Get your feet on the ground: insights from scouting local innovations

Alex Losneanu

Dec. 11, 2020

Picture of woman who is local producer of hand sanitiser in Ghana

It’s now common to find innovation via the internet and often the search for solutions can fall into familiar patterns, following well-trodden paths. COVIDaction decided that this process was ripe for change and so we went off that beaten track and worked with experienced local scouts to find innovation from offline communities in new places. We were amazed at what we found and proud to share our method and insights here.

What COVIDaction did

We set a goal to engage with offline communities in seven focus countries — Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya and South Sudan. COVIDaction and AfriLabs partnered to ensure that technical support and financial assistance got to the last mile and other hard to reach communities. Leveraging AfriLabs’ existing network of innovation hubs who have scouts with experience in identifying and supporting promising social enterprises, the organisations have collaborated to ensure we can expand our outreach to meet innovators across the continent and help them access opportunities they might not otherwise be aware of through conventional online channels.

What came back

The results of this work were more than we expected and really encouraging. We collected 79 applications across those seven countries, surfacing some remarkable responses to dealing with local demand for unavailable goods — including hand washing stations, sanitisers, and PPE products.

What is more — it helped to shift our perspective when it comes to reaching out for innovation. Working with the scouts helped us to shape a strategy for inclusiveness that breaks common grant cycles, uncovers new methodologies and brings out very different innovations for support.

If we had not changed this part of our methods, we would have missed out on some amazing innovators and local production at the grassroots level. Along with these fresh connections, we also learned more about what it means to create a successful call for innovators that are not connected to the internet.

The hard work of extracting these offline innovations was not in vain. Our assessment process showed that they were of high quality and relevant to our cause. Our expert judges assessed all applications (online and offline) using the same judging criteria. The judging results showed that: 1) the average scores between the two categories were the same and 2) that 2 out of 3 of the top scoring innovations were from the offline call.

Here are 5 things COVIDaction learned

1. Having feet on the ground is crucial

Working with local scouts to meet innovators face to face was critical for success as it meant that we were able to leverage their experience. These experts are familiar with target locations, speak the local dialect, understand the culture, are able to create a sense of trust with grantees and have experience engaging with the local producers there. The intricacies from the daily experiences and struggles of offline innovators would not have been captured through traditional online channels.

Being able to work like this with experts meant that in our LPLS calls we were able to map out different countries, better understand how active their local production ecosystems are and spot areas of interest.

2. Communication barriers are a reality

Put plainly — our call was in English and some local innovators spoke other languages. Local interpretations of concepts or technical terms might also be different. It is important that there is a way to translate and communicate well with offline innovators.

It is important to engage local scouts who understand the local dialect of the target location and data collection instruments need to be as concise as possible so that respondents clearly understand the questions and the responses they are being asked to provide. That way, they’ll fully understand what data is required from them and how the data is used. We gave scouts the agency to make any changes to the submission forms that they considered necessary for this to happen.

Furthermore, our call required applicants to interpret technical concepts and questions. The way in which these technical terms are understood is crucial as it forms part of our assessment process. The scouts played an important role in translating and explaining these technicalities to offline innovators so that the true value of their production or solution could be extracted.

3. It’s almost impossible to work with local innovators if there is no trust in the working relationship

This issue turned up in a number of ways — some innovators are reluctant to share data or ideas as they are rightly concerned about IP theft; some had not had any support at all in the past and they were wary of offers as no one had been able to reach out to them in the past.

Communication is a big part of the solution here. Scouts reported that offline innovators believed that stakeholders were only approaching them to get their data and would never be informed of future opportunities. The best way we found of resolving this issue is to get in touch when a real opportunity is available. This way, we can build confidence and encourage more participation with different communities in future.

4. Scouts need to be empowered and enabled

Offline scouting comes with its challenges. Access to remote locations, rejection of scouts by respondents, doubts about the reality of some opportunities and more. Scouts need to be prepared to face these challenges and prepare their own contingency plans to navigate them.

Giving scouts the freedom and agency to work in the environments where they are experts means they are able to get work done freely without added restrictions from an outside source. Making this clear and negotiating this early in the process makes life and work easier for everyone.

5. Offers need to be tailored

The offline scouts let us know about several capacity gaps and key needs in their territories. Producers were calling for capacity building strategies, support with resources and access to markets to scale their innovations and businesses. They’re also looking forward to more opportunities reaching them.

This pointed to an important core element of development support. Though finance is fine and cash is crucial, innovators are also keen to connect with technical assistance and networking opportunities. This is what will bring communities together.

COVIDaction said: "We hope that some of their learnings will be useful to others. By embracing inclusiveness across our scouting techniques, we believe we created a true “open call” and one that is bound to evolve as we continue our work. In a world where everything seems so highly connected, and conversations can take place in real time around the world it may seem that the internet is the only way to find innovation. This is clearly not the case."

There are great people doing incredible work offline. If we go that extra mile to meet them, support them and learn from them, everyone benefits and while we are still working under the pressures of a pandemic, there’s no better time to reach out and find those connections. To find out how scouts work in their own words, meet Lusanda Maguape and Osasenaga Enogieru who shared their personal observations with us.

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