The first Africa Social and Behaviour Change (ASBC) Conference took place last month in Nairobi. The overarching theme of the conference was ‘Disruptive SBC strategies for the future of Africa’, and built on the notion that:

“All human interactions – be they social, economic or political – are shaped by behaviour. These interactions are the basis of development; and if development is about change, then innovative solutions leading to change should be about people willing to change their behaviours.”

When it comes to the innovations designed to provide information that encourages certain behaviours in the home, preschool and in health-care settings, at Innovation Edge we believe the above to be true. We see behaviour change as key to the success of our innovations and are interested in the drivers of behaviour change, especially in terms of turning knowledge into practice.

Now, my eye roll that greeted the word ‘disruptive’ is the same one that greets other phrases lacing the bylines of events: ‘catalytic’, ‘revolutionize’, ‘future-fit’ and even ‘innovation’. These semantic devices (buzz words) have come to mean very little to me as I navigate the reality of investing in and supporting bold ideas that have the ability to shift the life experiences of young children. But words have power and they can create momentum; just look at the power of the hashtag (#).

As religious scholar – Hamza Yusuf says: “Don’t ever diminish the power of words. Words move hearts and hearts move limbs.” I would add that words move minds. These too move limbs as well as money. So what is the movement that ‘disruption’ brings to the work that we do? Here are some of my key disruptive takeaways from the ASBC Conference:

Disrupt who?
Business cannot thrive if society is crumbling. Business is increasingly interested in the social transformation possible through products and services. It is important to continue to disrupt the status quo of business being about business. When profit and purpose meet, that is where the magic happens. One important tip for approaching business, don’t ask them for money, ask them for what they do, their skillset or materials. In that way, you make doing good what they do.

When it comes to behaviour change, the strategy is often adopted for people (citizens, caregivers etc.), but behaviour change should equally be a strategy adopted for government. Khama Rogo, Lead Health Sector Specialist with the World Bank, pointed out that it is always poor women and children who are asked to change. He called for us to imagine a world where governments change to meet the needs of people, not where people change to meet the needs of governments trying to achieve their global goals (think Sustainable Development Goals).

Disrupt what?
Africa and the idea of culture appear to be synonymous. Culture is often constructed as a major barrier to behaviour change. No-one will deny that this is sometimes the case, but how can we leverage the power of culture? For example, we see resilience and social capital as key to human capital development in the future, but are these not already epitomised by the sense of ubuntu, community and discipline that is characteristic of African culture?

The disruption brought about by the internet and mobile phone penetration is often celebrated in Africa and is seen as a great equaliser. The reality on the ground, however, is that radio and the grapevine continue to reach the largest number of people, especially those living in poverty. “Content is queen” and it is content that shifts behaviour.. We need to disrupt our obsession with new technologies (old school is cool) and we need to make sure our content is of the quality that moves hearts, minds and limbs.

Disrupt how?
Matthew Bodien from the Center for Advanced Hindsight presented their work on supporting health savings behaviour. He emphasised the power of practice for encouraging behaviour change. Perhaps the most surprising and disruptive insight from their work was that those who practiced with their own money were the ones who saved more and were more likely to continue saving. Often we feel that we need to create artificial conditions for people to attempt a behaviour (e.g. incentives), but if our solution is solving a real problem, and customers see value in it, behavior will be more easily normalised.

International aid and philanthropy have an important role to play in development. However, the argument made at the ASBC conference was that philanthropy is relief and investment is change. What Africa needs is more investment and more programmes, organisations and businesses that are investment ready. Angus Deaton, Nobel prize-winning economist, has pointed out that countries with less aid do better than those with more aid. Similarly, some argue that a malaria net is more effective when it is purchased versus when it is given for free. There is no time to unpack the merits of either of these arguments here, but the point is that we need to think about the consequences of how we go about creating change.

Disrupt why?
At Innovation Edge, we believe in the right of every child to access the starting blocks they need to reach their full potential. At the ASBC conference, participants were warned not to let the rights-based argument get in the way of our business case; to the private sector, to government or to families. Unfortunately, when something is seen as a right, it is often considered the responsibility of the public sector and a matter of the heart. However, when we make the business case, a wider variety of actors get on board and this becomes a matter of the mind. And while both move limbs, the mind appears to consider sustainability and scale. Let the reason for disruption speak to the heart and the mind.

The following definition of disruption captures what I understand it to mean; social change:

“[Disruption is] a break from business as usual, and some type of forceful action to alter the inertia of existing delivery systems that have attracted powerful constituent groups but that fall short in serving the need of citizens”.

It was this emphasis on social change, and the critical role behaviour change plays in it that stood out to me at the ASBC conference. And it is my thoughts on what disruption looks like in my work that was indeed disrupted.

About the Author

Lyndsey Petro is a Portfolio Manager at Innovation Edge. As part of the Portfolio Management Team, Lyndsey works on sourcing and pivoting ideas, incubating investees and strategizing for scale. She takes investees through a lean, iterative approach to idea and solution design and works in the field supporting customer engagement.

Lyndsey has a Bachelor of Social Science degree in Sociology and Organisational Psychology and a Masters Degree in Sociology from the University of Cape Town (UCT).