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Social Innovation in Africa Ndidi Nwuneli

How to scale Social Innovation in Africa: An interview with former McKinsey consultant Ndidi Nwuneli

Social innovation is hard. Scaling a successful social innovation in Africa and across the continent is even harder.

As the Director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship from the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town Dr. Francis Bonnici mentions in his foreword to the book "Social Innovation in Africa" there are only a handful of successful social innovations that have significantly scaled their social impact or managed to create systemic change.

Social innovation in Africa by Ndidi Nwuneli

If we as the entrepreneurs, innovators and visionaries of this continent want to create a prosperous and strong Africa in line with the African Union's vision 2063 during our lifetime then it is clear that this needs to change. Fast.

With the rise of emerging technologies like drones, big data and mobile technology opportunities to improve the quality of life of millions of our people across the continent will be created.

In order to scale much needed social innovation and design the necessary systemic change we need a strategy that works so that we can succeed with our innovations.

If you are serious about your commitment to creating positive change in Africa, then you should read "Social Innovation in Africa: a practical guide to scaling impact" by World Economic Forum Young Global Leader Ndidi Nwuneli from Nigeria.

World Economic Forum Young Global Leader Ndidi Nwuneli

In this book she shares many practical tips and strategies that are useful to scaling your social innovation. It is a must-read that gives you practical guidance on how to scale your social innovation across Africa with great case studies.

Although, there are not too many reviews on Amazon yet at the time of writing (October 2016), the ones that are there clearly find this book very valuable.

Social innovation in Africa review

It was a great pleasure to interview the author of this hugely important book Ndidi Nwuneli. Hopefully this book will give you the necessary guidance on how to approach the scaling challenge with your social innovation successfully. 

1) In your book “Social Innovation in Africa: A practical guide for scaling in Africa”, you mention that social innovators should have scaling at the top of their mind from day one. What are the best ways to do that when circumstances can change drastically and this impacts your scaling strategy?

Ancedotal evidence from those who have scaled their pilot initiatives with impact in Africa suggests that they imbedded scaling within the DNA of their operations. This essentially means that they determined what problem they were trying to solve and the most demand-driven, low-cost, simple intervention that would be required, while instituting clear performance measurement frameworks, levering technology and engaging the community. These six critical aspects of a business model allow for scaling. Specific aspects of the business model and the vision at scale may evolve, but the fundamental mission, building blocks and values do not change.

2) In your work you highlight the capacity gap that challenges many social innovators across the continent. Which capacities do you believe to be the most important ones and why?

There are a range of capacity gaps. I would argue that the two most critical ones are human capacity – recruiting and retaining mission-driven high achievers with the skills and the drive to scale impact, and infrastructure gaps – which include power, feeder roads, water, internet and telephone connectivity in rural communities etc. For example, only one-third of Africans living in rural areas are within two kilometers of an all-season road, compared with two-thirds of the population in other developing regions. This in turn makes it extremely difficult and expensive to extend healthcare, education, and agriculture innovations to communities in rural areas. Sadly, with underdeveloped distribution and marketing systems, social innovators essentially have to work along all aspects of the value chain, filling gaps that ordinarily would not exist in other markets to reach people.

Who else wants to know where to hire your next social business employee from?
The destiny of our continent is shaped by the greatness of our people. We have been saying this over and[...]

3) One of the most important tasks in building a business is building organisational capacity. How should social entrepreneurs approach capacity building?

I have devoted an entire chapter in my book to the steps for building “talent for scaling.” This essentially means that social innovators have to build the appropriate learning culture, and incentives to attract and retain mission-driven high achievers. In addition, they need to find ways to engage the community, volunteers, short-term consultants and fellows. They need strong Boards of directors to provide credibility, guidance, and to hold them accountable. They also need a clear succession plan.

4) You mention that measurable impact is key to scaling a social innovation but that many social innovators feel it to be cumbersome and expensive. What do you think the impact of emerging technologies like Big Data and the Internet of Things will be in relation to making measuring impact easier in years to come? Will it help to make the task easier?

Measurement and evaluation is critical to demonstrating impact to all stakeholders. Data that is credible and communicated effectively will attract significant resources and support from across the globe.

Technology definitely reduces the cost of gathering, analysing and reporting data. Many of the innovators that I profile in the book utilize cellular technology to gather data from individuals and communities.

5) Scaling is a tough undertaking anywhere in the world. Are there any challenges that are particular to Africa when it comes to scaling?

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there are at least four key drivers of these unique scaling difficulties.

a. Lack of credible data for local communities, countries and regions, slows down the processes for planning, piloting and scaling social innovations and hinders the ability of key stakeholders to measure their impact on society.

b. Heterogeneity within and across countries, which includes significant diversity in colonial histories, language, religion, culture, community assets, and social development, essentially means that there is “no single story.”

c. Fragmented ecosystems, in almost every sector, especially the agricultural, education and health landscapes limit the ability of innovators to reach large numbers of people in record time.

d. Significant talent, infrastructure and financing gaps limit scaling.

6) What is the toughest scaling challenge that you came across in our own career and how did you solve it? What lessons did you learn from it?

I have faced the greatest difficulty building partnerships with the government. As I reveal through the book, partnerships with the private, public and non-profit sectors are critical for scaling. Social innovators have to actively determine which partners are critical from the onset and seek to build partnerships with them.

I am still working to address the partnership challenges with government to building the credibility of initiatives in which I am involved through more effective communications, finding champions in the government and developing strategic relationships with them to enable scaling.

7) You have $500 and you can start any social enterprise of your choice and you don’t have access to any significant networks. What would your first 3 steps be and why those steps?

Step 1: Articulate a clear mission, vision and values. Also articulate a clear theory of change. This should be packaged effectively via a compelling concept note and website.

Step 2: Constitute a Board of Directors with people who share your values and vision and are willing to provide advice and support

Step 3: Test out your idea through a small pilot to determine whether there is latent demand for your offerings.

8) One of the most important skill of any social innovator is the management of one’s emotions in the face of intense external events (e.g. failure, setbacks, media attention etc.). What are your tips on how to best manage one’s emotions as a social innovator?

Social entrepreneurs have good days and bad days, and can burn out easily. As a result, it is critical that they surround themselves with champions, mentors and role models who they can engage with during those tough times. These relationships keep the social entrepreneur grounded and focused on the important work ahead.

9) What is your leadership philosophy?

A leader is an individual who has a vision and galvanizes others to believe in that vision, and works with them collaboratively to achieve positive change. A leader is authentic, self aware and never too proud to admit their mistakes. Leadership is an act, not a position. Leaders cannot and should not try to do all of the work themselves and they should know when to step aside and let others lead.

10) With the transition to the digital economy, digital tools are becoming increasingly important. What are your favourite digital tools for business and why?

Online banking enables me to engage in financial transactions regardless of where I am in the globe. Similarly, Whatsapp has transformed my communications with others. It saves time and money and allows for real-time problem solving.

Value Bomb

Are you interested in more digital tools that can help scale your business and impact across Africa? Check out our recommended resources.

11) If you could time travel back to day one of your social enterprise and have 15min with your former self to communicate any lessons you've acquired with the intention of saving yourself mistakes and heart ache, what would you tell yourself?

Be slow to anger and slow to speak. I am often so impatient with people and have made some costly errors by speaking too quickly and making rash decisions.

12) Where can people get a copy of your book?

In Nigeria, via Konga, at LEAP Africa’s office – 13 Omorinre Johnson Lekki Phase 1, or Laterna Bookshop

Social innovation in Africa by Ndidi Nwuneli

Thank you Ndidi for sharing your insights with us and telling our community more about the challenges and opportunities of social innovation in Africa. Your book is certainly very welcome and much needed to give us all a better understanding of the space we operate in.

Let us know what your challenges are with scaling your social innovation in the comments below and how you apply the insights of this book to successfully scale.

About the Author Rise Africa Rise

Rise Africa Rise is your online guide to tech entrepreneurship and (social) innovation for African entrepreneurs, startups and businesses. Our aim is to provide you with valuable digital strategies, tools and insights to support you in building a world-class and competitive business in the 21st century.

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