How social enterprises can make an impact and address systemic challenges in Africa

Dr Stephanie Terreni Brown with Clean Water Wave’s CAFE water filter system.

“We wanted to take our first aid training programme to Zambia,” says Sam Abrahams, CEO of First Aid Africa, whose organisation provides free first aid training to at-risk communities across the continent. “But we lacked the logistical support we had in other African countries. We didn’t have offices, trainers on the ground, or access to rural communities.” Thanks to the Access Africa Programme (AAP), he explains, “we went from having zero presence in Zambia to recruiting a team and operating a functioning office in a matter of weeks.”

Delivered by Challenges in Edinburgh, Scotland, and through our offices in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia, the AAP provides social enterprises with overseas practical support by way of market insights, staffing, business development, and legal and regulatory advice. As well as on-the-ground market data sourced through its local teams and networks, the AAP also provides other elements of the Challenges offering, including pilot testing, operational support, direct partnerships and commercial collaborations. And as the programme grows, Challenges is planning to expand the offering and bring in innovative companies and organisations to collaborate in addressing social challenges.

But it was Challenges’ ability to access accurate local knowledge and broker deals that was a key draw for the social enterprise Lilypads, which works to end period poverty.

Lilypads training session in Kenya.

CEO Alison Wood looked to Challenges’ AAP after launching her reusable menstrual products in Kenya. After a thorough market analysis, Alison is now preparing to roll out the business to Zambia, where Challenges consultants are looking at commercial opportunities — with a view to establishing the country’s first producer of sustainable sanitary pads.

“Challenges has been critical in building on the success of our Kenyan operation,” says Alison. “Their in-country teams have access to market data and hold meetings with potential partners on my behalf. AAP has reduced the risks of exploring growth opportunities, and has enabled me to drive Lilypads’ export model forwards, giving support on both the business development and our social mission.”

Another social enterprise engaged in AAP is Clean Water Wave, an Edinburgh-based business prototyping an effective and efficient water treatment system that can be deployed in remote areas. The market insights and business networks Challenges has provided have been critical to developing the company’s international strategy, and Clean Water Wave is currently in talks with the Rwandan water board about the application of its system.

Dr Stephanie Terreni Brown, managing director and co-founder of Clean Water Wave, says, “We’re progressing our Clean Aqua For Everyone (CAFE) water treatment system through the protoyping stage and have already had talks with Rwandan water board about the application of our system. Unlike other water treatment systems, this is low-power, highly efficient, and doesn’t rely on using chemicals to do the hard work of treating water. CAFE can help treat water that has bacteriological contaminants, and also help deal with contaminants such as microplastics, pesticides and heavy metals such as arsenic, which of course we know can have devastating effects on our environment and on communities, such as we saw recently in India.

“We’re deeply passionate about our CAFE system, and our partnership with Challenges means we can realise its potential quicker. The system treats contaminated water effectively and far more efficiently and sustainably than other methods. AAP will help to speed its delivery. Ultimately, this will save lives.”

Growth and expansion

Funded by the Scottish Government, the AAP is Europe’s first example of a government supporting social enterprises to find an application in Africa. Since its launch in 2018 it has also attracted interest from potential partners in Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Holland. Like their Scottish counterparts, businesses in those countries lack capability in specific African markets, and recognise they can access this through Challenges’ network of in-country business consultants and researchers.

Challenges is no stranger to the international social enterprise and development communities. Founded 20 years ago, it has managed development projects in 66 countries, and supported more than 3000 enterprises and businesses, from sole traders to social entrepreneurs, through training, market insights and operational support. It’s partnered with a host of businesses, organisations and NGOs such as British Council, Oxfam and Care, and globals such as the banking giants Prudential and Standard Chartered. On top of its network of trusted partners, it’s also established a trusted and effective approach to supporting social enterprises, which is where its AAP is showing major potential. Now, Challenges is looking to ramp up its AAP to offer the service to other markets, but, crucially, offer a model that focuses on addressing social challenges through collaborative and innovative models.

Launched in 2018, the AAP began with a pilot of six Scottish social enterprises, expanding quickly to include another 10 organisations, each benefitting from support worth up to £10,000. A further round opened in June this year, and we’re now working with Bampoo, looking at the potential to manufacture its bamboo nappies in Ghana; and St Jerome’s Centre, a charity looking at setting up a fish farming social enterprise to support the sustainability of its children’s home in Kenya.

The Elpis solar system in situ at a refugee camp in Rwanda.

Already, we’re seeing opportunities for these social businesses and others. Clean Water Wave edges closer to an international deal. Solar firm Elpis, which deployed its solar kits to refugee camps, is looking to scale up. Giraffe Healthcare is preparing to roll out a pilot in Ghana this autumn. However, somewhat frustratingly, we’re also seeing progress for our clients being hampered by a lack of capital. So while Challenges can take a product, service or business model and demonstrate its impactful application in an African context, not all our AAP partners have the resources to take the next vital step. For this export-focused social enterprises to be successful there needs to be a greater willingness among NGOs, other government agencies and impact investors to seed these types of cross-border activities.

For Challenges, the AAP isn’t about shifting crates of juice, biscuits or other fast-moving consumer goods; it’s about integrating innovative products, services and systems that solve problems in a specific country, community or ecosystem. It seeks to work with local partners and drive complementary growth, while innovating new processes, tools and technology. It’s about understanding a local market, and growing economies through access to supply chains, training, job creation, innovation, and other opportunities such as franchising.

Challenges believes that social business and innovative enterprises in the Global North have much to offer emerging markets, and that the best way to enable this is to have access to an in-depth understanding of the destination economy and networks, and work with on-the-ground partners. This is a fundamental aspect of Challenges’ offering.

Of course the other requirement is capital, both to cover the initial investigations that open up new markets, but also to seed the next stages of cross-border expansion, like pilots, product development and operational set-up. And while the Scottish Government-funded AAP is one pioneering solution, it’s uniqueness highlights the fundamental problem here: the widespread lack of funding and investment for social enterprises wanting to export. Certainly our AAP will help grow some social enterprises and extend their impact to new markets and communities, but if we can also use this model to open up the wider donor and investor landscape to export then we hope that that would be the greatest impact of all.

The Challenges Group

Enterprising solutions to global challenges

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