A passion for change

18 May 2012

Author: Peter Wilmoth

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Ewa Wojkowska is the co-founder of an organization that connects communities with much-needed technology, Wojkowska was moved to act when she saw aid groups with the best intentions fail to adequately connect on the ground with the communities that needed their help.
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Ewa Wojkowska remembers driving through a remote town in East Timor 10 years ago and noting the complete lack of night-time activity because there was no electricity. “There were no lights, so when night fell, the population of 60,000 had very little to do,” she says. “During that time and up until a year and a half ago, if you were to drive through (the town) after dark there’d be nothing, it would be dark, pitch black.

“In the last year and a half we have distributed more than 3000 solar lights to that community. If you were to take that same drive again after dark today you’ll see a very different picture. You’ll see lights all over the place, people are socializing, children are studying, women are weaving and they are able to produce more material for sale at the market."

“It’s a very different scenario and such a tangible improvement. It’s extremely satisfying. You may not think that a solar light or a water purifier is that much for us but it means so much to these communities.”

“In Australia I had access to all sorts of opportunities that I would not have had otherwise. I could have done almost anything, had I set my mind to it.”

Wojkowska has devoted her working life to helping people in developing countries improve their lives. This passion has found expression in Kopernik, an online marketplace of technology designed for the developing world.

Launched last year by Ms Wojkowska and her husband Toshi Nakamura, Kopernik brings life-changing technologies such as solar lanterns, fuel-efficient stoves and water purifiers to developing communities that need them. Kopernik connects the technology providers to the communities. So far the organization has reached 74,000 people.

Ms Wojkowska, 36, was born in Poland and came to Australia in 1984. She grew up in Canberra where her emerging passion for social justice led her to volunteer for the human rights organisation Amnesty International. She moved to Melbourne where she also studied at Deakin University for a Masters in Politics and Public Policy.

She continued her work there for Amnesty and volunteered helping East Timorese asylum seekers. In 2000 she travelled to East Timor to work as a volunteer. “I was very involved during the East Timorese referendum,” she says. “At that time I thought I really needed to go to the field, I really needed to get some experience… and that’s how it all started.”

It was her experiences in East Timor that set her on a path. “It was completely life-changing, an absolutely formative experience,” she says. “I was really lucky to work with a local organisation and local people. It really formed the way I approached development work. I quickly learnt that everything has to be grounded in local culture, in local knowledge. You can have the best intentions as a foreigner coming in but if you don’t have those solid relationships and trust with the local community you’ll get nothing done.”

In East Timor Ms Wojkowska founded Centro Feto, The Women’s Centre of Oecusse Enclave, a women’s empowerment organization which today remains an important local organization. Since then she has lived in Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Laos, Thailand and the United States working for NGOs, the United Nations and the World Bank.

It was from her work on the ground that she saw organisations trying to deliver aid in ways she saw as inadequate mainly around technology. “The more I saw the more I learned and the more frustrated I became with the lack of innovation that was taking place in addressing development problems,” she says.

“I saw there were great and simple technologies that could have a very tangible impact on people’s lives, like solar lights and water purifiers that didn’t need technical expertise (to install). These technologies existed but they weren’t reaching the people who needed them. We saw this gap and decided to do something about it. Kopernik is all about making sure these green technologies reach the people that they were developed for.”

Wojkowska says moving from Poland to Australia made her appreciate the egalitarian nature of Australian society and the concept of a 'fair go' for all. “In Australia I had access to all sorts of opportunities that I would not have had otherwise,” she says. “I could have done almost anything, had I set my mind to it. This upbringing certainly influenced my career focus on social justice and international development.”

The inspiration for her work started early. “In part, it runs in the family,” she says. “My Dad was very involved in the Solidarity movement in Poland and my Mum has always been a very active member of the Polish community in Canberra starting up a Polish language school and running a club for Senior Polish Migrants. But I believe it's really the opportunities that were afforded to me in Australia and that my family and I were given a 'fair go' that I've been working to give others, with less access to opportunities, a fair go too.”

Now based in Bali with her husband and young daughter, Wojkowska says she is keen to source more donors. “That’s definitely the side of the triangle we need to grow more rapidly.” With her passion and energy, it shouldn’t be hard.