Building Smart Partnerships to Support Grassroots Innovators in Africa.
A month ago I was in Dodoma for the National Competition on Science Technology and Innovation abbreviated in Swahili, MAKISATU. I was among the judges who got the chance to visit, analyze and judge over 50 innovators from across multiple sectors and different regions in Tanzania. The event was also happening in parallel with Dodoma's innovation week. I was honored to present and share my experience in building smart partnerships in supporting grassroots innovators.
To understand how to support grassroots innovators you have to understand the Grassroots Innovation Ecosystem, who are the players and what are their roles. You have to understand how grassroots innovators come up with their ideas, how do they nurture them and how are they being adapted with the local communities at the grassroots level. Community-Based Organizations, Faith-Based Organizations, and Local Government Authorities (LGAs) play a very crucial role in identifying and supporting innovators in their own communities. All innovators who came from the informal sector category during the “MAKISATU” competition were recruited through LGAs and community-based organizations. Grassroots innovators don’t care much about recognitions and accolade their priority focus is to solve problems and come up with something new (some times this misleads them and they end up coming with useless things).
While we can support innovators in urban and semi-urban areas through innovation hubs (accelerators, incubators, etc), the best approach to support grassroots innovators is through platforms that are even closer to the community, Grassroots Hubs; Living Labs and Community Spaces. The community spaces are places where innovators come up with solutions to problems facing their own local communities and build social businesses around those problems. The Grassroots Hubs can strategically work with local communities (Youths Organizations, CSOs, etc) to help in the adaption and scaling of the solutions. The role of the LGAs is to ensure smooth adaption of the solutions at the grassroots level by removing unnecessary obstacles caused by by-laws while regulating the usage of the solution.
But is this enough? No
Academic and research institutions also have a huge role to play. From MAKISATU while there were good innovations (and inventions) that address grassroots communities problem almost none of those emerged from the informal sector had a backing of scientific research. Just to be clear, there were innovations that emerged from university and college research but I’m talking about those which were recruited from informal innovators. There is a need to link informal grassroots innovators with academic and research institutions so that their innovations can be researched further and perfected for safety and scaling purposes. While there is always some excitement when an innovation work it is extremely important to make sure all proper measures are being taken before scaling up the innovation. Universities operating in Semi-Urban and Rural areas can take this as a challenge and start to work close to innovators from the informal sector.
Exhibition syndrome, we need to find a way to help in further development and commercialization of the innovations. During MAKISATU, I saw a lot of familiar faces, innovators who every year showcase their products in Sabasaba, Nanenane, etc. I think it is about time now we help these innovators to move from being exhibitors to have commercial products (or find a way for some kind of sustainability) to create further impact. Vocational Education Institutions (e.g VETA), Small Industry Development Organizations (e.g SIDO) and Business Development Services programs with extended networks and reach across the country can strategically help on this one. During MAKISATU there were a good number of innovations that if well adapted could help to accelerate the Tanzanian government effort towards realizing the industrial economy.
Financing informal grassroots innovators can be complicated. While other innovators from hubs, research, and academic institutions have some kind of identity most informal grassroots innovators lack identity which makes them ineligible to access financial support. The existing LGA financial support programs were not designed for informal grassroots innovators. They are specifically targeting youth groups and they don’t work for individuals. The recent discussion in the Tanzanian parliament on structuring funds for individual innovators might as well address the problem if the final product is well structured. Another option could also be designing funds that work with grassroots hubs (living labs and Community Spaces) to support grassroots innovators but they are not that many and possibly a lot of informal innovators will be left out. The other option is to do this with organizations mandated to work with informal grassroots innovators. Do we have one? Whose role is that? This takes me to my next point.
Innovation Ecosystem Smart Partnership Framework — Can we rethink who is doing what to support innovators at different stages of their growth? What are the roles of different public agencies and how other partners in the ecosystem can support it?
From the framework, there are five stages of supporting the grassroots innovators; Identifying, Registering, Accelerating (Researching and Commercializing), Promoting and Investing. These stages are extremely crucial in supporting grassroots innovators to move from idea to solutions that can create impact through commercialization or by just being adopted by the community. While we have multiple organizations and they all have different mandates in supporting innovators, entrepreneurs, youths empowerment, etc. It will be very good for these organizations to restrategize and analyze how are they complementing each other and ensure that all the gaps are addressed and innovators are supported from the ground up. It is extremely important also to explore existing partnerships from the private sector, development partners, NGOs, and academic institutions to avoid duplicating the effort and ensuring the maximization of synergies.
This is something we are still exploring at Sahara Ventures; on how to build smart partnerships to support grassroots innovators in Africa. If you want to engage with us. Email us| firstname.lastname@example.org