Q&A with Jay Chikobe, Resonance Manager, Design & Innovation Services
The most famous Silicon Valley residents have upended entire industries, though few would consider their business models inclusive. But Jay Chikobe argues that businesses, social enterprises, development professionals, and sustainability teams can use Silicon Valley’s tools and methodologies to accelerate inclusive innovation that contributes to prosperity, equity, and human development in emerging markets.
Jay is a manager on Resonance’s Design & Innovation Services team, whose recent work includes managing the application and selection process for the Zayed Sustainability Prize, managing the WE4F Ag-Energy Prize to identify and promote innovators that are using renewable energy to power agricultural operations, and designing and managing USAID’s Intelligent Forecasting Competition to model future contraceptive use in Côte d’Ivoire.
Below, Jay reflects on how organizations can use inclusive innovation to advance progress and sustainability outcomes worldwide.
Resonance: What led you to become so passionate about innovation?
Jay: Inclusive innovation creates equity. One of the stories I find inspiring is that of Njavwa Mutambo, the CEO of Musanga. I worked with him in Zambia many years ago as part of an incubator program for technology-enabled startups. He came in with passion and knew the problem he wanted to address, which was Lusaka’s lack of food delivery options. During the three years we worked together, I watched his mindset shift from a consumer ridesharing model to something bigger: how can I address the broader constraints of supply chain logistics while creating jobs? How do we make this sustainable in the long-term through partnerships? Leveraging the lean startup process, he pivoted from solving a minor individual pain point to a larger one addressing last-mile logistics for other businesses.
Ultimately, he used the for-profit business’s success to subsidize food delivery to schools and created 50 jobs, though he didn’t have a job when he began. He used lean startup methods to apply innovative thinking to address problems holistically. He took the seed of innovative thinking and created wealth for himself as well as other people. That’s sustainable development.
Since then, I’ve coached businesses at all sizes and stages in Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Jordan, the U.S., and across Southeast Asia—from enterprises with less than $50 thousand in revenue to those with over $1 million. I’ve worked extensively with social enterprises, startups, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), growth SMEs—the full gamut.
Resonance: What are the most common barriers for social innovators in developing markets?
Jay: The number one challenge that innovators face is access to the knowledge networks that help develop and support innovation and entrepreneurship. Ecosystems that support entrepreneurs often have limited capacity to support the continuous cycle of problem solving and iteration that builds sustainable, scalable, and impactful business models and solutions. Innovators must rely on mentors or aftermarket programs to help bridge the gap.
The second challenge is access to talent. Talent exists, but it can be challenging for innovators to find like-minded people who are ready to pursue entrepreneurship that proposes and implements solutions. The third is access to resources. Social enterprises in emerging markets receive less funding than their peers from developed countries operating in the same markets. Cultural perceptions and stereotypes play a crucial role in this status-quo that ultimately limits impact. So, how do we address racial inequity in development? How can we put more support behind local innovators, solutions, and ecosystems to create long-term impact in their communities? Thankfully, organizations such as the Africa Visionary Fund are working within ecosystems to address some of these challenges.
Resonance: How can governments and investors support entrepreneurs’ continued growth in developing markets, especially during the pandemic?
Jay: Governments, investors, and other ecosystem supporters can make it easier for entrepreneurs and businesses to weather the crises by enabling interventions such as streamlining regulatory policies and processes, offering expanded financing options, and technical support and linkages where possible. Then, get out of the way. Let innovators, SMEs, multinationals, development finance institutions, and other players pursue partnerships to augment value chains and products and services in response to market needs.
In Southeast Asia, Resonance has been working with USAID and its partners to administer the Water and Energy for Food Ag Energy Prize, which identifies innovators and scalable business models at the nexus of water, energy, and agriculture. Prize activities have gone virtual since COVID-19, but the type of support provided has changed, too: from a virtual co-creation webinar for startups, to strategic assistance through a follow-on marketing prize to help innovators adjust and pivot their business models in light of the coronavirus. We brought in several experts, but a highlight has been the amount of peer-to-peer learning and exchange between innovators from different countries. One of the finalist enterprises in Vietnam has an issue reaching the customers due to the pandemic, and a peer enterprise in India was able to provide a market hack they could use.
Resonance: How can multinational companies deploy innovation for better business and social good?
Jay: Corporations need to practice innovation internally to improve processes and create new products and services for customers in emerging markets. But they also need innovation to think through value chain addition—how can a company integrate or complement products and services parallel to theirs? In essence, it’s value engineering: let’s say you have a promising product, but gaps in the value chain stand in the way of efficient delivery or full use by the customer—is another company or entrepreneur working on an innovation that enhances both of your offerings?
For companies to most effectively harness innovation, they need to think through what’s changing with customers, markets, trends—how is the customer journey moving? Innovation and partnerships with startup enterprises can be a critical component of company strategy for forward-looking value delivery.
Large companies can also offer startup enterprises mentorship, advisory services, connections, and planning or marketing expertise. With regard to the coronavirus, where relevant and possible, multinationals can focus on their existing value and supply chains to help relevant innovators, startups, and SMEs weather the storm.
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Jay Chikobe has ten years of experience in enterprise development & open innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa, MENA, South East Asia, and the US. An entrepreneurship ecosystem advocate, he has co-led the development of SME acceleration programs, mentorship, and seed funding networks. Jay is a Manager on Resonance’s Design & Innovation subpractice, which manages open innovation competitions for the USAID Center for Development Innovation under the Catalyst project.
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash