#9 Summer 2017

Pioneering social innovation in East Africa

Bertha Scholar and MBA alumnus, Micah Shako, is working toward the systemic social transformation of East Africa – nothing less – and he credits the skills he learned at the GSB for helping him on this epic journey.

Micah Shako, founder and CEO of Tsavo Innovation Labs based in Nairobi, Kenya, feels he was always destined to work in social innovation. “People tell me I have my mother’s heart,” he says. “By that, they mean I have always wanted to solve problems for others, and that has led me to where I am now.” He speaks fondly of his childhood in Kenya and says, “My mother gave so much of herself, in terms of her time and her resources, to helping our extended family and community. At one stage, we had 17 people living in our house! No wonder I’ve always been very community-minded!”

After completing his BSc in Computer Science at the University of Nairobi, Shako moved into the corporate world and built a career in ICT infrastructure management. He spent three years at Barclays Bank, managing initiatives across Kenya, Ghana, Zambia, Mauritius and South Africa. In 2011 he joined General Electric – Africa, as the Regional Infrastructure Manager. In his corporate career, Shako took most pride in the work “which had impact on lives by improving products or services people depend upon”.

But he felt he had more to contribute. “2014 was a turning point for me,” Shako says. He founded Tsavo Innovation Labs, which initially worked with communities to solve problems through developing mobile apps. Then in 2015 he completed his GSB MBA, on a scholarship from the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which set him on a whole new trajectory.

“I cannot thank the Bertha Centre enough for funding my studies. The centre was very influential in how Tsavo Innovation Labs has evolved. I learned how to run a social innovation centre and I brought what I learned, particularly human-centred design and design thinking, back to Kenya. It was incredible to meet other Bertha scholars at the GSB, Africans who want to contribute to the transformation of their continent, and to have the freedom to look at the world differently and speak openly around the change that we want.”

Today, Tsavo Innovation Labs is a centre of social innovation and entrepreneurship, which focuses on agriculture, healthcare and education. It aims to reduce poverty, marginalisation and the loss of human dignity and to contribute to the systemic social transformation of East Africa.

The Lab’s services include incubation, research, project design and management, capacity development, and consulting. It supports social entrepreneurs with services and networks to help them build and operate sustainable businesses. “We run several social entrepreneurship and leadership academies to build the emerging leaders that East Africa needs,” says Shako. The Lab also builds partnerships with academic and government institutions and has recently formalised an agreement with the Tanzanian Commission of Science, Technology and Innovation.

One of the achievements Shako is particularly proud of is the success of the“ Tsavorites” – the ventures which the Lab incubates – named after the gemstones found in the Tsavo region of Kenya. “We measure our success on how these ventures have matured, how much change and impact they have made. We also measure our evolution in terms of our influence, how many partnerships have we built across the region that help us push our agenda.”

Support from the GSB and the Bertha Centre continues. “The Bertha Centre and the GSB have been amazing in helping us build partnerships, continentally and globally. They refer any opportunities they think we will benefit from, they have added value, recommended us, and given us exposure.” Shako also extends special thanks to Dr François Bonnici, Director of the Bertha Centre. “I have never met a more humble person, who is so committed to the work he is doing. He is one of our advisors, and I really look up to him.”

Looking back on his MBA, Shako laughs when he remembers the leadership course with Kurt April. “I hated that assignment at the time! There was a lot of introspection, which is hard for someone like myself from a technical background. I used to look at every problem as something that can be broken down and fixed. That leadership course really transformed me and has made a difference to how I run Tsavo Innovation Labs.”

Personal insight, he says, brings a broader perspective. For instance, Shako’s parents came from different communities within Kenya, which he feels imbued him with a different outlook on society, inspiring him to bridge the gaps. And his enduring hope for the future generation is that “they will not know lines between communities, they will look at the world and think we are all the same”.

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