Scale X Design: Is this the accelerator the aid sector needs?

A view of pitch night during CARE’s second annual Scale X Design Challenge. Photo by: Catherine Cheney / Devex

STANFORD, California — AloWeather provides forecasts and advice to farmers in Vietnam through an SMS and voice messaging system. Making Treasure from Trash supports women in Ghana to create biogas and biofertilizer businesses. A-Card provides farmers in Bangladesh with debit cards to purchase agricultural inputs from selected retailers.

This was not your average Silicon Valley pitch competition. But on Friday, six teams from around the world took the stage at Stanford University after going through CARE’s Scale X Design Accelerator, which the international NGO launched to help project teams from country offices advance their ideas to implementation.

“Even programs that we know are highly successful can sometimes take 10, 12, 20 years for us to actually replicate. So how do we expedite that?” Michelle Nunn, chief executive officer of CARE USA, said on stage.

Throughout the pitch night, there were videos on CARE’s approach to innovation. One put it this way: “Humanitarian aid and global development has a problem. It takes too long to bring breakthrough solutions to those who need them most. CARE is disrupting that timeline by bringing innovative ideas to scale faster.”

Q&A: CARE's Scale X Design Accelerator program aims to bridge the gap between impact and scale

With its new accelerator program, CARE seeks to speed up the adoption and replication of initiatives that show the most promise in reducing poverty worldwide. Devex explores the organization's foray into the world of innovation and how to go beyond buzzwords to achieve meaningful scale, in this Q&A with CARE's Chief Innovation Officer Dar Vanderbeck.

CARE awarded $100,000 in grants on Friday, having already awarded $300,000 to teams in a preliminary challenge. The Cooperative Fund, from the Republic of Georgia, went home with the judges’ award of $75,000, to support their work to transform subsistence farms into commercial businesses. Making Treasure from Trash, from Ghana, was the audience favorite, going home with $25,000 to support rural woman to use biogas for cooking. And Cisco awarded $50,000 to the India-based Teachers Resource Lab, which promotes science, technology and maths education for girls and women.

Prior to launching the Scale X Design accelerator, the Atlanta, Georgia,-based NGO reviewed hundreds of existing accelerators and incubators, but found that not a single one of them worked with project-based teams in international development, Dar Vanderbeck, CARE’s chief innovation officer, told Devex. Last year, the first cohort went through the program, and this year, CARE has invited other organizations to participate, including Habitat for Humanity and World Wide Fund for Nature. The mission has expanded from supporting CARE’s country offices, and now likes to see itself as “the sector’s accelerator,” Vanderbeck said.

The CARE innovation team is not the only model of an NGO supporting entrepreneurial approaches to address global challenges. For example, the social ventures team at Mercy Corps identifies, invests in, and accelerates for-profit businesses that align with the NGO’s mission to help people recover from crisis. But most of these emerging efforts look beyond the walls of the NGO for solutions that could advance their work, rather than investing in NGO staff to scale their own ideas.

“The social ventures team is like an early stage investment fund. They went through iterations to consider the best way to structure this: Internal or external. And they decided they would identify innovations outside of Mercy Corps and link them back in,” Josh Ling, director of financial inclusion at Mercy Corps, told Devex. “Now we have an innovation team that is looking at how to create a pipeline internally and make sure all the work we’re doing within the agency is solving problems in a way that challenges the traditional way of thinking.”

Ling also serves as the senior innovation officer at Microinsurance Catastrophe Risk Organisation, or MiCRO, a for-profit company that spun out of the NGO. Mercy Corps co-founded MiCRO together with Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest microfinance institution, as a 50/50 joint venture, but MiCRO has since expanded into Central America with the support of other donors. This means Mercy Corps has a smaller stake in the company, but it donates the time of some of its staff, including Ling, and those timesheets are counted as a capital contribution to the company.

The master of ceremonies for the evening noted the contrast between this pitch competition and the ideas she typically sees in Silicon Valley, such as on-demand laundry services, and other things that give the area a reputation as “assisted living for millennials.” Increasingly, Silicon Valley technology companies and philanthropists are interested in solving bigger problems. 500 Startups, an early stage venture fund and seed stage accelerator, brings founders from all over the world to their Demo Day, and while some of them may be focused on what skeptics would call “solutions in search of problems,” others are tackling pressing global challenges, such as access to water.

“With climate change, who suffers? Smallholder farmers suffer. And they can’t wait for technology to come to their area, so we go to them, and find out what is it that they want?” said Erik Junge Madsen, a regional project coordinator at CARE Denmark, who leads a project focused on providing agroclimate information to women and ethnic minority smallholders in South-East Asia.

Madsen joined Giang Luu Thi Thu, climate change specialist at CARE Vietnam, on stage in the pitch competition, acting out a skit where he played a farmer who was looking for more information on climate so that he could adapt, and was willing to pay $8, the price of a chicken, for that information.

Together, they are working on AloWeather, a solution that does not rely on smartphones or access to the internet but is developed primarily for illiterate ethnic minority farmers — people whom companies that are more focused on profit than impact might not think to serve.

Via Facebook

“The only reason for us to build an app was if we’re confident we can build a business,” said Christian Pennotti, who leads CARE’s financial inclusion work as the director of Access Africa, which works to bring proven models like village savings and loans associations to scale.

He participated in the first cohort of Scale X Design, pitching Chomoka, a smartphone application for savings groups. Without the accelerator, he said Chomoka would probably just be an idea. Even if the team had made progress on the idea, it wouldn’t have had visibility within a large NGO.

“We didn’t come away with a prize, but there was a lot of institutional interest,” he said, with the Cisco Foundation among the group of funders supporting the startup.

Mark Malhotra was a part of the Chomoka team, before moving to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he works with the Launch Pad, part of CARE’s network of innovation initiatives.

“In a world where a lot of the work is project-based, on a three-year timeline, sometimes even less, we talk about scale, but the funds end, the project closes down, and people move on to something else, and you’re not really designing for long-term sustainability and the opportunity to scale,” he said.

CARE supports the incubation of projects with the potential to be sustainable social enterprises by pushing their teams to ask themselves questions they might not have otherwise considered, for example, getting them to adopt what are traditionally private sector approaches like human-centered design or the lean startup methodology, and building the skills they need to bridge the divide between innovation and impact.

The Scale X Design accelerator invites teams to participate in a year-long program that builds core skills for scaling innovations, drawing from private sector approaches to design, test, iterate, and ultimately scale.

Following their pitches to expert judges on Friday, who represented organizations including Omidyar Network, Starbucks, and Emerson Collective, they will continue their work with support from CARE and its partners.

By hosting the pitch night in Silicon Valley, CARE was able to engage with existing donors and start conversations with potential supporters. John Morgridge, the former CEO of Cisco with a net worth of $1 billion and his wife Tashia, gave their first contribution to CARE in 1969 in the form of $10. Since then, they’ve become major supporters, serving as an example of how donors who come from tech wealth offer not only money but expertise when it comes to issues such as pathways to scale. The audience for the pitch night was filled with people who can offer both financial and intellectual capital.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.