Up&Ap: Constance Agyeman on how past experiences led her to a career at Nesta Challenges




When you think of the terms ‘versatile’ and ‘adaptable,’ then one can say that Constance Agyeman comfortably fits the description. Ms Agyeman’s career journey has seen her working at a newspaper printer, housing association, adult social care, bookkeepers, before eventually landing a role at a mental health charity. This marked the start of her journey in the non-profit sector.

Currently the Director of International Development at Nesta Challenges, a UK-based innovation charity, Agyeman (pictured top and below) shared snippets of her life, her inspiration(s) and her professional life with us in an email interview. Read on…

Question: Who is Constance Agyeman? Please give us a brief introduction about yourself and your career journey

Constance Agyeman: My career path has been an interesting one. I studied drama and theatre studies at undergraduate level then went on to do my masters in video production. After working in the Ghana film industry and an international HBO film, I changed tack. I spent a couple of years trying out lots of different roles as a temp, which gives great insight into many different sectors and roles. These included working at a newspaper printers, housing association, adult social care, bookkeepers and many more.

When I spent time working at a mental health charity, I decided I would like to spend more time supporting people experiencing societal stigma. This led me into my journey in the NGO sector.

So for the past 25-plus years, I have worked at a variety of NGOs, partnering with government departments, INGOs, Foundations and Corporations, to support youth, communities  and innovators to become more involved in the societal issues that affect them – as I believe in the power of skills development, capacity building and civic action.

And I’m a mother of two and grandmother of two. The breadth of life experience has given me focus.

Q: What was your main inspiration and motivation for getting into the voluntary and non-profit sector?  

CA: The variety of experiences I experienced across the public, private and voluntary sector made me realise I wanted to pursue a calling that had an impact on society.

Was there a particular lightbulb moment? Not that I recall. I just remember feeling a sense of purpose when I joined Mind, the mental health charity. And with the combination of having young children at the time, I also felt a stronger sense of societal justice and opportunity was something I should engage with to help do my part to make society a slightly better place for them to grow up in.

Q: If you’re not holding your current job, what would your alternative career be and why?

CA: If I were not in my current role, my actual alternative career would be similar in intention. I would work more on African partnerships and collaboration.  There is a great deal of potential in our African organisations and if we could collaborate more effectively, we could strengthen our ability to directly secure donor funding and lead the way on systems change for Africa.

Q: As the Director of International Development at Nesta Challenges, what does your job involve?

CA: My role involves working with donors and partners around the world to identify the challenges in society that need to be addressed and that meet strategic objectives. I then convene a team and support them to design, develop and implement the challenge prizes in response to those challenges.

Partnership and collaboration is a key element of my role. Bringing my challenge prize expertise to bear to support others to understand the utility of challenge prizes and the type of impacts that can be achieved when they are designed and implemented well.

Q: According to your professional bio, you’ve so far managed to deliver over 25 challenge prizes in various fields including agriculture in South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; social innovation across Europe; UK prizes focused on waste reduction and aging populations, as well as youth-focused digital enterprise challenges. Why the focus on agriculture, social innovation,waste reduction and Aging population, and youth-led digital enterprise?  

CA: At Nesta Challenges, we are topic agnostic. What we are focussed on is where there are societal challenges and how we can use challenge prizes to attract and support new innovators to bring great solutions forward to help solve them. In the context of development particularly there are many societal challenges. If we take a multifaceted approach by dealing across a range of issues, we can have a broader range of impact.

This doesn’t mean that there should not be focus. Each challenge prize is designed with its own specific focus.  But unfortunately there are a lot of societal challenges that need attention.

Challenge prize innovation has the scope to tackle many areas, so it feels right to utilise it in as many ways as possible.

Q: As a follow-up to the above question, which challenge prize (out of the ones you have run) has had the greatest impact and why?

CA: Always a tough question, as they each have an impact on me in many different ways.

The Longitude Explorer Prize focusses on secondary school children (11-16)  in the UK as innovators. Having designed and run that programme since 2014, it has a special place in my consciousness. The young people, supported by their teachers, come up with ideas that use Science Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) to solve societal issues. They are then guided to take that idea and build it into a real product or service to develop their enterprise skills. The solutions that the young people come up with such as sign language apps, homeless community tools, alternative black boxes for airplanes – never ceases to amaze me.  It helps build the capacity of young people to stop thinking solely as consumers of technology, but to become the shapers of technology for societal good.

I am proud to say that this is now being translated into the Ghana Science and Tech Explorer Prize for Junior High school students across Ghana with a range of Ghanaian organisations so it is contextualised and implemented for Ghana. We have the awesome ambition of reaching 20,000 young people over the next 3 years.

Of course the Afri-Plastics Challenge, although at the start of the journey also speaks to my ambition of driving innovation across Africa and supporting women and girls to have better opportunity and outcomes, as that raises the aspirations and achievements of our nations.

Q: Tell us more about the recently-announced Nesta Challenges’s Afri-Plastics Challenge.

CA: The Afri-Plastic Challenge was designed and developed with the aims to help communities throughout Sub-Saharan Africa to prevent plastic waste from entering the marine environment by finding ways to minimize reliance on plastic and new ways of managing plastic waste.

Just launched, the Afri-Plastics Challenge Strand 1: Accelerating Growth is looking to achieve the following:

  • Scale existing solutions that improve plastic waste management in a socially and environmentally responsible way, to reduce the presence of marine plastic litter across sub-Saharan Africa.
  • By the end of the Challenge successful solutions will have demonstrated an effective, sustainable and replicable model for significantly increasing their collection and processing of plastic waste, as well as the empowerment of women and girls.

Q: According to the media announcement, the Challenge will involve a public competition that will reward the best solutions from across sub-Saharan Africa to address marine plastic waste in a way that promotes “gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.” How will the contest organisers achieve this?

CA: The Afri-Plastics Challenge aims to reduce marine plastics in sub-Saharan African countries by developing and scaling innovative solutions to plastic mismanagement in a way that promotes gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.

Women play an important role as both innovators and workers in the waste management sector, particularly in an informal capacity.

This Challenge is designed to help promote gender equality and tackle some of the barriers women currently face in the sector. For example, studies seem to indicate that women tend to be more present in the informal sector due to obstacles in participating in formal labour and a need for flexible employment to meet the demands of childcare responsibilities. Woman-owned businesses also tend to have fewer employees and lower average sales-, when compared to man-owned businesses.

Q: Is the Afri-Plastics Challenge going to only select and recognise African innovators or will it be open to non-African innovators working and developing solutions within the continent as well?

CA: At this stage, Strand 1 (Accelerating Growth) of the challenge is only open to small and medium enterprises, non-governmental organisations, and government agencies registered in sub-Saharan Africa.

I would encourage people to follow our social media channels for upcoming announcements on the eligibility criteria for Strand 2 & 3 (Twitter: @NestaChallenges).

Q: For purposes of clarification, is the Challenge going to reward ideas and concepts or already tried and tested products, solutions and projects?

CA: Let me clarify as below:

  • Strand 1, Accelerating Growth, looks to support existing solutions to improve plastic waste management that can be scaled throughout the duration of the Challenge and beyond.

Examples of a few of the types of organisations (and not limited to) that may be interested in applying and scaling their businesses include; small-medium scale recyclers, waste picking organisations, waste management enterprises or small-medium buy-back centres.

  • Strand 2 (Creating Solutions) will be a call for new ideas particularly those that respond to a particular gap in the innovation landscape for  plastic waste
  • Strand 3 (Promoting Change) will be a call for large scale campaigns that raise awareness and engage women and girls in the plastics value chain.

I would encourage people to follow our social media channels for upcoming announcement on Strand 2 & 3 (Twitter: @NestaChallenges)

Q: Any possibility of extending the deadline to allow in more submissions?

CA: Unfortunately, there will be no extending the deadline for Strand 1.

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