Innovating for Smarter Development

Takeaways from USAID’s Inaugural Global Innovation Week
By Marieka Walsh and Lars Battle

What do you get when you put 100 top international innovators representing the public, private, and social sectors into the same rooms to discuss shared challenges? You get glimpses of a future—one that’s within reach—where common goals inspire partnerships with vast potential for progress.

This was the scene of the first Global Innovation Week (GIW) hosted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, DC on September 28-29, and it set the stage for discussions around how to harness innovative thinking and emerging technologies in international development. USAID Administrator Mark Green captured the essence at the outset of the week: “Innovation is making the impossible, possible; the unsolvable, solvable. Of course, nowhere is this truer than in the area of international development, where technology and new thinking are enabling us to reinvent how we go about fulfilling our mission.”

The speeches, panel discussions, and the interactive Innovation Marketplace featured the most promising innovations selected from USAID’s portfolio—including the top ten initiatives that have each impacted the lives of one million or more people. Over two days, attendees learned what it takes to make the ‘unsolvable, solvable.’

Photo credit: Jennifer Kwack for USAID

The global challenges ranged from education gaps in India to earthquake preparedness in Mexico. One area in particular drew a number of organizations: the multi-dimensional challenges facing smallholder farmers, or individuals who cultivate on less than five acres. According to a 2015 report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately two-thirds of the population in less-industrialized countries across the globe live in smallholder farming households. Collectively, they are responsible for producing the majority of food consumed in their countries. However, their productivity has slowed over the years, and historically, their ability to thrive is severely limited due to volatile, often difficult-to-access marketplaces and numerous other systemic barriers.

Babban Gona (meaning “Great Farm” in the Hausa dialect) was a shining example of impact. A social enterprise in Nigeria, this for-profit, mission-driven organization is breaking the cycle of poverty among smallholder farmers by using a franchise model that offers end-to-end services to farmer collectives. Babban Gona provides its network of franchises with services that include access to financing, agricultural inputs such as seeds, and services like soil testing and training. Since the programming began in 2015, the bundled services farmers receive has led them to double their yields and triple their incomes.

Kola Masha presents Babban Gona’s franchise model for smallholder farmers in Nigeria. Photo credit: Jennifer Kwack for USAID.

By building economies of scale to overcome the structural flaws that commonly stifle the financial sustainability of smallholder farming, the model has expanded from supporting 100 farmers to over 20,000 in just two years.

Through its success, the organization has also been able to attract young people back to the sector, which is a priority in Nigeria, in part as a way to mitigate security risks from a growing demographic of idle youth. According to Managing Director Kola Masha, the rate of armed conflict on the African continent over the past decade has increased seven fold. In the next 20 years, 80 million people in Africa will try to enter the workforce. “Unemployment and youth is like oxygen and fire,” Masha explained. The franchise approach to overcome systemic barriers that have historically dogged smallholder farmers, while achieving additional social benefits, holds promise to make meaningful, attractive employment available.

In addition to Babban Gona, GIW presented many examples of solutions for challenges faced by smallholder farmers that appear to be scalable, and complementary to the franchise approach. These include:

  • Ignitia—a business that specializes in communicating weather forecasts via SMS to farmers in the micro climates of West Africa’s tropical ecosystems. Ignitia currently sends localized weather forecasts to 200,000 paying customers in a business model that, as it scales, could become even more affordable.
  • CoolBot—a technology that transforms a regular air conditioning unit into a post-harvest cold storage solution. Despite costing 80 percent less than comparable cold storage alternatives, the technology remains cost prohibitive for individual smallholder farmers. However, when introduced to a successful farming collective, it becomes more affordable and thus feasible.
  • FarmDrive—an organization that assists smallholder farmers in Kenya to gain access to credit. FarmDrive uses mobile phones, alternative data, and machine learning to gather relevant information about individual farmers that it then submits to financial institutions, allowing them to reduce their risk and increase lending.

Photo credit: Jennifer Kwack for USAID

In addition to showcasing what global pioneers and change agents have accomplished with their own ideas, GIW provided attendees with a tool kit to replicate some of the innovators’ successes within their own organizations. Mark Viso, the President and CEO of Pact, an international nonprofit focused on improving the lives of impoverished and marginalized communities, shared concrete examples of how organizations can foster an innovative workplace environment. He recommended that organizations incentivize entrepreneurship by hiring “hungry and curious employees” who go beyond the status quo. Success can lead to complacency, he explained, which is dangerous for any organization. Missions can turn into commodities and stifle the drive to innovate. Leadership was another recurring theme. Fostering an enabling environment that allows for failure, an inherent element in the iterative process of innovation, is essential.

From overarching innovative concepts to specific examples of impact on the ground, GIW inspired participants to consider new strategies in their workplaces. The convening connected participants with like-minded professionals around common goals, and provided alternate paths for new partnerships. As Rukmini Banerji, CEO of Pratham Education Foundation said, “The only way you’re going to solve the problem is to feel the problem. You must feel you can be part of the solution and motivate others to be part of the solution.”

Feature photo courtesy of Megan Cagle for USAID.

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