Elephants Can Dance: Social Innovation Isn’t Just for Small Companies

Don’t believe the myth that large companies can’t innovate, writes Ramona Liberoff, CEO of SPRING Accelerator. Joining with businesses in the developing world to work toward social impact – such as empowering girls – can spark new thinking and commercial gain.

Written by Ramona Liberoff Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Tackling social issues such as girls' empowerment needs innovation, writes the author, and in low-resource settings, companies of all sizes are innovating on a daily basis. AFP/Munir uz Zaman

I was recently on a delayed flight from Berlin to London where, glancing out of the plane window as we sat on the tarmac, I saw a jumbo jet being slowly but surely directed onto the runway by a small sturdy vehicle. The driver of the tug truck waved goodbye as the jumbo pulled off, accelerated and lifted seamlessly into the sky: an everyday marvel enabled by physics.

As my flight was cleared for takeoff, I couldn’t help but wonder why the same comparative lift-off is often deemed impossible for large companies who try to innovate.

Conventional wisdom reinforced by hundreds of editorials, blog posts and journal articles states that large, established companies struggle to take risks and innovate (except when they manage to retain visionary founders). The thinking is that innovation should be left to the startups, which can be bought if innovation is needed.

I contest this.

It is not impossible for large companies to innovate. The large companies typically cited as examples are operating in developed and hyper-competitive markets with stable conditions, placing a high bar on the payback and risk rate of any particular innovation initiative. In emerging markets, this is not necessarily the case. On the contrary, for companies in low-resource settings, innovation is a daily reality.

At SPRING Accelerator, we encourage innovation with a purpose: to improve the lives of girls in East Africa and South Asia to empower them to reach their potential. In our work, we’ve seen small businesses successfully apply human-centered design to understand the needs of girls and stakeholders and provide products and services that will have commercial and social impact.

Many of these businesses operate in some of the most challenging environments in the world. For example, in Nepal, reconstruction costs after the April 2015 earthquake, which left the country in a state of crisis, are roughly estimated at $10 billion. To put that in context, Nepal’s GDP has an estimated worth of $20 billion, over half of which is dependent on agriculture and remittances by foreign workers. In Bangladesh, infrastructure and working capital are constant challenges. Because businesses in these regions are working with challenges never seen in recent times in the U.S. or Western Europe, their experience of innovation is fundamentally different.

That’s why SPRING pursues the participation of businesses of all sizes. The larger companies we work with make up a group of hardy survivors who must continue to innovate their market and business models, take outsized risk on a regular basis, and flex and adapt to rapidly changing environments and uncertainties. Their scale, demonstrated success, market knowledge and influence help them to realize impact. They bring new products to market quickly, with few layers of decision-making. They are willing to take risks. In fact, their business depends on risk taking.

In addition, they are uniquely suited to social innovation when they combine their market knowledge with a human-centered approach to the needs of their customers, stakeholders, end users and wider communities. In developing countries, private companies are meeting human needs across sectors including healthcare, education, water and sanitation, and energy. For these companies, innovating for, measuring and reporting on social impact is not a peripheral activity, it is core to business development and sustainability.

Driven by a tremendous amount of innovative energy and capacity, leaders from the businesses we work with are already seeking to serve the whole market and relish the creative challenge of further understanding girls as consumers and users of their products and services.

Mapping design challenges at the 2015 SPRING Boot Camp in Nairobi, Kenya. (Courtesy: SPRING Accelerator)
Mapping design challenges at the 2015 SPRING Boot Camp in Nairobi, Kenya. (Courtesy: SPRING Accelerator)

For example, Easypaisa is a leading mobile financial services platform in Pakistan, with over 20 million active customers and 75,000 touch points across the country. Through SPRING, Easypaisa has recognized that girls and women in Pakistan aspire to save their money but face unique barriers in accessing financial services. If girls – and families on behalf of their daughters – can open a savings account, it can help them realize their goals. Targeting girls would also help Easypaisa expand its market.

We work to help these businesses see adolescent girls differently: not as a beneficiary or dependent group, but as a market. If girls can gain access to economic assets, to stay in school longer, to earn or to save money and to stay safe and have children later, there are exciting beneficial effects to society that both girls themselves and their families are willing to invest in. As one of the businesses we work with in Uganda says, “We cannot talk about underserved markets without talking about girls.”

It is these businesses that are helping to debunk the myth that big companies can’t innovate successfully, and proving that they can do so for the benefit of girls whilst continuing to be commercially viable.

It’s physics.

If we want lessons in how large businesses innovate and role models to follow, we should look in new places.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Women & Girls Hub.

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