#GNW2015: Local Ideas with Global Potential

March 5, 2015

The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship examines South African businesses for sustainable models.

The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business is looking for ideas that work. The center—the first of its kind in Africa—surveys local businesses for models and structures that could be scalable for larger use.

“We’re interested in models that look beyond the financial return,” said Dr. Francois Bonnici, the center’s director. “We look to companies interested in bringing sustainability to the core… Ones that feel a responsibility to rebuild the country.”

For example, one business discovered that hospitals typically carried wheelchairs in three sizes—small, medium, and large—for all people with disabilities, regardless of what type of disability they suffer from. The company has since developed and sold more than 80 new devices, aimed at particular disabilities, to hospitals nationwide.

Another innovation, developed at UCT-GSB by a student, is a small smoke detector to be used in township homes, which can in turn set off other detectors in the area to alert residents when there is a fire. That device could be marketed to local fire departments, Bonnici said.

Real innovation, Bonnici said, requires a change from a “corrective mindset”—where problems are addressed with solutions only after problems occur—to a “possibilities mindset” where businesses look to anticipate issues before they occur.

“The challenges are complex and dynamic,” Bonnici said. “How do we push ourselves to do that? The work can’t be done just by the private sector alone… The best ideas though are locally relevant, but globally supported and that’s what we’re dedicated to looking for.”

Matthew O’Rourke is blogging this week from the University of Cape Town’s Global Network Week module on emerging markets.