This panel looked at how best to foster innovation and enterprise in developing countries. The speakers brought a wide range of knowledge and expertise to the table.
Moderator: William Perrin, Indigo Trust and Talk About Local (UK): a public service project to give people in deprived or isolated communities an online voice that they own and run. William was previously Tony Blair’s technology policy advisor in Downing Street.
Chris Locke, GSMA Development Fund (international): working with mobile operators to accelerate mobile solutions for people living on under US$2 per day, including health, agriculture and environmental solutions that are scalable and commercially viable.
Bosun Tijani, Cocreation hub (Nigeria): new technology hub which supports enterprises using technology to promote social change and improved governance through networking, business support, innovation competitions and other interventions.
Amy Sample Ward, NTEN (international): Nonprofit Technology Network strengthening NGO capacity through innovative uses of technology which cultivate and engage communities.
A supportive ecosystem of networks, spaces (real and virtual), resources, informed funders and forward-thinking businesses can help make it easier for innovative solutions to pressing problems to get to market. We can learn from ‘Hubs’ springing up globally such as Cocreation hub in Nigeria and HiveColab in Uganda where entrepreneurs, software developers and designers can come together to innovate and develop ideas, and from corporate initiatives such as the GSMA Development Fund which is working with mobile operators to show that the provision of relevant, scalable mobile services to those in the developing world not only tangibly improves lives but is also good business practice.
Lessons from the field
- In the marketplace for innovation, adoption is the only currency that counts. These tools are sharable and usable from the very first stages, so it is possible to focus on adoption from the beginning and keep tabs on progress.
- Recognise the role of technology in all of our work – it is not just about shiny new tools – and equip all staff with fundamental knowledge.
- Explore why not just whether a tool is working.
- Find ways to let the community drive the innovation you want to support.
- As well as supporting new innovation there is also the need to find great projects that might already be out there but need help to scale and develop – competitions such as Appfrica are a good way to do this.
- ‘Bootstrap philanthropy’ or ‘philanthropy without funding forces you to think about strategy and sustainability from the get go’ (Jon Gosier).
On creating an enabling environment:
- Let people fail and dissect and learn from their failures; create an environment where you can ‘fail softly’.
- Provide space for different kinds of people to work together to create solutions (e.g. techies, creatives, entrepreneurs).
- Offer resources that might not be available elsewhere (hardware, software, advice).
- Make connections between people and create networks.
- Some sort of catalyst is usually necessary for a productive process, e.g. a crisis, incentive or an active facilitator.
- An incentive could be the possibility of getting paid! The potential to create a sustainable, successful business through apps, for example.
Advice for funders:
- Fund projects, not products – successful innovation is an iterative process.
- Funders can provide contacts, recommendations and advocacy which are hugely valuable for new, small projects.
- Just because someone has done something good before does not mean they will necessarily do so again.
- If you are looking to support innovation, it is better to spread out and fund lots of smaller things than to go deep with just one.
- When funding small organisations/projects it helps to move fast – the slow movement of, for example, institutional funders can sink a small organisation.
- Take risks, but do not disregard clear thinking and available data – consider data to see whether an intervention is likely to work.
- It is all about the people – you ultimately need to bank on teams before ideas.
- Consider funding the foundations for an innovation ecosystem, e.g. platforms and people.
Emphasis for innovation needs to be on building value, not only making money – you don’t want people just copying Facebook.
‘When swimming with hippos, swim fast and nimble!’ It can be good to work with bigger partners from whom you can learn, but there is a danger that they could ‘swallow’ you.
There can be a disconnect between the innovators and the implementers, and issues around ownership and loss of control of ideas once they scale up.
For-profit investment tends to allow for more autonomy to adapt and be flexible than grant funding. Grant dependency can sometimes be destructive.
To learn more about the panel, click here to see all the speaker videos.
Thanks to Daisy Wakefield, Aphra Sklair and Deanna Laforet of the Institute for Philanthropy for producing these notes.