#9 Summer 2017

Bertha Centre: an African pioneer for sustainable economies and just societies

Panellists from left: Bulelwa Makalima Ngewana, Cape Town Partnership; Dr Richard Chivaka, SPARK Health; Dr Salim Hussein, Ministry of Health, Kenya and Gayle Northrop (moderator), UCLA, engage in a conversation around Government as a Partner: Working from Within as part of the Bertha Centre Social Entrepreneurship and Systems Change course.

An ‘unlikely partnership’ between the UCT Graduate School of Business and the Bertha Foundation led to the establishment of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2011. More than five years down the line, the centre is living up to its mandate to disrupt existing systems and realise new possibilities.

The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship is the first of its kind on the African continent. It was established in 2011 as a partnership between the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) and the Bertha Foundation, a family foundation that supports inspiring leaders who are working to bring about social and economic justice and human rights for all.

The Bertha Centre has also been part of the UCT GSB’s journey in striving to be a leading business school that is both relevant and excellent. In 2017, it was recognised as one of the leading social impact centres globally in a report by Bridgespan, alongside similar initiatives at Harvard, Stanford, Duke and Oxford.

“The Bertha Centre supports the broader mission of the business school and is underpinned by our complementary values. We seek to equip the current and next generation with the tools for organisations and businesses to be more relevant in terms of advancing social and environmental outcomes. We hope to inspire and unlock the agency in all who interact with us to practice, radical engaged enquiry towards creating more inclusive, sustainable economies with just societies,” explains Dr François Bonnici, Director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The centre celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2016. In its first six years, it has become an integral part of the UCT GSB’s character. “It’s embedded in the identity of the business school, which is reflected by the offerings and curriculum of the school. The GSB offers the first MBA where you have to do social innovation as part of your course,” explains Segran Nair, Director for the Open Academic Programmes offered at the GSB.

The Bertha Centre brings many partners together, including non-profit organisations, the public sector and companies to focus on their collective social impact. In so doing, it has created platforms for diverse and robust dialogues and collaborative projects around social change and innovation.

“If we want any kind of social innovation, no single organisation can do that on its own. Every partner needs to be participating in the economy to bring about social change. It’s a question of how do we bring the resources of our partnerships to the mix to bring about that social change? We need to develop integrated thinking, regarding the process in which we build inclusive economies and better societies – that’s the process of social innovation. The MTN Solution Space and Philippi Village sites are examples of some of the GSB platforms that are creating productive spaces for such generative conversations,” says Bonnici.

Social innovation in Action

The Bertha Centre has made many inroads into social innovation in the health, education and finance sectors of South Africa.

In 2015, it facilitated the development of the Groote Schuur Hospital Health Innovation Hub and Innovation Programme, which supports public health workers at the facility to become innovators themselves by unlocking their capacity to innovate and then creating a support system around these frontline leaders.

From this local work of identifying local health innovators, the Bertha Centre designed and led a global initiative with the World Health Organisation and the University of Oxford’s Skoll Centre to identify, recognise and support community-based innovations in delivering healthcare solutions in emerging economies. This has led to the establishment of four other social innovation in health hubs, in Mozambique, Malawi, the Philippines and in London. “These initiatives demonstrate our ability to work with partners to catalyse new ways of doing things, while doing action research,” says Bonnici.

In 2016, the centre partnered with Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs) a local community-based social enterprise in Bridgetown to develop and introduce the GSB’s first free massive open online course or MOOC. The six-week Becoming a Changemaker: Introduction to Social Innovation course has no entry requirements or entry fee and is available on Coursera. It is also available offline, which has enabled trainers to facilitate the course in community halls, schools and homes, in areas with limited access to technology.

“Through our partnership with RLabs, we now have almost 15 000 people enrolled online in over 170 countries. That’s quite phenomenal,” says Bonnici.
The free course was listed as one of the Top 10 massive open online courses (MOOCs) globally in 2016.

Three years ago, the Bertha Centre started working with the provincial and national governments on financing social service delivery by focusing on results, through outcomes-based financing, or social impact bonds. It initiated the conversation through research for National Treasury and worked with many partners and investors to test and develop these mechanisms for incentivising social outcomes. “We’re probably not going to see the results for several years, but there is sufficient interest in the market that National Treasury is running feasibility studies for a pilot that they can evaluate internally. That’s a massive achievement,” says Sue de Witt, former Bertha Scholar and now Senior Project Manager at the Bertha Centre.

Educating for Impact

Closer to home, the Bertha Centre’s impact is evident in the opportunities granted to students of the UCT GSB through the scholarships it offers annually. “At a student level, we have partnerships and engagements through our Social Innovation Lab, which has enabled students to get out of the classroom and into society, partnering with organisations and companies that are seeking sustainable and innovative ways to create impact.

“The Bertha Scholarship, which is the bursary tuition funding we award to curious and active changemakers to come and do a degree here, is key to our work at the GSB. The scholarship intends to help them accelerate their own journey, and give them access to a prestigious Master’s degree (MBA or MPhil), and to free them from the debt burden to make career choices based on pursuing their own purpose. The scholarship also allows us to bring a diversity of voices and backgrounds to the GSB student body.

“This has an impact on the school as a whole and not just on the individual because they’re in the classroom. Having those discussions (brought by Bertha Scholars and those interested in social good, rather than just good financial returns) who would not normally come to business school, brings an important heterogeneity of thinking, experiences and perspectives,” says Bonnici.
But measuring the centre’s impact goes beyond tallying up the number of students and partners who have passed through its doors over the last six years.

“When talking about measuring our impact on our students, it’s about tracing it back to the students’ journey to be a more impactful individual. If we work with an organisation, how are we working with them to be a better organisation, whether in education or healthcare? Has our work with our partners in the field, government, students and NPOs been of value to them? In addition, has it made the way their organisations run more reflective and innovative? And ultimately, are their products and services more accessible, sustainable and of value to people? These are the questions that we ask ourselves,” says Bonnici.

Lessons Learnt

Making advances in this field and in a business school, and the way we view social change and innovation does not come without its own set of challenges or lessons learnt the hard way. As Bonnici recalls, the Bertha Centre has had its fair share of these.

“The first is that you put the Bertha Foundation which is funding social justice and radical activists together with a business school. That unlikely partnership – from the beginning – has a level of paradox and inherent tensions. It’s like we’re doing a dance between the two very different paradigms. Sometimes we’re going to fall over our feet because there are some tensions, but sometimes there might be a new dance that is possible, and can be beautiful and beneficial to both institutions.

“The other is that we’re in an academic institution, yet with a mandate to do more than to research and teach. There have been challenges and mistakes of keeping the academic core but not barricading ourselves in the academic silo, and so challenging the limits of what can be done from a university platform. Sometimes we went too far away from what that core was and sometimes we have not gone far enough,” he recalls.

Future Forward

Bonnici says looking ahead, the Bertha Centre’s focus will be on consolidating its gains, and digging deeper into the work that it’s been doing. “The Bertha Scholar programme will continue to afford people who would ordinarily not attend the business school, the opportunity to do so. We’ll be introducing new online courses and are working on case studies to document the incredible impact and innovative talent of organisations in South Africa and on the continent.”

In terms of the GSB Director Associate Professor Mills Soko’s new direction and vision for the GSB, the centre is already working more with African partners in Rwanda, Kenya, Mali and Liberia on advancing social innovation. One of its Bertha Scholars, Micah Shako, also recently established Tsavo Labs, a social innovation centre in Kenya (see page 28).

“Over the next few years, our focus will also be on advancing the systemic impact of social innovation. We need to go beyond individual solutions and how these might work collectively and work to shift larger systems and markets, and simultaneously look at how these address underpinning root causes of the challenges we face.

“We’re immensely proud of and grateful to our colleagues and students in the GSB and UCT communities, and our many external partners and stakeholders, and of course, the Bertha Foundation for their unwavering support and belief in our work,” concludes Bonnici.

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