Ndidi Okonkwo Nwuneli, serial entrepreneur. Photo by: Wikimedia / CC BY-SA

Ndidi Nwuneli knows a thing or two about social change and starting businesses in Africa after helping launch 20 social innovation ventures. What she’s learned, not only through her own experience but through interviews with about 80 organizations for her new book is that change comes slowly, but there are ways to accelerate progress.

“The sad reality is that many other social entrepreneurs and innovators operating in the private, public and nonprofit sectors share my frustrations about the slow and arduous pace of social change,” Nwuneli writes in her new book, “Social Innovation In Africa”.

Nwuneli, an alumna of Harvard Business School and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, spent about a year interviewing social entrepreneurs in a number of African countries to uncover the reasons behind the slow progress on the continent and provide insight into best practices that could help the development sector do a better job. Here are the highlights of our recent conversation with Nwuneli.

Did you find anything unusual or surprising while you were writing this book?

In terms of the key findings, a lot of social innovators say that financing is a big challenge; it limits their scaling process. But what struck me was that there is a lot of money in the system but many of us social entrepreneurs are not investment-ready because of our financial management and governance systems and our inability to communicate what we are doing effectively and report on our impact. These are critical [elements] to raising money. Many of us are stuck in the paradigm that we have to be nonprofit and we have to get grants.

What I saw was that those who were scaling have thought creatively about having hybrid models — for-profit, nonprofit and some in-between — to cater to the different sources of finances that are available so that the for-profit component of the business can tap into private equity, angel investing and venture capital while the nonprofit also thinks about creative ways to generate income in addition to grants.

The second surprising element was that when we think about partnerships for scaling, a lot of times as social entrepreneurs we want to avoid the government because we really believe that they can be a stumbling block in our countries. But many of those who are scaling have found ways to partner with government. You really need to think creatively about how to work with the government especially in regulated sectors such as health, education, energy, where the government is still a major service provider.

There are differing views on this issue of scale and whether social entrepreneurs should be focused on scale or on depth? What is your opinion?

I think that we should not scale for scaling sake … Scaling is not just reaching more people. You don't have to be the one to reach them yourself. Others can reach them. Ideas can be copied. New organizations can replicate your model. There is a sense of urgency in this. I think that in Africa we talk about scaling more than depth because we have the numbers. In Nigeria alone, you have 10 million out-of-school youths. A program that reaches 500 very smart kids will make people happy. But who is going to get the others into school? So we need to scale for impact. … We need centers of excellence and that is a deliberate strategy. But we also need initiatives that reach more people. Both have to go hand in hand.

At what point should social entrepreneurs start thinking about scaling?

From the beginning. It is really about the vision for your entity and what success looks like for you. If you start with that then you really have to scale. For example, when we started LEAP, I knew that success would mean having the government adopt my curriculum in a national context. If that was the success for me then I should have involved the government strategically from the beginning. It is tougher to get them involved now because they feel it is not their program.

You have started and then moved on from quite a few enterprises. What are the challenges around letting go and ensuring future success?

There are challenges involved with having a living founder because every living founder wants the best for their organization. … In Africa, it is a huge challenge to find an appropriate talent and successor. We have had some shortcomings around succession. But if you have a strong board, the board can quickly rally and remedy those errors. … It is really about empowering people below you, having people take ownership, giving them exposure, training and being willing to let go and let the people take over, make their own mistakes and put their own flavor into the organization.

What advice would you give to young female social entrepreneurs drawing from your experience combining responsibilities as a wife, mother and work in the social change sector?

I think that it is tough to be a social entrepreneur and raise a family. I think that you have to ask for help and build a village around you — that is your support network. You have to be very honest about what your limitations are and be very self-aware. You have to know when to shut down and say no. … Don't hug all the opportunities because you will burn out.

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About the author

  • Jennifer Ehidiamen

    Jennifer Ehidiamen is a Nigerian writer who is passionate about communications and journalism. She has worked as a reporter and communications consultant for different organizations in Nigeria and overseas. She has an undergraduate degree in mass communication from the Nigerian Institute of Journalism, Lagos, and M.A. in business and economics from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York. In 2014, she founded Rural Reporters (www.ruralreporters.com) with the goal of amplifying underreported news and issues affecting rural communities.