An Ideas-Based Online Magazine of the Global Network for Advanced Management

Can Social Innovation and Cross-Sectoral Collaboration Help Solve South Africa’s Problems?

South Africa’s social sector is in a period of turbulence and innovation, with spending cuts spawning new models. In an interview with Global Network Perspectives, Dr. Francois Bonnici, director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business, says that cross-sector collaboration and rigorous analysis are key.

SA Classroom
Photo courtesy of Katie Huston/The DG Murray Trust

What are the priorities for the social sector in South Africa ?

One of the challenges for the sector as a whole has been transitioning away from the pure advocacy model of nonprofit organizations towards delivering services and support while maintaining social justice. Making that transition in the context of reduced funding also puts huge pressure on the social sector and on the nonprofit model in South Africa, forcing it to look carefully at itself. What are its strategies? What are our sustainability plans? And in the context of that, we’ve seen interesting examples of social enterprises emerge. NGO funding and financing around NGOs has partly driven the social enterprise movement.

When you speak about the social sector it’s everyone’s responsibility, right? It’s a government challenge, it’s a business challenge, and it’s society’s challenge. It’s not limited to one sector alone. I think that’s clear. We see business playing a varying role of growth in society, in sustainability, and working with government in a sophisticated and genuinely authentic manner. It can’t be left for the private sector to engage alone. Henry Mintzberg uses the term “the plural sector,” which describes the richness, diversity and mutual responsibilities of the sector well.

South Africans have been going through a very difficult time. We’ve had the closure of thousands of NGOs and we need to head into a realm where there is a better understanding and a certain partnership between government, business, and civil society, particularly in things like the education sector where it’s clear that government alone is not able to deliver a quality education for the majority of the country.

Can you give an example?

Of a cohort of a million people that enter the education system each year, roughly 500,000 get to the end of school and many drop out through the university system with few other alternatives. Civil society, social enterprises, and business have responded to this massive crisis.

We’ve been identifying the innovations happening in the education system driven by the private and the social sectors. We’ve profiled more than 125 different innovations, from innovative bursary schemes, new curriculum models, and technology in education to peer support models, which is a really interesting way of supporting a relatively weak education system where students can act as peers. And then there are teacher support models. How do we support the teachers in the systems? We’ve looked right through to the private sector delivery models, like low-cost private schools. We’ve seen the emergence of all of those things in South Africa in response to the crisis in education.

Similarly we’ve been looking at the innovative responses in the health sector, particularly in how health is delivered in the Global South, where we’re working with the World Health Organization to understand where bottom-up social innovations meet top-down global health policies and programmes.

How much of this is being carried out by innovative new social enterprises as opposed to large, established organizations?

I think it’s both. There are a number of reasons for that in South Africa, some of which are idiosyncratic. The Corporate Social Investment and Enterprise Development requirements—which is the concept of supporting small black-owned enterprises falling under the black economic empowerment codes of South Africa—these transformational codes have been in place in South Africa post-apartheid. They mandate and regulate any company larger than 50 people to spend 1% of post-tax profits on corporate social investment and 3% of post-tax profits on enterprise development. And that is an opportunity for companies to actively engage, to invest in new models, and many have taken a substantial approach—about 45% of all corporate social investment is spent on education.

Dr. Francois Bonnici

A lot of models are being tested. The problem is, it is uncoordinated, very fragmented, and we are not capturing and codifying the lessons. We are spending billions for not much of an outcome. Here’s one example: the mobile telephone companies in South Africa are spending millions of dollars on corporate social investment in South Africa and on the rest of the African continent, and most of that will go into educational technology.

Part of their experiences and challenges have been dropping hardware into places and thinking that technology alone is the solution. It’s wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in the last several years. And now they’re at the point of saying, “What have we learnt about what really works?” No one’s really been capturing the evidence. That, I think, is something that really needs to grow: we have identified ourselves as playing an initial role of looking at the landscape, but then we start to pull out the insights and the lessons with stakeholders.

How important is it for social entrepreneurs and investors to understand local dynamics of problems that they want to address? Is it possible for a philanthropist in one country to invest intelligently in very different cultural environments?

It’s always difficult. I think it’s even more difficult within the country when you know the context. And in a country like South Africa, where there is no one South Africa—there is no one community, there is no one poor community. They are made with so many different cultural contexts, economic dynamics, and social dynamics. It is very difficult even for our own social entrepreneurs to navigate these contexts and political dynamics.  

We do see many kinds of foreign efforts invested in South Africa. There is a long history of strong relations across South Africa and the world, so that continues. Pre-apartheid, that investing was largely in the anti-apartheid movement, but now foreign efforts invest in “How do we see progress?” efforts. This country has this great potential and great platform.

It is very difficult but this needs to be done in partnerships with local institutions, with local players, with local representatives of community. And so we really kind of try to promote the spirit of co-creating solutions, not “How do we do things for people?” but “How do we do things with people?” How do we not just think of servicing people but rather of co-creating service models or goods and services that suit their needs? We have found that; that is more likely to be sustainable in the long term.

What is the role of the Bertha Centre?

We see ourselves at the Bertha Centre as being almost an interlocutor between the on-the-ground work of social enterprises and the macro-level policy makers. We try to make sure that those conversations happen within the context of grounded work and that the organizations, social entrepreneurs, and innovators we work with on the ground see that they’re connected to some of the larger shifts being pioneered as well, that their work is part of something greater, and they don’t all operate in silos and aren’t fragmented. That’s a fairly impossible task to set for ourselves, but we have found that the business school platform is a great place to do this from, because of the more neutral agenda we have, and the pragmatic focus on organizations, strategy and finance.

How do you work with the rest of the university?

We do research together; we’ve created new courses and a master’s degree together on inclusive innovation. A course in our Social Innovation Lab, which includes both theoretical learning and practice in the field, will be a part of the core curriculum with the MBA program here starting in 2016. There are faculty members here who see social and commercial innovation as a continuum rather than as distinct entities.

One example I like to use with students is the One Laptop per Child project. It came out of MIT Media Lab and it was started 20 years ago after asking the question, “How do we bring $1,000 laptops down to a $100 price tag and how do we make it appropriate for rural settings?” How do you get the Wi-Fi network? How do you make the screen not reflect in the sun? How do you make the battery life last longer?

As a hardware project, it was a total failure. Now I could buy a $30 tablet from India. Why do you need a clunky $100 laptop? Out of that movement, though, came the e-ink technology. From that donor-funded project came a multi-billion-dollar commercial industry.

Another example is mobile phones, which are being commercially driven throughout Africa and have had a massive positive social impact. Phones have led to so many other social innovations and helped online education. All of these things have emerged based on that commercial platform.

So pre-determining where innovations that deliver social impact will emerge from creates false dichotomies, and limits our possibilities to bring the best across sectors to push forward social progress. It’s at that nexus where we believe it’s most exciting to work and where huge potential lies in South Africa.

Dr. Francois Bonnici is the director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The Centre works to uncover, connect, pioneer and advance social innovators and entrepreneurs who share their passion for achieving social justice and for generating inclusive opportunities in Africa.

Established, in partnership with the Bertha Foundation, within the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) in 2011 it's the first academic centre in Africa dedicated to advancing social innovation and entrepreneurship. Since 2011 it has integrated social innovation into the GSB’s curriculum, and awarded over R3 million in scholarships to African students.

Interview conducted and edited by Matthew O’Rourke.

Global Network for Advanced Management