African solutions to African challenges

This post is by ONE Chief Executive Officer Michael Elliott and was originally published on the Skoll World Forum website. 

In 2008, ONE launched its first call for applications for the newly created ONE Africa Award.  The award was the brain child of ONE’s good friend and now board member, Howard G. Buffett, who charged us with recognising innovative, dynamic, African-founded organisations, groups and individuals that are engaged in life-changing, innovative efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in their local communities, regions and countries. Five years later, we have been overwhelmed with the depth of creativity, enthusiasm and innovation coming from the continent; awarding the prize becomes more difficult each year.

Through this process, certain applicants have stood out. We’re particularly interested in recognising organisations that can tie direct service delivery elements—let’s say providing pro bono legal knowledge to women fighting for their rights —to innovative advocacy efforts that will result in systemic transformation of their nation’s prospects.

ONE’s unique role is spotlighting these organisations and helping them overcome a common challenge of social entrepreneurship – bringing projects to scale. All too often, a brilliant idea or system stays local when it has potential for a much broader impact at the state, country or regional level. But that’s where an award is useful — along the way, we do identify a number of “finalist” organisations so that we can feature their stories on our websites and social media streams in words, pictures and videos. These organisations often have budgets of only tens of thousands of dollars a year so even if they’re not a winner, we can often raise their profile enough in order to sustain and develop their efforts.

For example, 2011 Finalist Sylva Food Solutions, a Zambian social enterprise, comes to mind. From just an initial review of their application, they seemed like quite a successful catering and processed foodstuff business based in Lusaka. But we quickly learned about their efforts—through very sophisticated advocacy tactics—to change how Zambians ate.

The founder, Sylvia Banda, lamented that Zambians had turned their backs to the local, indigenous foods that surrounded them in favor of Western style foods, often processed so much that these foods lacked nutritional value.  What did Sylvia do? She worked to create a market for local foods by engaging the government to do media campaigns on television and radio to promote local foods—even the then-First Lady of Zambia took up the mantle.

Sylvia Banda and members of her team

When Sylvia realized that she didn’t have enough quality produce to meet rising demand, she went out and recruited new farmers and taught them how to raise and select great produce that she could sell. And then she also worked to create a strong brand image around Sylva Food Solutions so that it is sought out by Zambians and the country’s diaspora. In short, Sylvia and her crew over the course of a few years created an entirely integrated supply chain and market that allows Sylva Food Solutions to scale up and compete successfully.

And that’s just one example. We keep finding social enterprise and civil society organizations all over the continent that have developed smart, effective solutions to development challenges. In 2012, we had two social enterprises make it in our top five finalists. One of the organizations, Muliru Farmers Conservation Group of Kenya, commercialized a traditional medicinal plant in order to tie the conservation of Kenya’s last rainforest to the economic interests of its surrounding human communities. Muliru worked with scientists to determine the extract (camphor) and consumer product specialists to create a range of Naturub® products that are sold throughout Kenya to treat colds and aches.

Just next door in Uganda, we found SOVHEN, a social enterprise that has found a way to manufacture sanitary pads from agricultural waste of bananas in order to help Uganda’s girls stay in school. The manufacturing process employs women from the local communities while another set of women then sell those pads within the communities, creating a social marketing arm for SOVHEN’s “Bana-pads.” SOVHEN also USES student groups to change the image of girls in school by spreading messages about the benefits of girls in schools.

While ONE still campaigns and advocates for the life-saving aid that the developed world sends to many African countries, the ONE Africa Award is a constant reminder to us that Africans are working every day to develop and bend the arc of its future to one of prosperity and opportunity. We know very well that Africa’s transformation won’t come because of what’s done from the outside; its citizens must demand change for themselves, and are increasingly doing so. But we’re still proud to acknowledge and recognize local heroes such as those who compete for the ONE Africa Award each year.


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