Published in Partnership with Forbes
I am in San Francisco this week with over 1,500 thought leaders from across the world for the Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) conference. SOCAP is meant to help donors and social entrepreneurs find ways to drive more dollars towards responsible investment in social good, mainly in the developing world.
SOCAP is known for showcasing streamlined innovation—sexy, single products that may (and sometimes do) change the world. Think of the mobile phone app that will change how farmers sell their produce or the water purifier that will turn putrid to potable. These product based innovations simply require distribution to and adoption by consumers. Easy, right?
Great product-based innovations often fail to capture their intended market because their creators fail to account for local cultural contexts. Store shelves across Sub Saharan Africa are stocked with different sorts of contraceptives, organic fertilizer, and other products that have clear value to consumers and are clearly unacceptable to those same would-be users. This is a melodramatic, if sometimes factual, representation of two problems. Firstly, when innovations come in the form of single, silver (product-based) bullets without a multidimensional ecosystem ready to absorb them, they are doomed. Secondly, when innovations so often spring from western universities or business plan competitions, there will inevitably be some that are lost in translation.
But what if innovation involved not only product creation but also adoption of good things and ideas by communities? And what if innovation could be done locally, rather than in a lab at Stanford or an ideas competition in Cambridge? What would we call it? How about Place Based Innovation? Such a discussion hasn’t always gotten traction at conferences like SOCAP. There’s no easy elevator pitch or YouTube clip.
Happily, Place Based Innovation snuck in the back door of SOCAP this year. One of the conference’s themes is Communities: Place Based Innovation and Development. Participants will identify “examples of multi-dimensional, multi-stakeholder solutions that are applied in communities to generate an economy for good.” Eureka! This means that the product and distribution innovators (shout outs to Living Goods!, Tugende!, and myAgro!) will be rubbing elbows with Place Based Innovators.
In my work at Segal Family Foundation, we partner with over 130 non-profit organizations and social enterprises in Africa. We provide financial support to our partners (approximately $8.5 million this year), but our special sauce is what we call Active Partnership- a combination of connections, capacity building opportunities, and creation of peer networks- that we believe will fill in some of the common gaps in our partners’ abilities to maximize impact.
While we’re fortunate to have many incredible product innovators in our portfolio (more shout outs to AFRIpads! Off:Grid Electric! Inyenyeri!), the heart of our portfolio is our grassroots partners. These grassroots folks are place based, budget constrained mom & pop shops. Most operate within the most vulnerable communities in their respective countries. Their impact is measured in depth rather than breadth- they provide holistic, long-term services to their beneficiaries across various sectors. While they have extensive localized knowledge and passionate and capable leaders, they just aren’t sexy enough to attract the attention and funding that their product-based peers do.
One example is Amani Global Works, located on remote Idjwi Island, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The founder, native Congolese Dr. Jacques Sebisaho, is providing quality health care to a quarter million residents of the island. He’s also supporting agricultural cooperatives for improved income and nutrition. He’ll soon be involved in local schools. Sounds an awful lot like mission creep. But the reality is that there are simply no other quality service providers- not the government, not other non-profits, not the private sector. He’s the only game in town, or more aptly, the island’s only lifeboat.
Jacques is committed to building an organization that will support Idjwi indefinitely, but he’s working with limited resources. He doesn’t have the opportunity to attend SOCAP or read best practice literature. This is where Segal Family Foundation can help. We broker connections between our grassroots partners and our other partners creating innovation in products and distribution. We connected Jacques to SOCAP entrepreneur Laura Stachel of We Care Solar. She provided a purpose-built solar suitcase to Jacques and trained his team on its use. It was used by Jacques’ team to save lives during an outbreak of cholera on the island last year by helping them treat patients during the night. The suitcase’s fetal heart monitor will also help the team to identify at-risk babies and ready treatment before delivery.
This easy win that we brokered demonstrates the great opportunity that lies in connecting the silver bullet products with multi-dimensional grassroots organizations that can utilize them. It also demonstrates the role that funders can play outside of simply writing a check.
As for the notion that innovation can spring from local organizations working at the grassroots level in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, I’ll offer another example. Lwala Community Alliance is a holistic organization located in rural Kenya. Despite operating a high-quality hospital, the leadership found that just 26% of women were delivering their babies in the facility. This meant that maternal and child mortality rates were saddening and staggering. A few years ago, Lwala’s team began co-opting the traditional midwives who typically provided delivery care. Lwala trained and incentivized the midwives to conduct prenatal care and bring expectant mothers to the hospital for deliveries.
Today, over 92% of women give birth at a health facility in the area. The model has been identified by the Clinton Foundation as exemplary and will be replicated by other health care providers, including through Segal Family Foundation’s Health Network—a group of over twenty of our grantee partners. It exemplifies local, contextual, effective innovation.
These examples of Place Based Innovation are two of many. We applaud SOCAP for focusing its prodigious spotlight on these ways to achieve social good and look forward to taking part in the conversation. The first of many.