“NGOs that are really good and efficient should survive and grow, and those which really don’t add value and can’t be competitive should wind up. You’re wasting money that could be applied to the poorest people in the world in a much more efficient way. Unless you can do it efficiently, I don’t think you should be in this business.”
CHARITY IN A PC WORLD
Cormac Lynch’s charity supplies computers to the poor in Africa, but he admits his capitalist instincts are the reason for his great success.
The Irish love to play games that involve degrees of separation. For example, plenty of us can map out, in three or four steps, a link to the likes of Bono with little effort. Dubliner Cormac Lynch, founder of Irish charity Camara, is a master of the art – taking us from the world’s poorest people to the world’s super-rich in two short steps.
Step one goes from Ethiopian schoolchildren directly to Lynch. His charity, Camara, takes secondhand computers from Ireland, refurbishes them and installs them in African schools, providing training and teachers.
Step two goes from Lynch to his former boss Nikolai Tsvetkov, a Russian oligarch and head of investment firm NIKoil, where Lynch worked as a financial adviser.
Tsvetkov, worth $8.4 billion at last count, is a former air force colonel who fought for Russia in Afghanistan.
Among Tsvetkov’s colleagues is fellow oil magnate and the world’s 16th wealthiest man, Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club. That’s a big leap.
Having once balanced the books of billionaires, Lynch now collects what they throw away, makes the best of it and passes it on to the needy – a sort of Robin Hood binman.
In his former life, he was headhunted for his experience in the oil industry and put to work in investment banking in the oil sector. But in 2004, after two years of going back and forth, Lynch wanted out.
‘‘You’d be dealing with the owners of the companies, billionaires who had, you know, got these companies very cheaply,” he says.
‘‘Sometimes they’d be pretty generous with money, sometimes they’d be pretty mean with money. They were all clearly very aggressive businessmen.
‘‘I ended up commuting almost every weekend between Dublin and Moscow and, after about two years of that, I had had enough. I’d leave on a Friday from Moscow and get into London that evening and then have to get the first flight out to Dublin the next morning. Then, on Sunday afternoon, I’d leave and wouldn’t get back to Moscow until five in the morning on Monday and grab a couple of hours sleep before starting all over again.”
With a family in Dublin, Lynch said nyet to a life among Russian oligarchs and petrodollar finance, enrolling in a Development Studies course at UCD.
‘‘I came back and I wanted to do something in the developing world,” he says. ‘‘I always had an interest in that. One of my aunts has been a Medical Missionary of Mary for about 50 years and had been in Africa for that time, so I always had that link growing up. She came home every few years and told us about her experiences in Africa.”
But charities are funny beasts. Lynch set about looking for work in the development sector, only to find out that MBA-holding oil financiers who handled the affairs of billionaires are under-qualified when it comes to running charities.
‘‘I did try initially with Irish Aid and certain development organisations to get a job, but my background wasn’t suited to what they were looking for in terms of experience in Africa.
‘‘I thought they were wrong. I thought I could have done a good job but I couldn’t even get in the door.” The only option was to set up on his own.
Lynch hit on the idea of sending second-hand computers to Africa after a research trip to Ethiopia. While still studying in 2004, he founded Camara to that end, and since then it has grown from a back room in a Dublin pub to fill an industrial production line and training facility in Thomas Street’s Digital Hub.
The computers donation came from an internet cafe¤ that had gone bust. Lynch was given a day to remove the 30 units and find somewhere to store them.
‘‘I got the family car, went around and with a cousin we loaded them in. Some guy offered me a room at the back of Pravda pub and that’s where we started.
‘‘Our very first job was to clear four or five skiploads of rubbish out of that room.”
Camara’s full-time technical director Eoghan Crosby was drafted in as a volunteer, and has stuck with Lynch ever since, sharing a common love of motorcycles and building the agency to a point where it can now process close to 1,000 discarded computers a month.
Each one is wiped of all its data to military standards of security and reformatted with a version of free Linux software. Camara’s own HIV/Aids software and a recent static copy of the free online Wikipedia resource are added, and the computers are then packed into boxes.
Crosby, an enthusiastic techie, enthuses about the benefits in cost, virus-resistance and practicality of free software and is the computing brain behind the charity.
At the far end, Camara technicians train African teachers in computer maintenance, set them up to teach children, and provide regular services and updates. Lynch, on the other hand, works the numbers – just like he did in Russia.
Known by his classmates in UCD as a realist in a group of idealists, his business nous has allowed him to approach partner organisations with corporate savvy rather than a begging bowl.
‘‘We charge companies for taking their computers,” he says.
‘‘We charge roughly €20 per computer. They’d have to pay more than that to have the data erased and the computer recycled – some companies may pay €50 or €60. They can pay us instead, and that money goes towards getting the computers out to Africa.”
Keeping costs down and asking volunteers to fund themselves has meant Lynch can maintain efficiencies.
‘‘It probably costs us €50 to €60 to collect a computer, erase the data, refurbish it, pack it and send it out to Africa,’’ says Lynch. ‘‘That makes it affordable for African schools to get a computer. The alternative is you can buy them the cheapest new computer, and that’s €500.”
Camara’s approach even undercuts the much-vaunted $100 laptop – now close to $200 – once hailed as the solution to computer illiteracy in developing countries.
It is proof that those who knocked him back early on had him pegged all wrong – Irish Aid, which handed Lynch a rejection letter just four years ago, now funds 40 per cent of the operation he runs.
And it’s when you press Lynch on the business of charity that the hard-nosed capitalist in him comes through.
Lynch believes charities should live and die based solely on their tangible merits, rather than their good intentions.
‘‘I do believe that NGOs that are really good and efficient should survive and grow, and those which really don’t add value and can’t be competitive should wind up.
‘‘You’re wasting money that could be applied to the poorest people in the world in a much more efficient way. Unless you can do it efficiently, I don’t think you should be in this business.”
Lynch believes charities should pay top dollar for managers who can make every euro carry its weight. ‘‘At Camara we are approaching where we can pay people what they’re worth, and that’s the only way you can be sustainable. You can only keep people for so long on goodwill.”
The question for Lynch – who once had his pay cheque signed by oil barons – is whether a good job well done provides its own reward? ‘‘It’s not even worth comparing,” he smiles.