If digital technology is fueling the new rise of Africa, then social entrepreneurship is the motor. As the British Council concisely puts it “The African narrative is gradually shifting from aid-led solutions to enterprise-led solutions to developmental problems.” This is where we’re at.
Here’s how I look at it:
For a long time, African societies were largely dependent on their individual governments for basic things like power, housing, transport systems, communications, education, and healthcare. Needless to mention, the governments failed in their duties to the people and these areas suffered. Because these are very basic needs, much progress in other sectors was stalled or frustrated as long as these needs remained unmet. Hence, the long-enduring cycle of repression and poverty that has plagued the African continent for decades. A few good men made progress to fix some of the problems on small scales. Most times, their efforts were thwarted by the deep-seated rot and the people were filled with everlasting complaints.
Everything began to change when the era of problem-solving arrived. A large number of our population (read youth) became more empowered. Due to the opportunities for knowledge presented by globalization and technology, they started to realize that the future had already started to happen in other parts of the world while we crossed our arms waiting for the government to do their part. Faced with unemployment, entrepreneurship began rising to an all-time high. Innovative ideas found a more fertile ground and people became encouraged to look inwards for solutions to problems. Ultimately, some level of ignorance is being shed and we are realizing that the answers have been in ourselves all along. Now, it is clear that the real impact Africa needs will come from our personal and collective contributions.
Hence, the exponential growth of social entrepreneurship. I won’t go into details on that because this very interesting article already does it a lot of justice. For the most part, traditional businesses operated on capitalistic models. They existed mainly because the entrepreneur saw an opportunity to make money by exploiting a need. Now, the goal is slightly different. Africans today are a lot more knowledgeable and becoming determined to address continental problems head on. Social entrepreneurship is a balance: finding a way to solve specific societal problems by providing a good or service.
A social entrepreneur sees an opportunity to fill a very important social/environmental gap. He has an idea and develops a feasible plan that is profitable or at least sustainable and implements it.
Making money isn’t excluded from his plans; it is actually necessary that he does. But his primary concern is social impact.
In Kenya for example, literacy rates are low due to failing educational systems so different startups are coming up with ways for less privileged students to access and share educational resources. In Lagos Nigeria, an overpopulated city with a housing and transportation crisis, Seventh Space is creatively making houses more affordable to people. The banking sector in Africa has almost been completely transformed by innovations in financial technology. As for health, Africa has a long way to go. Kenyan startup Totohealth(tsk, I know what you’re thinking) is similar to Nigerian Help Mumin providing personalized maternal health information via mobile updates to pregnant women in rural areas. Many other Nigerian health internet companies are also tackling various problems in their own unique way, some more effective than others.
Some areas still remain largely unresolved, mainly because they are a lot trickier. Transportation, education, and power for instance in Nigeria. I’d recently been researching an idea for making public transportation in Abuja (where I live) more accessible and mainstream when I came across lara.ng, a chatbot interface with a simple and direct problem-solving approach. The service offers assistance for public transport routes in Lagos.
The same creativity is being taken to electricity and power. Our power distribution companies were recently privatized and have gotten considerably better. Still, our current hydroelectricity model is clearly insufficient for our multiplying population. Renewable energy, the next big thing is more viable but expensive in the short term. So Azuri, a solar company launched an innovative pay as you go solar plan to power rural households living off the grid.
More and more private enterprises are taking this kind of hands-on approach to grassroots problems and it’s great. This is an encouragement to many of us who may be going into ventures for the wrong reasons, to think about impact. Let us all look where it is pinching us collectively. Why? Why get creative when you can easily copy a successful business model based solely on profit? Right now, I have 3 major reasons: 1. Impact is more marketable than goods & services 2. Social innovation is more sustainable in the long run, not to mention more rewarding. 3. Besides, if not you then who?
Of course, there are challenges and we can’t ignore them. Africa isn’t the most straightforward place to make investments; the lack of infrastructure and shortage of adequate human/financial capital has killed many business efforts. Besides that, good ideas are sometimes thwarted by unfavorable bureaucracy as well as corruption and its related problems. This is where there is much need for adaptability and open-thinking. Even though it’s true that major impact will be spearheaded by private efforts, the public collaboration will definitely make it work better.
One straightforward way the government can support such efforts is by creating empowering platforms for innovators. Such as funding National Innovation prizes, grants, financial aid, and investment. Another is to equip more people with skills and heeding the age-long call for infrastructural development. On the other hand, more stakeholders that are able should invest more in civic hubs that bring like-minded people together to try and find ideas to common problems. This, in turn, will help put in place piece after piece of the puzzle that is Africa.