4 Sep 2012

"The best solutions to Africa's challenges will be devised by those affected by them": Loren Treisman, Indigo Trust

Loren Treisman is Executive of Indigo Trust, a grant making foundation which supports technology-driven projects in Africa.  She shares her thoughts ahead of her participation to AfricaCom, where she will speak on the role of foundations in supporting technology innovation hubs, and on  innovative mobile services for rural communities.

"I’m the Executive of a UK based charitable foundation, the Indigo Trust.  We’re part of the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts who have made over a billion pounds of donations to charitable causes over several decades, representing one of the leading examples of sustained philanthropy in Britain.  

Indigo focuses its funding on technology-driven projects which bring about social change, largely in African countries.  Our theory of change stems from a belief that if people have the ability to access, share and create information, then they are empowered to make positive changes in their own lives and communities.  We have a particular interest in innovation, transparency and citizen empowerment but support projects across a whole range of sectors including the health, education, human rights and agricultural spheres.

It may seem unusual for a charitable organisation to be featured at a business focused conference.  However, we believe that technology driven projects have the potential to contribute towards sustained positive social change whilst generating an income.  By adopting social enterprise models, where commercial strategies are applied to maximise improvements in human or environmental well-being, we believe that social projects are more likely to be in a position to scale and sustain over time, thus maximising their social impact.  This can best be achieved when the private, public and third sector collaborate effectively.

We believe that the best solutions to Africa's challenges will be devised by those affected by them.  African entrepreneurs have a better understanding of the complex local context.  Moreover, having encountered the frustrations impacting on their own lives and communities first hand, they have the passion required to drive a project or product forward.

Therefore, we are supporting nine technology innovation hubs across the continent.  By providing access to desk space, high speed internet, training, mentorship and high profile events, technology hubs are able to galvanise the tech entrepreneur community, having a catalytic effect on the number of projects being developed in-country.  They’re springing up across the continent: there’s Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria, KINU in Tanzania, Activ Spaces in Cameroon, Klab in Rwanda, Hive Colab in Uganda, Jokko Lab in Senegal, Nairobi’s famous iHubBongo Hive in Zambia and Rlab in Cape Town.  Some have even sprung up in unexpected places like the iLab in Liberia and Rlab in Somaliland.

The RLab in Cape Town, the brain child of the inspirational Marlon and Rene Parker is an unusual but fascinating example.  Through supporting those in society that many have already given up on, they have transformed drug addicts and ex-gang members into social entrepreneurs.  Their Jamiix mobile counselling platform now has over 50 million users and an incubator, which they established less than a year ago, employs 13 people.  Collectively, the businesses it’s supporting serve more than 300, 000 users.

As funders, we believe that it is necessary to support these spaces at the early stages before they are able to achieve financial independence.  We can then shift our support towards supporting the innovative social projects arising from them, rather than importing Western models.  In the same way, we can support social entrepreneurs until their projects become financially sustainable.  As grant funders, we are able to provide small grants and to move fast.  We are also able to take relatively high risks.  This encourages entrepreneurs to innovate and gives them room to experiment and test new ideas and concepts.

The pool of angel investors is small in most African countries and investors often require prototypes to have been developed and lengthy impact assessments to have been carried out before making investments.  It can also take considerable time before start-ups begin generating an income. Philanthropic organisations can fill this gap by supporting early stage start-ups, giving the projects a chance to succeed, secure private sector investment and achieve sustainability.
In Kenya, the inspirational Su Kahumbu of iCow has developed a mobile application which provides timely information to dairy farmers by voice or SMS in a range of languages. Farmers can also identify agro-experts, monitor disease outbreaks, sell and purchase livestock via the application.  Whilst this project currently requires grant funding, it is hoped that the project will be self-sustaining in the future as farmers are happy to make very small payments in order to access services as using the service has improved their income through increased milk yields.  When we came across them only a year and a half ago, we were their first funder, providing a grant of £10, 536 and now they have plans to scale across Kenya and beyond.

At Indigo Trust, we also support projects which are unlikely to generate an income, predominantly in the category of public goods and services, a sector which hasn’t traditionally attracted private investment due to market failure.  In sectors such as transparency and accountability, organisations often require on-going funding to sustain projects which support good governance.  We’re excited to see governments across Africa, exemplified by the Kenyan government,beginning to open up data.  This has created an influx of citizen led initiatives which contribute towards transparency and ultimately improved service delivery.

The Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, Nigeria, the brainchild of Bosun Tijani and Femi Longe is supporting a wide range of projects in this space.  A Nigerian Constitution App has been downloaded more than 150, 000 times, more than any democracy focused App in the UK.  Budgit is creating infographics and stimulating discussion around Nigeria’s budget whilst iWatch Live enables citizens to monitor government projects and hold them to their promises.  In Kenya and Tanzania, citizens are able to report challenges in service delivery through a platform called Huduma.  Right on your doorstep in South Africa, the Lungisa project by Cell Life is being piloted in Khayelitsha with a similar aim, whilst miGox enables community members to access government information in the form of stories, stimulating discussions and interactions by the public.

As mobile based technology and even internet based services become more widely available across Africa, we expect to see a broadening of the market and a widening and diversification of the consumer base.  For example, iCow targets subsistence dairy farmers in Kenya, whilst the SHM Foundation’s Project Kopano provides SMS based support to women diagnosed with HIV during pregnancy in South Africa.  

In order to ensure that projects are well targeted towards remote and often marginalised communities, entrepreneurs need to ensure that end users are consulted at all stages of development, that the technology is appropriate (for example interactive voice response or SMS based services on basic feature phones), that end users have sufficient capacity to utilise projects (and training is provided if necessary) and that utilising technology is actually the best approach to tackling a particular issue.  These projects also require new business models, which take into account the low incomes of the majority of the end users which they support.  This can include generating revenue through advertising, cross-subsidy models or low profit, high turnover approaches.

It is also crucial to ensure that techies collaborate with social activists and civil society more generally to ensure that their tools tackle a genuine need.  Civil society organisations can also help to raise awareness of projects and products and provide training to end users.  Technology tools also need to be integrated into well-devised programmes, rather than being viewed as a panacea to all social problems in their own right. 

The private sector can greatly contribute to this sector by supporting core costs such as rent and internet for technology hubs in exchange for branding.  Mutually beneficial business models can also be devised to support social projects.  For example, mobile operators could host such projects on their network and assist in marketing as a way of expanding their user base, generating revenue and contributing towards their public profile.   They could also offer reduced data costs to such ventures.  

There is much work to be done to ensure that the right ecosystem is created to support upcoming entrepreneurs.  This includes creating an appropriate regulatory framework and policy environment, where governments actively encourage innovation.  Entrepreneurs also need to be provided with sufficient mentorship and support in areas such as marketing, business planning, software development, regulations and legalities and communications and to ensure that they increase their visibility and speak widely about their work.  As always, access to finance also remains a challenge, even more so in Sub-Saharan Africa.

At Tech Innovation Hubs, there is also still work to be done to encourage collaboration and build a sense of trust amongst entrepreneur.  There is also a need to establish the best way to reach marginalised or under-represented communities and those living outside main cities.  Initiatives which support collaboration between hubs are also likely to achieve impact.  Many of the hubs also have initiatives which aim to attract women to the technology sector and there is a need to build upon these.

Whilst the tech for social change sector in Africa is relatively new, I’m always amazed to see how much it has achieved already.  I look forward to watching this space evolve and grow, thus stimulating economic growth and contributing to social change across a range of sectors throughout the continent.

I’m excited to be participating in AfricaCom, where I look forward to gaining insight into the role of the private sector in stimulating economic development and providing new services to consumers in this rapidly changing space.  I’m also excited to meet some of the sector’s leading players and to share best practice and experiences.

If you’d like to find out more about our work, check out Indigo’s blog here.  You can also read a recent viewpoint I recently wrote for the BBC entitled ‘Do Africa’s technology entrepreneurs need charity?’ and watch a clip of me being interviewed on this issue here."
AfricaCom will take place on 13-15 November 2012 in Cape Town. For more information on the event and the conference programme visit our website.