Building design-thinking savvy entrepreneurs across Africa with digital advocacy

It started five years ago when Cynthia Mene attended the President Obama’s Mandela Washington Fellowship in 2015 at Dartmouth College in the United States as part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). There, she was introduced to design thinking. Stunned to see how, within six weeks, and with support from her facilitators, she and her team were able to identify a problem, ideated a potential solution, and iterated on it until they prototyped a suitable product innovation.

Seeing that it impacted her and opened her to new insights and ways of solving problems, she became determined to teach the same entrepreneurial methodology to young people in Nigeria and across Africa. This her new evangelistic mission began when she returned to Nigeria and she launched a nonprofit called Inspire Africa for Global Impacts Initiative and created the Ignite Innovation Labs (IGL) as a signature programme.

Inspire Africa for Global Impacts Initiative is a nonprofit, headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, with the mission to unleash the full economic potential of Africa’s youth through education and mentoring. To date, it has trained over 3,000 youth in Nigeria and across Africa, supported about 120 business ventures, and created over 300 jobs.

With initial sponsorship by the U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy Grant, the impact was significant with over 300 youth-led enterprises and jobs created with a focus on solving key social problems.

However, the COVID-19 outbreak came with a new challenge and saw a host of business failing due to the impact that came with the outbreak. For example, An alumna of the Ignite Innovation Labs (IGL) who had started a recycling business to empower youth to monetize recycling services had innovated new ways of doing recycling and grown her monthly revenue to $3000 after attending the IGL cohort in 2018. But these days, she is now struggling as customers and employees alike grew wary of all high-contact businesses. Just like that, years of hardwork and mentorship was almost swept away in the wave of the pandemic.

This new reality warranted Cynthia to take the program virtual in her believe that with capacity building, African entrepreneurs can still survive turbulent times like this. One way they could do so was to be digitally fortified.

“I saw a critical need to virtually deliver programming and meaningfully equip youth in Africa with digital skills needed to build resilient technology-based businesses,” Cynthia Mene said. “Hence, I launched Ignite Innovation Lab (IGL) Virtual Digital Transformation in July 2020.”

Given the recent COVID-19 social distancing requirements, Ignite Innovation Labs was redesigned; in programming and delivery for broader, deeper and, importantly, continued and scaled impact through digitization. The organization’s flagship program, the Ignite Innovation Lab Digital Transformation, is exposing African youth to digital business skills in the age of COVID-19, by bringing together 300 young talents virtually to innovate and collaborate on solutions to some of Africa’s most pressing challenges.

IGL teaches young adults human-centred design thinking, digital business skills and the toolkit needed to develop digital enterprises that are progressing the Sustainable Development Goals and the skills to thrive in the 21st century workforce.

During a four-week virtual innovation lab, 300 selected participants take lessons on Google Suite Applications (doc, slide, sheet, etc.), digital marketing, learned from industry experts, and go through an immersive innovation challenge facilitated through a process of design-thinking, where they work together in a diverse team of five from across different African countries.

With the support of mentors, the teams used digital tools to communicate with their members and worked on problem framing around the Sustainable Development Goals, ideated solutions to these problems, and advanced their ideas through the innovation process.

At the end of the innovation lab, representatives from each team pitched their developed solutions virtually to their peers, mentors, investors, and experts from global companies, foundations, and NGOs. The program also has an Alumni network for connectivity, knowledge, and opportunity sharing.

Shedrack Owen is an entrepreneur and blogger.




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