How socially-led innovation can bring positive change in unchartered times




By Muhammad Nabil

There’s an old saying attributed to Winston Churchill that is appropriate in these uncertain times: never let a good crisis go to waste. A global pandemic certainly qualifies as a crisis, but what good can we generate from this
exceptional challenge?

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted that unusual times require an unusual response. It’s clear that as we move into uncharted territory, when various economies start reopening up, we need a new approach, not only for how we live our lives, socialise and move around, but also for how we approach business. In Africa there is a prime opportunity for the continent’s business economy to race towards social entrepreneurship. An agile and dynamic business ecosystem is a vital trigger for effective social enterprise.

Social entrepreneurs identify issues and uplift those communities most vulnerable to the effects of disruption. Driven by the desire to identify and address the inequalities of the day, these entrepreneurs are well-placed to fill the gaps between government and the markets to promote a more sustainable and inclusive economy in times of crisis and beyond.

Start-ups are creating new businesses, built around powerful technologies, and designed to make the world a better place. But even more than ever, the role of technology as a facilitator for driving the success of social enterprise has become strongly apparent. While in some cases, they still struggle with adoption, in other instances, many have moved fast to use digital technology in various sectors and for varied needs. The overarching desire however is always to make it better for their customers.

In my line of work, I have had a front row seat to the innovation and creativity many African start-ups have employed to address pressing economic and social gaps and needs. Whether it’s using digital agricultural technology to improve farmer crop yields, applying technology to deliver finance solutions to the previously unbanked or pairing solar power and Internet of Things (IoT) to solve power reliability issues, African innovation is alive and thriving, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only fanned these flames of ingenuity.

Upepo Technology in Kenya is one such example, a firm that develops IoT (Internet of Things) solutions for the country’s water sector. The company partners with utilities to deploy smart water metering devices that provide real-time monitoring of water infrastructure, moving towards a more holistic view of water consumption in Kenya, with the ultimate goal of providing access to water for people across the country.

And there are many more. But in order to support such ideas, the technology companies have to align with these innovators. They have had to rise up and fit in to be useful, especially for the start-up, a category that faces the steepest climb in today’s challenging environments. In their quest to offer digitally led businesses, they need to be assisted to ensure that their websites and applications are safe from hackers. They need to be guided to achieve the mental fortitude to run these enterprises. And they need to maintain a wider perspective of society and sustainability challenges that would align these enterprises with investor interests.

Recognizing that social enterprises are a key plank that facilitates economic impact in local communities, Microsoft for instance, is supporting social entrepreneurship through its Global Social Entrepreneurship Programme and partnering with various stakeholders to facilitate local involvement and connect entrepreneurs to partners who can help them streamline and grow manageably. Recently, this support was in the form of facilitating participation in hackathons, ideation sessions and mentorship linkages.

It is a wave that is spreading throughout the African continent and I expect Kenyan entrepreneurs to be counted. There are several ideas that have been successfully implemented elsewhere that will work locally. In Egypt for instance, I witnessed a local angel investor network known as Cairo Angels run a ‘We’ve got your back’ campaign to prop a local start-up when it was developing a platform that connects vulnerable elderly people with volunteers who do their shopping and run errands for them.

In South Africa, Zindi, the first data science competition platform in Africa, rolled out a series of weekend hackathons to a data science ecosystem of engineers, scientists, academics, companies, NGOs and institutions, targeting a set of Covid-19-related datasets.

These are just a few examples of how organizations have partnered so far to help out. It is indicative of the potential of what we can achieve if we partner and work together to support social entrepreneurship and innovation at this time. In order to build their internal capacity to scale their social enterprises, it is important to build in mentorship mechanisms. The Gemini Uplift Initiative for instance works with start-ups to maintain operational continuity and financial sustainability through three tracks- money, matching and mentorship that is also linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. This helps the entrepreneurs to develop a wide perspective for their businesses. 

If we are to continue encouraging investment in social value, it is up to all of us to unite in supporting the growth of social enterprise at grassroots level. With the social entrepreneurship movement gaining steady momentum across the continent in the business sector, I am certain Africa can strike a global note for social impact beyond Covid-19.

(Muhammad Nabil is the Partners and Startups Strategy Lead at Microsoft 4Afrika. His role revolves around identifying African partners and startups with innovative business models and supporting them in integrating technology to take their ventures to the next level. His peers call him ‘The Fixer’ because he constantly creates innovative solutions that address needs unique to Africa. Muhammad holds a BSc Degree in Computer Science and Masters in Information Systems and recently obtained a Diploma in Cognitive Psychology. He has 14 years of experience in ICT. Before joining Microsoft, he was a Senior Analyst at both IBM and Google).

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