-driven, with obvious extensions to the market place and education.  


Finally, I had a quick stop planned in Rome to visit a dear friend working for World Food Programme (WFP). I stopped by WFP headquarters which was locked down like Fort Knox due to being a terrorist target. Later we happened to run into a group of young professionals who were working for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). And over beer, I learned about the work these guys are doing within the scope of United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) agenda.  As development often goes, the funds meant to help the poor and starving (due to man-made or natural disasters) can often hurt local farmers and market economies particularly by flooding the market with cheap or free commodities that drive local farmers out of business furthering deepening the reach and intensity of the disaster. Programs within these two organizations are helping redirect this programming to use locally sourced agriculture as food aid, assisting the region in a lasting way and keeping the local market OPEN! Very inspiring visit.


Finally, as I was leaving Rome, the best and most fortuitous accident yet occurred. If you know me you know that I am usually unable to hold my tongue around a finely dressed man. This is regardless of age, race, class and station. So when this extra handsome guy in the line at the airport for diplomats and fancy people waited in the sharpest pair of Italian leather shoes, he was going to get a compliment. It just so happened that this well-dressed man was also the Minister of Agriculture of a small Caribbean country just leaving a meeting with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  Turns out, this young, vibrant and really really smart Minister is developing what will be known as a Transitional Community around commodities and other important elements of his countries resources to spread economic development across countries and across classes, with a strong focus on the educated underemployed. We have been speaking near daily to further develop this SISE venture. At the end of the day, I-STARRT can find a home and global platform within this partnership, along with its own pursuits. 

Thanks to the Taylor Catalyst award for putting me in the air and allowing me to find my true way… somewhere down there…

By Sonita Singh (PhD., Payson Center for International Development, Tulane Law School)