Impact Africa: A tale of elephants

by | Jul 10, 2018 | Blog

The inaugural Impact Africa Summit took place in Johannesburg, South Africa from the 20 – 22 June. Hosted by Ashoka and the British Council, the event aimed to inspire, support and connect those in the social entrepreneurship space. Interestingly, I walked away from the event thinking a lot about elephants, what this means for innovation in the Early Childhood Development (ECD) space and our approach to impacting Africa as a whole. Let me explain…

Chasing elephants, not mice

At Innovation Edge’s Think Future event, Nicola Galombik, the Executive Director of Yellowwoods, encouraged us to chase elephants and not mice. She pushed us to tackle big issues and come up with bold solutions. Impact Africa highlighted that this is exactly what social entrepreneurs in Africa are doing. From unemployment, nutrition, poverty and health care, Africa’s entrepreneurs are not shying away from the issues. And their solutions aim to disrupt a system that is not giving them the answers they are looking for.

As an ECD-focused innovation catalyst and investment platform, Innovation Edge (along with the sector) needs to chase elephants. We also need to tell the story of our elephants well. Changemakers are looking to make a change, for an elephant to chase. When it comes to ECD, they often need a little more help seeing the elephant in the room. We need to encourage these social entrepreneurs to see the need for revolutionary change in early life experiences.

Even elephants need to act like mice

I attended a session focused, in part, on ‘intrapreneurship’. Here, Barclays Africa, GrowthPoint Properties and Discovery representatives spoke about how they actively embed innovative practices and opportunities in their organisational culture. One of the panellists described this approach as ‘elephants acting like mice’. The idea is that employees are encouraged to behave like entrepreneurs (take risks and fail fast), even as members of large organisations (elephants). These elephants realise the value of acting like mice.

The NGO organisational structure that characterises the ECD sector is a completely different type of elephant, but the same principle applies. The sector needs to actively seek ways to encourage and support innovation, flexibility and continuous iteration as part of their work. Similarly, NGO funders and CSI investors need to adapt their view of the sector, enabling the kind of innovative mice-like activities that can lead to bold new ideas. Why? Well, mice are closer to the ground, can change direction quickly, are more flexible and are able to get into holes or on top of trees to get better vantage points.

The blind men and the elephant

In a systems workshop hosted by Ashoka, I was introduced to the fable of the blind men and the elephant. Blind men each touch different parts of an object, not knowing what it is. It is only by combining their knowledge of what each touched, that they can know it is an elephant.

When it comes to ECD, we are increasingly aware of the fact that what constitutes the system is extremely broad. We need to enhance our knowledge of the entire system. This includes what is happening at a policy level, what is happening when it comes to business confidence and what is driving social movements on the ground. Our potential impact depends on leveraging off this knowledge.

Collaboration is also essential for the work that we do. We cannot understand the problem or see the full suite of potential solutions, without sharing our knowledge. What Innovation Edge has found in particular is that who we collaborate with also has to change. We need to engage unlikely minds for completely new perspectives on systemic challenges. And to add to the fable, what one person may describe as a trunk, another may describe as a pipeline or a hose. You catch my drift? Different viewpoints can find opportunities where we may see challenges or loopholes where we see dead ends.

An elephant never forgets

Perhaps the most well-known elephant-related saying is that ‘an elephant never forgets’; this TedTalk unpacks this saying beautifully. The nature of the elephant as an empathetic and learning creature speaks so well to why our work is important. A child is impacted by their earliest life experiences which, we can argue, they never forget. And the trajectories of our countries, our continent and world are similarly shaped by the manner in which we nurture our youngest citizens. Our future will not forget how we’ve acted in the present. To truly impact Africa, I’m reminded about how essential early childhood development is. Thank you elephants.

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. She is also exploring the opportunities for Innovation Edge in other parts of Africa and their metrics for impact measurement.

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).