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4 Simple Ways To Make Innovation Work In The Developing World

Radical innovation might be the province of tech companies, with social entrepreneurs afraid to change models too quickly. But there are many things the sector can learn from the quick-moving tech world.

For communities whose experience is one of extreme poverty, where the loss of a few coins can mean the difference between feeding your family and hunger, there is an understandable wariness about doing something untried. But that does not mean people are unwilling to do things differently—provided it is relevant.

Innovation needs relevance.

In partnership with Google, we at Camfed—which educates young girls in Africa—have set up ICT centers in remote communities that are used as tools for business and learning. Sixty-seven percent of users are under 25 years old, and 91% of the total number of users mainly use the Internet to search for information. With the MasterCard Foundation, we are helping young women develop businesses that are uncommon in their communities. Instead of opening stores as tailors—a crowded market—they are launching solar panel sales companies, mobile pharmacies, and agribusiness.

Camfed has taken the unique approach of making the young women whom we have supported through bursaries the monitors of our programs. We give them mobile phones and collect and share data. We collect data on attendance of girls so that we can track and follow up on any issues that will impede their progress in school. Giving young women control over technology that often the senior members of the community do not own or understand gives these young women status—and confidence.

Based on our 20 years experience in delivering programs that ensure girls in the poorest parts of rural Africa stay in and complete school and, crucially, that these young women are then able to succeed as independent young adults, trying the untried is not the only lesson we’ve learned in order to succeed.

Allow me to explain three more.

Whether in the United States or Ghana, solutions devised by local communities succeed.

If you think that the poorest communities are unable to help themselves and that only external intervention can change the dynamic of poverty—think again. Communities possess some of the most vital resources for change to stick: They understand local dynamics, they live the challenges, and they know the most effective solutions to the problems they face.

The approach that Camfed takes is to listen, ask what communities need to make a difference, and support them. The result? People own the transformation. From passive recipients of aid, communities become active leaders of change.

Last week, when I met local government officials who help to coordinate Camfed’s work on the ground, we asked why they undertook this extra, unpaid work. "We are doing this for our own daughters, our children, our cousins," they said. It’s the approach we all want to take for our children, but poverty prevents many in the world from achieving it.

Short-term booms are ultimately not successful or sustainable. Long-term investment and growth are critical to success.

Education should be, by its nature, long-term. When you invest in education for the long-term, the returns are much higher. Studies show a person’s potential income can increase as much as 10 percent with each additional year of schooling.

But in a world where investment is focused on the short-term, long-term investment seems unfashionable. Development is no different: Aid investments are frequently project driven—meaning investors come in for a few years—and then move on.

When you’re talking about a child’s life, and national change, you need to think much bigger. Camfed invests in a child’s education for the full cycle from primary to secondary school, and beyond. That way, girls’ education becomes not a one-off "project," but becomes a habit. It becomes embedded. The result: a generation of women leading change.

Partnering with government is actually a good thing.

Entrepreneurs view themselves as pioneers: lone operators challenging the status quo. Often this is framed as a battle between the visionary individual and a restrictive government, in which the entrepreneur must work outside the public system to succeed.

As social entrepreneurs aiming for major impact, working in collaboration with government is the only way for Camfed to ensure that change is replicated on a large scale. In Ghana, we work in partnership with the government—sitting on technical working groups and ad hoc advisory bodies—to ensure that what we do complements their work. This puts us in a position where we can offer constructive criticism, share best practices, and shape systemic change.

A government bursary system being adopted in Ghana at the moment, for example, draws on our experience of successfully running bursaries in rural areas for two decades.

None of this may sound like rocket science. But from what I’m seeing in the villages of rural Ghana, it’s how you produce rocket scientists.