Balancing sustainability and Impact – Three tips for African DIHs

Digital Innovation is playing an essential role in supporting sustainable, local solutions to social and economic challenges in Africa. For Digital Entrepreneurs to be successful, they require support to develop and scale the impact of their innovations which in the African entrepreneurship context is not without its challenges. That’s where Digital Innovation Hubs (DIHs) come in.

To help strengthen the much needed support that African DIHs provide to entrepreneurs in the region, African Technology Business Network (ATBN), together with the AfriconEU consortium of partners, hosted a virtual webinar titled “Purpose-driven DIH – building strategies for sustainability and impact”.

The event had in attendance stakeholders in the digital ecosystem across the continent who discussed critical topics on how to balance sustainability and impact and to be purpose-driven  DIH leaders.

During the event, our keynote speaker Gosbert Chagula MBE, co-founder of UK-based Start-up Discover School, shared some of his learnings from over 10 years supporting entrepreneurs in the UK and across Africa. He was later joined by Gideon Brefo, CEO of HapaSpace Hub in Ghana for a panel discussion. Below are the key takeaways from the event.

Develop strong internal organisational structures 

For Gosbert Chagula MBE, it is critical for DIHs to balance impact and sustainability whilst supporting entrepreneurs. Referencing examples from his work, he emphasised the need for DIH leaders to strike a balance between keeping their programs alive and building sustainable organisations. “I definitely believe that strong organisational structures are essential for the success of any business. If you’re a hub leader or involved in the innovation ecosystem, make sure your internal resources are well aligned to deliver on your key goals”. As part of AfriConEU’s research to understand the challenges and needs of African DIHs, we found that  it can be challenging for DIHs to  find funding to invest in their internal resource  due to the fact that majority of funding available to DIHs is tied specifically to programme delivery. In light of this, Gideon Brefo, recommended that DIHs align their programmes closely with their own internal goals and mission in order to make the most of programmatic funding for the growth of their internal capacity. Divergent internal and programme/funder interests can lead DIHs to drift from their mission while chasing funding.

Make your motivations  for acceleration and innovation clear

“As DIH leaders, we must be honest about our motivations”, Gosbert noted. He explained that motivations will drive innovation and the direction for any business and DIHs are no different. “We can define what good looks like for both customers and funders” he further noted. Motivations can go from Philanthropic, Innovation Engagement, Impact or Investment / Financial Returns. Donors and funders are also interested in the motivations driving an enterprise. Having a clear motivation and direction can therefore help DIHs to make their organisation’s unique value proposition stand out and be more attractive to funders. Unclear motivations on the other hand may result in frustrations for all stakeholders, in particular participating entrepreneurs. For example, an investment-focused DIH may not be relevant for entrepreneurs who are not yet at that stage of the journey and could also leave out under-represented funders who need support to get there.

Uniquely Position your DIH for success

How can you position your DIH as a leader in your specific field? This single question could determine the success of your business and also the sort of opportunities that you are likely to attract. Gosbert shared some key learning to equip hub leaders as they pursue purpose-driven hubs with an end goal of sustainability and impact:

  • All hub leaders need sustainable business models to help build team capacity and enable business continuity .
  • Monetise your unique expertise. And this could be anything from your location, lived experience or specialisms such as supporting specific groups of entrepreneurs, sectors or types of innovation (greentech, edtech etc).
  • Understand the context you operate in and acquire all the knowledge you need for now and the future.
  • Remember that regardless of what type of motivation underpins your business model, there will be pros and cons so your responsibility as a hub leader is to get all the necessary information needed to help you plan for a sustainable and impactful business. 

In his closing remarks, Gosbert urged hub leaders to balance existing opportunities with the demands of their sector and funders. “Remember, there is no one perfect model. Your chosen model will be largely influenced by a set of unique circumstances – location, motivations, funders, customers etc”

And it is your responsibility as a hub leader to ask yourself whether you and your team are well equipped with all the sectoral knowledge you need to choose the right model for your hub’s sustainability and impact”