Social Enterprise

Creating a Level Playing Field for Social Innovators in Africa

By supporting local innovators, we can solve more social problems and deepen our access to new systems thinking.

There is growing global interest in opportunities for social change and profitable growth on the African continent. In 2015, 30 percent of the 3,165 applications for the Echoing Green Award were for initiatives focused on Africa, with Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya listed as the top five countries after the United States and India. 

In addition, the increasing financial and in-kind support that funders and organizations are channeling to Africa for accelerating social innovation and addressing its problems is a welcome trend. At last count, more than 60 impact investment funds and other investment vehicles have a presence in Nairobi, Kenya, where few existed 15 years ago. There is also a plethora of global and regional prizes, fellowships, accelerators, and incubators that have a strong focus on supporting the growth of social innovation in Africa. 

A review of the recipients of these pioneering initiatives, however, reveals that the vast majority of those focused on Africa are passionate innovators from Europe and the United States. For example, of the 195 awards provided by Echoing Green, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and Skoll Foundation since their inception, only 33 percent of the awardees are locals. Surprisingly, this trend is evident even among social entrepreneurs under 30, as revealed by Forbes’ 2015 30 Under 30 program—30 percent have activities in Africa, but only 22 percent are locals. 

While as Africans we appreciate the talent, passion, experience, and credibility that the social innovators from Europe and the United States bring to the continent, the growing funding and support gap between local social innovators and our international peers is worrying. 

Clearly local African social innovators—who must develop compelling business models rooted in credible measurement and evaluation, and financial management systems—share the burden of bridging this gap. We also have to develop and implement creative communications strategies, and leverage local and international networks to enhance our visibility so that we can attract the same attention and support as our international counterparts. In addition, we need to form partnerships with intermediaries and funders in our home countries, across Africa and with international partners to overcome the hurdle of physical distance from the global impact investors and fellowships.

However, it is equally critical for impact investors, fellowships, accelerators, and funders based in the United States and Europe to step out of their comfort zone, and to find and support more local social innovators in Africa. They can achieve this by taking at least three critical steps:

1. Unlock the pipeline of local innovators. When challenged about why they do not have more local Africans in their selection pipeline, the biggest argument that investors, fellowship programs, and accelerators make is that they cannot find them. However, many Africans argue that they are closed off from the global social innovation landscape, because they are not aware of the opportunities for support or because many organizations do not accept unsolicited applications. (A few recent African MBAs from leading universities in Europe and the United States appear to have successfully established support networks abroad prior to returning home to start their social ventures.) Some local innovators even argue that international investors and innovation programs hold them to a different set of standards, and that a natural bias compels international partners to support individuals who share similar experiences to their own.

The international social innovation landscape has to broaden and deepen its pipeline of local innovators by:

  • Tapping into in-country networks of social innovators, such as LEAP’s Annual Social Innovators Programme, and the more than 200 local innovation spaces across Africa
  • Requesting referrals from traditional funders such as Ford Foundation, which has supported social innovators in Africa for more than 60 years, and Ashoka, which has a grassroots reach. In addition, traditional private-equity firms, which are members of the African Venture Capital & Private Equity Association and have a strong presence on the ground, can support early screening and due diligence efforts.
  • Attending and participating in the growing number of Maker Faire and business-plan competitions on the continent, and supporting the introduction of innovation labs and formal training programs in universities and vocational schools to inspire and equip the next generation of African social innovators
  • Collating and disseminating information about global support opportunities for local innovators, using technology 

A few organizations are identifying homegrown innovators and equipping them to tap into global resources. For example, the MIT D-Lab, through its Creative Capacity Building methodology, identified and supported Teso Women Development Initiatives Executive Director Betty Ikalany, who has pioneered and is scaling innovations focused on using agricultural waste in Uganda to create charcoal and clean stoves. 

There are many like Ikalany in Africa—entrepreneurs that are struggling to start and scale their social innovations have exhausted the available support and resources in their local communities, and need the additional support that the regional and international community can provide. They need opportunity!

2. Close the capacity gap. There are many “undiscovered” social innovators in Africa, but even when investors identify them, they usually are not “investment ready.” They often do not have compelling “theories of change,” and have not developed scalable and sustainable business models that are rooted in credible impact data and supported by sound financial statements. As a result, they need significant external support to meet the global standards required for impact investors and global fellowship programs.

Sadly, very few initiatives provide capacity-building support for these individuals and their companies. One way the international community can help local innovators build these skills is to work with local and international business-development service providers, which can offer subsidized training programs in local business schools and technical assistance via a short-term consultant or international fellow. They can also support peer-peer networks for knowledge transfer and training.

An example of an initiative that is addressing these capacity gaps is Root Capital’s Financial Advisory Services, which the organization offers to prospective and current clients to strengthen their financial management systems. Services include training on accounting, financial planning, financial risk management, financial statement analysis, loan application preparation, and credit management, and the program is deepening Root Capital’s impact across agricultural value chains in West Africa.

The Acumen East Africa Fellows Program is another example of an effort to try to build the skills of local talent. This one-year, fully-funded leadership program enrolls 20 fellows from across East Africa annually, and provides them with five week-long seminars focused on building their financial and operational skills, and connecting them to a local and global community.

In addition, the Bertha Center for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town, has pioneered training and research on social innovation in Africa since 2011. And more recently, the Pan Atlantic University introduced its Social Sector Management Program, which, with support from the Africa-America Institute, works to fill capacity gaps in Nigeria.

3. Build a body of knowledge from work in Africa and share it widely. International impact investors, fellowship programs, and development partners have a critical role to play in showcasing the work of local social innovators and sharing learning from their experiences in Africa that could benefit the rest of the world. 

Two powerful examples that illustrate this promise are from East Africa: 

  • Safaricom, a telecommunications company, launched M-Pesa—a global pioneer in the small-value mobile payment and money transfer landscape. Since its introduction in mid-2007, more than 9 million customers—40 percent of Kenya’s adult population—have adopted M-PESA. The platform is now facilitating an average of $320 million per month in person-to-person transfers, and enterprises in at least five other countries have replicated the model.
  • Ushahidi, initially developed in 2008 to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout, currently provides open-source software, data collection, analysis and visualization, and technology strategy across at least five countries in Africa. Ushahidi also created the iHub, which has more than 14,000 members and has incubated 150 tech startups.

There are many more innovations from Africa that the world needs to learn about. In addition, the global community has an important role to play in broadening its knowledge about these innovations and using its global platforms to build awareness, learning and replication.

Indeed, by leveling the playing field—unlocking our pipeline of local social innovators and closing the capacity gap—we can not only solve more social problems in Africa, but also deepen our access to new systems thinking that can benefit the global community. These interventions will showcase and celebrate individuals who can serve as positive role models for others in their communities, providing a powerful signaling effect that will catalyze a new generation of social innovators in Africa.

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  • orode doherty's avatar

    BY orode doherty

    ON June 3, 2015 03:35 PM

    Very informative article, great to know there are so many opportunities available already; hopefully would-be-investors will take this advice seriously and invest more deliberately in African social entrepreneurs.

  • BY Abolade Durojaiye

    ON June 3, 2015 06:00 PM

    Well researched and highly informative article that not only outlines and elaborates on the challenges, but suggests possible solutions that will create and expand social innovators and innovation across Africa. Well done.

  • Folasade Adefisayo's avatar

    BY Folasade Adefisayo

    ON June 4, 2015 04:23 PM

    I enjoyed the article and felt it explained why social entrepreneurs in Africa are often very small and have limited impact. I can see that the issue is not that they are bereft of ideas for change, but they do not have certain technical skills such as development of their theories of change and plans for implementation. I hesitate to say a business plan as these are social enterprises, but I find that many NGO’s don’t appreciate the need to articulate their plans and develop plans for sustainability. Thank you for clarifying this feeling I had. Now, what next? What are your plans for helping social entrepreneurs in Africa develop capacity? I know, I am never satisfied but I know that you are not a just a theorist but also a consummate, achievement-oriented doer.

  • Kofi Adade's avatar

    BY Kofi Adade

    ON June 5, 2015 06:26 AM

    Very, very informative article.  I am on the verge of forming a non profit organization primarily to aid children in Africa.  This article will help me a lot in creating and formulating my strategies.  Thanks so much. 

  • shadracck Agaki's avatar

    BY shadracck Agaki

    ON June 6, 2015 02:00 AM

    Ndidi you made my day this sataday morning, i am hungry for social innovation knowledge and i got a piece from this article

  • BY Maryam Uwais

    ON June 6, 2015 01:38 PM

    Funding is a major constraint for many who yearn for sustainability in this field of endeavour. This piece articulates the challenges faced by many innovators and suggests ways in which we can overcome the hindrances; very useful insights. Thank you, Ndidi. Brilliant, as always.

  • Akwugo Nnama's avatar

    BY Akwugo Nnama

    ON June 7, 2015 02:10 PM

    Very interesting article, and its right on the money. The good thing that Ndidi does is to not only mention the issues facing scaling of social innovation, but to point out in detail feasible solutions. I think that ‘closing the capacity gap’ might be the most challenging issue to overcome. This is because we need investors and foundations who really care and understand that there might not necessarily be returns to be made, but that assisting to close the gap is simply an investment in African human capital and a step in the right direction.

  • BY Victor Grau Serrat

    ON June 8, 2015 08:53 AM

    Thanks Ndidi for such a wonderful piece. As others have already commented, I particularly appreciate your suggestions and pointers for what can be done to continually improve the current situation.

    In addition to the mention of MIT D-Lab’s Creative Capacity Building methodology, I would highlight the efforts of the International Development Design Summit ( in building the pipeline of local innovators (in Africa as well as other regions around the world), with an upcoming summit in Botswana, and several past ones in Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania.

    Also, in terms of being entrepreneurial in attracting funding in small quantities, keep an eye on Kiva Zip (, currently in Kenya piggybacking on M-PESA.

    Thanks again,

  • BY Ndidi Nwuneli

    ON June 8, 2015 02:34 PM

    Thank you for your kind feedback and words of support!

    Victor, thanks for sharing information about IDIN and Kiva Zip. I will definitely connect with these initiatives as I continue the research process for my book on Scaling Social Innovation in Africa.

    The sad reality is that there are so many new and exciting innovations and support structures emerging on the African Continent. We really have to work collaboratively to collate and share these resources more broadly.

  • Jul Akpe's avatar

    BY Jul Akpe

    ON June 11, 2015 06:47 AM

    The author herself entrenched the same stereotype she has set out to dispel. Both examples she chose were largely driven and funded from overseas. MPESA and USHAHIDI. Mpesa is British and most coders who worked on Ushahidi and the funders who kept it going were from the US. In the case of MPESA it was not only built entirely overseas, it was even conceived by British engineers. Why did she choose them? Because they are safe. She has seen them in the right places. If even for a brief article she couldn’t find two authentic, genuinely African, examples then why does she think international investors and donors would? After all, unlike her, they don’t live in Africa. So the problem is deeper than she makes it sound; even she is not immune.

  • BY Ndidi Nwuneli

    ON June 11, 2015 07:19 AM

    Dear Jul, thanks for your honest feedback. Can you please explain what stereotype you believe that I am trying to dispel through the article which you argue I am not immune to? In addition, please share the problem which you believe is deeper that I may have missed.

    My article is about creating a level playing field for social innovators operating in Africa. I simply used Mpesa and Ushahidi for my last section - “Build a body of knowledge from work in Africa and share it widely.” I used these two examples because they are well know innovations that were scaled from Kenya to other regions and have been widely studied and publicized. I understand your concerns about these choices, and I am not sure those involved will entirely agree with the view that these two initiatives are largely foreign. I am the founder or co-founder of some social innovations in Nigeria and I have a large network of friends and colleagues who have created initiatives in different African countries. I did mention and provide links to LEAP Africa and Teso Women Development Initiatives and in future articles and in my upcoming book, I will showcase these initiatives.

  • Greg Grothe, Land O'Lakes International Developmen's avatar

    BY Greg Grothe, Land O'Lakes International Developmen

    ON June 24, 2015 02:56 PM

    Thanks for this thought provoking piece.  I believe local innovators will be essential for social enterprise growth across the continent and the three critical steps you raise are spot on.  Ndidi, I appreciate the number of interesting initiatives and platforms you referenced. They’re certainly helping address some of the constraints to growth of social innovation.

    As you’ve noted, incubators and enterprise accelerators can play important roles in unlocking the pipeline of innovation. They build entrepreneurs’ capacity and develop a body of knowledge.  We’re currently implementing two USAID-funded enterprise acceleration programs in Kenya and Tanzania, and I’d love to hear what you think Ndidi.  The Kenya Feed the Future Innovation Engine (KFIE) - helps bridge the gap between social innovation and growth capital. It currently supports 17 entrepreneurs and businesses by: (1) promoting new products and services, (2) providing the ventures support for testing concepts, (3) piloting business models, and (4) ultimately linking the ventures to capital for growth and scale. In Tanzania, the Innovations for Gender Equality Program is incubating new social ventures and has supported over 20 innovations. Each is led by women and/or uses products and services that empower women in Agriculture.

    It is truly exciting to see so many compelling business models emerge from the ingenuity of local innovators! To achieve the full potential of innovation in the market, it will be imperative to develop more connections across different platforms which facilitate social innovation.

  • BY Ndidi Nwuneli

    ON June 25, 2015 10:35 PM

    Thanks Greg. Your work is extremely important and the links you shared are terrific. I would be delighted to speak to some of the social innovators that you have supported in Tanzania and Kenya as part of my research for the book on Scaling Social Impact in Africa.

  • BY Justin Mabeya

    ON June 29, 2015 04:44 AM

    This is a nice piece which is quite thought provoking. Consistent withe the step “Build a body of knowledge from work in Africa and share it widely” an opportunity exists among the youth in our universities in Africa to contribute towards filling the gap of innovations for social entrepreneurship. Albeit the innovations may not be investment ready, they could contribute to building a critical mass for pushing the contributions by locals in the sphere of innovations. A regular audit among students and lecturers is likely to unearth great potential among them which will also contribute towards a change of mind set and focus among the students and faculty in African universities.

  • Recognizing the incredible talent pool across the continent, the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders supports African social innovators from the private, civic and public sectors through intensive executive leadership training and follow on professional development support. The program aims to bolster 4,000 young African leaders over 5 years. You can learn more about the program by visiting the website here:

    You can also check out the profiles of the 1,000 Mandela Fellows (500 from 2014 and 500 currently in the U.S. for their executive leadership training) here:

  • Evans Odhiambo's avatar

    BY Evans Odhiambo

    ON July 13, 2015 06:06 AM

    This is quite informative. We need more social innovators from Africa to spearhead Africa’s growth.

  • BY Ritchie Felix

    ON May 24, 2016 07:02 AM

    Thanks Ndidi for this revealing, all engaging and innovative article at this critical time in Africa history. Africa social entrepreneurs surely need a concrete bridge across this widening capacity gap to square up with others across the globe.

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