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Creating a Level Playing Field for Social Innovators in Africa

Creating a Level Playing Field for Social Innovators in Africa

By Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, Associate Tutu Fellow.  This post originally appeared in the Stanford Review.

There is growing global interest in opportunities for social change and profitable growth on the African continent. In 2015, 30 percent of the 3,165 applications for the Echoing Green Award were for initiatives focused on Africa, with Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya listed as the top five countries after the United States and India.

In addition, the increasing financial and in-kind support that funders and organizations are channeling to Africa for accelerating social innovation and addressing its problems is a welcome trend. At last count, more than 60 impact investment funds and other investment vehicles have a presence in Nairobi, Kenya, where few existed 15 years ago. There is also a plethora of global and regional prizes, fellowships, accelerators, and incubators that have a strong focus on supporting the growth of social innovation in Africa.

A review of the recipients of these pioneering initiatives, however, reveals that the vast majority of those focused on Africa are passionate innovators from Europe and the United States. For example, of the 195 awards provided by Echoing Green, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and Skoll Foundation since their inception, only 33 percent of the awardees are locals. Surprisingly, this trend is evident even among social entrepreneurs under 30, as revealed by Forbes’ 2015 30 Under 30 program—30 percent have activities in Africa, but only 22 percent are locals.

While as Africans we appreciate the talent, passion, experience, and credibility that the social innovators from Europe and the United States bring to the continent, the growing funding and support gap between local social innovators and our international peers is worrying.

Clearly local African social innovators—who must develop compelling business models rooted in credible measurement and evaluation, and financial management systems—share the burden of bridging this gap. We also have to develop and implement creative communications strategies, and leverage local and international networks to enhance our visibility so that we can attract the same attention and support as our international counterparts. In addition, we need to form partnerships with intermediaries and funders in our home countries, across Africa and with international partners to overcome the hurdle of physical distance from the global impact investors and fellowships.

However, it is equally critical for impact investors, fellowships, accelerators, and funders based in the United States and Europe to step out of their comfort zone, and to find and support more local social innovators in Africa. They can achieve this by taking at least three critical steps:

1. Unlock the pipeline of local innovators. When challenged about why they do not have more local Africans in their selection pipeline, the biggest argument that investors, fellowship programs, and accelerators make is that they cannot find them. However, many Africans argue that they are closed off from the global social innovation landscape, because they are not aware of the opportunities for support or because many organizations do not accept unsolicited applications. (A few recent African MBAs from leading universities in Europe and the United States appear to have successfully established support networks abroad prior to returning home to start their social ventures.) Some local innovators even argue that international investors and innovation programs hold them to a different set of standards, and that a natural bias compels international partners to support individuals who share similar experiences to their own.

The international social innovation landscape has to broaden and deepen its pipeline of local innovators by:

    • Tapping into in-country networks of social innovators, such as LEAP’s Annual Social Innovators Programme, and the more than 200 local innovation spaces across Africa


    • Requesting referrals from traditional funders such as Ford Foundation, which has supported social innovators in Africa for more than 60 years, and Ashoka, which has a grassroots reach. In addition, traditional private-equity firms, which are members of the African Venture Capital & Private Equity Association and have a strong presence on the ground, can support early screening and due diligence efforts.


    • Attending and participating in the growing number of Maker Faire and business-plan competitions on the continent, and supporting the introduction of innovation labs and formal training programs in universities and vocational schools to inspire and equip the next generation of African social innovators


    • Collating and disseminating information about global support opportunities for local innovators, using technology

A few organizations are identifying homegrown innovators and equipping them to tap into global resources. For example, the MIT D-Lab, through its Creative Capacity Building methodology, identified and supported Teso Women Development Initiatives Executive Director Betty Ikalany, who has pioneered and is scaling innovations focused on using agricultural waste in Uganda to create charcoal and clean stoves.

There are many like Ikalany in Africa—entrepreneurs that are struggling to start and scale their social innovations have exhausted the available support and resources in their local communities, and need the additional support that the regional and international community can provide. They need opportunity!

2. Close the capacity gap. There are many “undiscovered” social innovators in Africa, but even when investors identify them, they usually are not “investment ready.” They often do not have compelling “theories of change,” and have not developed scalable and sustainable business models that are rooted in credible impact data and supported by sound financial statements. As a result, they need significant external support to meet the global standards required for impact investors and global fellowship programs.

Sadly, very few initiatives provide capacity-building support for these individuals and their companies. One way the international community can help local innovators build these skills is to work with local and international business-development service providers, which can offer subsidized training programs in local business schools and technical assistance via a short-term consultant or international fellow. They can also support peer-peer networks for knowledge transfer and training.

An example of an initiative that is addressing these capacity gaps is Root Capital’s Financial Advisory Services, which the organization offers to prospective and current clients to strengthen their financial management systems. Services include training on accounting, financial planning, financial risk management, financial statement analysis, loan application preparation, and credit management, and the program is deepening Root Capital’s impact across agricultural value chains in West Africa.

The Acumen East Africa Fellows Program is another example of an effort to try to build the skills of local talent. This one-year, fully-funded leadership program enrolls 20 fellows from across East Africa annually, and provides them with five week-long seminars focused on building their financial and operational skills, and connecting them to a local and global community.

In addition, the Bertha Center for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town, has pioneered training and research on social innovation in Africa since 2011. And more recently, the Pan Atlantic University introduced its Social Sector Management Program, which, with support from the Africa-America Institute, works to fill capacity gaps in Nigeria.

3. Build a body of knowledge from work in Africa and share it widely. International impact investors, fellowship programs, and development partners have a critical role to play in showcasing the work of local social innovators and sharing learning from their experiences in Africa that could benefit the rest of the world.

Two powerful examples that illustrate this promise are from East Africa:

Safaricom, a telecommunications company, launched M-Pesa—a global pioneer in the small-value mobile payment and money transfer landscape. Since its introduction in mid-2007, more than 9 million customers—40 percent of Kenya’s adult population—have adopted M-PESA. The platform is now facilitating an average of $320 million per month in person-to-person transfers, and enterprises in at least five other countries have replicated the model.

Ushahidi, initially developed in 2008 to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout, currently provides open-source software, data collection, analysis and visualization, and technology strategy across at least five countries in Africa. Ushahidi also created the iHub, which has more than 14,000 members and has incubated 150 tech startups.

There are many more innovations from Africa that the world needs to learn about. In addition, the global community has an important role to play in broadening its knowledge about these innovations and using its global platforms to build awareness, learning and replication.

Indeed, by leveling the playing field—unlocking our pipeline of local social innovators and closing the capacity gap—we can not only solve more social problems in Africa, but also deepen our access to new systems thinking that can benefit the global community. These interventions will showcase and celebrate individuals who can serve as positive role models for others in their communities, providing a powerful signaling effect that will catalyze a new generation of social innovators in Africa.

Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli (@ndidinwuneli) is a social entrepreneur, founder of LEAP Africa, co-founder of AACE Foods, and partner at Sahel Capital. She is also senior fellow, MRCBG Harvard Kennedy School, and working on a book about scaling social innovation in Africa.


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