South Africa – and indeed the entire African continent – struggles with the paradox that while it is probably among the richest in the world (from a minerals point of view), the population is on average very poor and unemployment is high.
Africa is billed as the next growth region, however for economic growth to be sustainable there is an imperative to unleash Africa’s ingenuity and innovation capabilities to create and grow wealth from the ‘inside out’. Responding to social and economic innovation imperatives is complex but exciting, says Professor Walter Baets, director of the UCT GSB.
“While many people view Africa as the dark continent, I see it as the newest great innovation frontier,” he writes in a recent column in Fast Company magazine – newly launched in South Africa.
For this reason, much of Professor Baets’ work at the UCT GSB since his appointment in 2009 has been geared towards giving flesh to this belief.
Starting with the establishment of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in June 2011, and continuing with the successful launch of the Solution Space at the school in 2014; the last five years have been punctuated by several innovation highlights.
Highlighting African innovation on the global stage
One of the key strategies of the Bertha Centre has been to work with and support emerging entrepreneurs from Africa – specifically student entrepreneurs – through a Student Social Venture Programme, with the aim of increasing African representation at global social venture competitions.
Director of the Bertha Centre, Dr François Bonnici, says that in the past, African teams have not featured much in global competitions because they did not get the support or sponsorship they needed and weren’t encouraged to enter such events.
“Our firm belief in setting up the UCT Student Social Venture Programme at the GSB was that student social ventures of global standards were being developed in South Africa, and not just at UCT, that deserve our support. We are extremely proud of our students!”
This belief has been borne out. Since the programme was established, it has produced two teams who went on to compete successfully – and win – at global competitions. In 2013, the Reel Gardening team won both the Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC), the world’s pre-eminent social business plan competition, and the Hult Prize London regional competitions, beating 50 other universities, and was one of six teams globally to compete in the prestigious Clinton Global Initiative. And in 2014, The UCT GSB team, Lumkani (formerly Khusela), won the GSVC People’s Choice award for its low-cost fire detection device and integrated alert service designed for shack-dwellers. In South Africa, there are an average of 10 shack fires a day, with someone dying in a shack fire every other day, according to Abahlali base Mjondolo, a South African shack-dwellers’ movement.
Both businesses continue to go from strength to strength, thanks in part to the funding and mentorship that these awards have afforded them.
Through the Bertha Centre, the GSB has established several significant partnerships that further its innovation capacity and open it up to new fields including health, education and social franchising.
In 2012, the centre won a bid to host the Centre for Education Innovations – South Africa (CEISA), one of several global hubs working with the Washington-based Results for Development Institute (R4D) and funded by the Department for International Development (DFID).
CEI aims to increase access to quality education for learners from disadvantaged communities by identifying, analysing and connecting non-state education innovations. The idea is to identify successful innovations and assist with scaling these up to benefit more people.
In the health realm, the GSB has formed an alliance with the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences to launch the Inclusive Innovation Initiative (iHI): a new platform for Africans to tackle health on the continent that will focus on generating creative and innovative solutions that cut across disciplines and sectors.
The iHI will serve as a collaborative, crosssectoral and transdisciplinary platform and promote a needs-based, empathy-driven approach to healthcare innovation. Support for the initiative has been received from the National departments of Health and Science and Technology, the South African Medical Research Council and the Technology Innovation Agency.
In 2014, the initiative hosted a hugely successful health hackathon and an exceptionally well attended Inclusive Innovation Healthcare Summit.
Also in 2014, the Bertha Centre announced the launch of the world’s first Social Franchising Accelerator, which was established in partnership with the International Centre for Social Franchising (ICSF) and Franchising Plus. With funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the initiative is a unique academic-NGO-private sector partnership and will help meet the needs of poor and vulnerable people across the country by supporting and scaling up successful social impact organisations.
“Using the tools of commercial franchising, which have proven to be highly effective in growing businesses, creating local ownership and economic wealth, the idea behind the Social Franchising Accelerator is to take successful social impact organisations and create the systems and support necessary to replicate these effectively,” says Dr Bonnici.
Inclusive innovation studies
In the academic space, there have been several shifts at the UCT GSB. These include the introduction of the Social Innovation Lab as a stream on the MBA and an MPhil with a specialisation in Inclusive Innovation. Both of these initiatives find a natural home in the Solution Space, established in 2014 as a dedicated innovation space at the heart of the campus.
“Through the Solution Space, we signal our intention to encourage a new generation of business graduates to think differently about how they engage with the world and how they make money and add value,” says Professor Baets.
Like other innovation hubs on the continent – such as Kenyan-based technology centre i-hub (one of Fast Company’s most innovative companies in 2014) – the Solution Space also houses start-ups and seeks to connect entrepreneurs to each other and to opportunities in the form of advice and funding, in addition to its teaching and learning activities.
“The Solution Space is an opportunity to experiment in a real space with real people,” says Professor Baets. “And because complex challenges demand collaboration and partnership, the space will be a nexus between industry, government, academia and civil society.”
Each year, the Bertha Centre offers several scholarships to students to study on both of these programmes. And increasingly, the programmes are acting as a drawcard for students – who see the school as the preeminent hub for education and research in social innovation and entrepreneurship.
In 2013, an informal poll of students on the MBA revealed that 60% of them chose to study at the GSB because of this emphasis.
“The opportunities are there for the taking for those who are able and willing to think in full colour and open their minds to them,” says Professor Baets. “And we aim to help people to see and achieve this.”