In the age of innovation, competitive Innovation Challenges have fueled major successes for research institutions, innovation hubs, private enterprises and development organizations. The concept asks participants to generate ideas for improving products, processes and services, and participants remain engaged and supported through regular feedback as the innovation challenge progresses. We have witnessed many entities sponsoring creativity contests to inspire innovation in the quest for new ideas and solutions to development challenges,
The UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab has utilized innovation challenges to surface innovative solutions. Very recently, UNDP Uganda partnered with Stanbic Bank to launch the Youth4Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship Facility. The facility is designed to spur impact-driven entrepreneurship and innovation to engage enterprises in tackling youth unemployment by leveraging innovations to create livelihood opportunities, improve quality of people’s lives and provide access to affordable, finance, products and services.
The team at UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab is confident that – whether you want to build a culture of innovation, tap into the ingenuity of citizens, or search for immediate solutions – innovation challenges can provide an answer. Though, it all depends on how you structure the challenge.
Uganda joins many countries around the world that have deployed the innovation challenge modality to help speed-up digital transformation and develop an innovation ecosystem that is productive and competitive. Though, some might wonder whether innovation challenges can attract everyone and expose each-and-every bright idea throughout the country? In our experience, having already run four challenges of our own, the answer is not so clear.
Being deliberate to tap into the ingenuity of rural youth
While the UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab is confident that formalized innovation challenges play an important role in identifying, challenging and mentoring Uganda’s next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs, there is a category of people who are usually left out. For those who don’t have the capacity to write and eloquently pitch their solutions, they will always be left out. In fact, one innovator who was encouraged to apply for a recent innovation challenge openly said: “When you help me write my proposal, that’s when I can participate in this challenge.”
Having witnessed innovation challenges at times falling short and not reach everyone – especially the rural youth throughout Uganda – the Accelerator Lab has connected with the Youth4Business Innovation and Entrepreneurship Facility to run the Youth IDEAthon. This will present an entry-level opportunity to identify and nurture enterprises that have potential to form the next generation of transformative, innovative and inclusive enterprises. Though, this time around, reaching them in their respective regions.
The Youth IDEAthon, which will be launched in May 2021, is taking place in partnership with the National Association of Student Enterprises (NASE). It is open to all disciplines and is working to help young and aspiring entrepreneurs begin their journey and address a diverse set of development challenges through mentoring and training sessions focused on early-stage entrepreneurship.
Solutions Safaris are another way we have identified solutions at the source. In early 2020, the Accelerator Lab team conducted a Solutions Safari in Mpigi where we were able to discover various solutions, from those at the idea stage to those already at scale. This exercise was invaluable in connecting with youth innovators and continuing to support them to grow their solutions.
Identifying and supporting local innovators
Always at the back of our mind is the fact that Uganda’s population is one of the world’s most youthful (78% below the age of 30), and the youth of Uganda are incredibly passionate, innovative and entrepreneurial. Indeed, there’s no coincidence that many of these budding innovative solutions have youth at the forefront.
Now into its third Innovation Challenge Fund Call, the Youth4Business Innovation and Entrepreneurial Facility is providing competitive grants as well as mentoring, capacity building and entrepreneurship training for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) looking to pilot and scale innovative business models and solutions that include youth and low-income individuals as owners, employees and stakeholders at various points within the value chain. Youth4Business has targeted the sectors of agriculture, tourism, development minerals, manufacturing, renewable energy, ICT and the creative industry, with an overarching focus of leveraging grassroots innovations to tackle youth unemployment and create jobs and livelihood opportunities.
35 grants have been awarded so far through Youth4Business and as we continue to monitor the progress of these enterprises, we are beginning to see some very encouraging progress. Meanwhile, where outcomes have not progressed quite as expected, the UNDP Uganda team is on hand to continue nurturing these enterprises to ensure their compelling and innovative proposals realize their full potential.
Recently, colleagues from UNDP Uganda met with Youth4Business grantees located in 15 districts across the country to monitor their progress and listen to their stories.
“This grant has made it possible for us to train youth to embrace soil testing as a business,” says PAAT Soil Clinic Managing Director, Julius Mabuya. “It has enabled us to set up demonstration sites to showcase our technology, train farmers on soil fertility management, crop agronomy, record keeping and the importance of precision agriculture, and above all we have been able to offer farmers with soil testing services to enable them to make informed farming decisions.”
Setting the challenge and raising the bar
The Accelerator Lab team is also honored to have participated in the recent Multi City Challenge Africa alongside our partners at Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), whereby citizens from five cities across the continent – Accra, Bahir Dar, Kampala, Kano and Mutare – were called upon to submit solutions to urban development challenges within their respective cities, while also reviewing submissions made by their peers.
Following the submission of 283 proposals and 3,556 public votes, Kampala’s winners to emerge from the challenge included Ecoplastile, a social enterprise transforming post-consumer plastic materials into durable and long-lasting plastic timbers, roofing tiles and building hardware, and Arqlite Green, an environmentally conscious enterprise offering financial solutions to serve disadvantaged and low-income individuals unable to access mainstream financial services.
Ecoplastile and Arqlite Green will continue to engage in masterclass training offered by the Multi City Challenge team, helping them to further refine their projects and improve the presentation of their solutions. Meanwhile, UNDP and KCCA will continue to work alongside the two winners in a mentoring capacity while continuing to explore opportunities for collaboration. Of course, initiatives such as the Multi City Challenge Africa are invaluable in identifying grassroots solutions to complex development challenges, but identifying and connecting with local innovators is merely the first chapter of this story.
Our team has also been privileged to support the SDG Impact Accelerator, another innovation challenge aiming to accelerate and implement solutions in the field of digital agriculture in Uganda. The challenge called for submissions with a focus on industry, innovation and infrastructure, aiming to build resilient infrastructure, promote sustainable industrialization, and foster innovation in agricultural practices. Having received 649 proposals from participants across 54 countries, 21 digital agriculture enterprises were selected to participate in a four-week Pre-Acceleration Program whereby participants are mentored on topics relating to impact investment, business models, globalization and growth.
Following the Pre-Acceleration Program, five enterprises will be selected to continue with an Acceleration Program in which they will receive an equity-free grant to support implementation of their solution, mentorship sessions with members of the SDG Impact Accelerator global network, and ongoing support through each solution’s implementation phase. Among the Ugandan enterprises to qualify include Agro Supply, Boresha Technologies, Hydroponic Farms, Kango Microfinance, Nampya Farmers Market and Solerchil Technologies.
Uganda’s innovators are youthful, Uganda’s innovation ecosystem is growing, and UNDP Uganda recognizes its role in continuing to invest in creative and innovative enterprises with sustainable development at heart. The Accelerator Lab team is excited to see emerging solutions take shape, support their entrepreneurial journey, and ensure the impact is felt by those who need it most.
By Hadijah Nabbale, Head of Solutions Mapping; Deborah Naatujuna, Head of Exploration; and Berna Mugema, Head of Experimentation.