Changing lives through social entrepreneurship

Anna Chojnicka, Country Director for Reach for Change Ethiopia
Anna Chojnicka, Country Director for Reach for Change Ethiopia

Established in 2015 in Ethiopia, Reach for Change is an organization that works to improve the lives of women, children and youth through social entrepreneurship. The organization runs different programs that support social entrepreneurs with ideas that could potentially have a transformative impact on people’s lives. Reach for Change is currently accepting entries for its programs and is looking to take on 45 social entrepreneurs. Capital spoke to Anna Chojnicka who is the Country Director for Reach for Change Ethiopia, and talked about the organization’s activities, the importance of social entrepreneurship and how to be able to translate ideas into a concrete project

Capital: Can you give us a background on Reach for Change and its activities here in Ethiopia.

Anna Chojnicka: Reach for Change is originally a Swedish NGO and now working in 18 countries so it  has grown quickly. We started working here in 2015, almost two years ago. The mission of our organization is to improve the lives of women, children and youth in Ethiopia and the way we do that is by empowering local social entrepreneurs.

The definition of social entrepreneurship is fluid depending on where you are but really at the core of it, a social entrepreneur is somebody who identifies a social challenge, challenges faced by society and community, and develops an idea to solve that challenge that is underpinned by a business model.

It is different from an NGO in that its financially self sustaining and it has to have a really strong business model to generate its own revenue but it is also different from a pure profit making business in that the core priority is to improve people’s lives.

Capital: How well has it been working here?

Chojnicka: It has been really good, there are lots of challenges partly because it is a very new sector, there is quite lack of understanding around social enterprises so that is partly why we decided to develop a network of all different types of organizations and institutions to build the sector. That includes government, investors, and entrepreneurs and so on.

In that regard we are trying to build something that is quiet new that is both challenging but really exciting. From what we have done so far, it shows us there is so much potential because our entrepreneurs are really doing some amazing work in terms of having a lot of impact and improving people’s lives in different sectors; some are working in the health sector, some in education and some in job creation, and so there is a lot of change and innovation coming.

Capital: You have different programs where you take in entrepreneurs and provide supporting services. Tell us about that.

Chojnicka: To date, we’ve had two core programs; the first is our accelerator program which is  a program for people in the early stages of a business. We  we take people who are just at the beginning, people who have an idea and have tested it on a very small scale and we help them to turn that idea to a fully functioning pilot project so they test that with real people, we take them through quite an intensive training program of what they need to think about to bring their idea to life in an effective way; so helping them understand the problems they are tackling, how to design effective solutions, how to prototype and test, how to develop a strong business model, how to measure their social impact, all these elements.

We have had two accelerator programs so far; one in 2015 and 2016 supporting 40 social entrepreneurs and then the second program is our incubator and that is the next stage. From the accelerator program we take the highest performing or highest potential social entrepreneurs and they move on to our incubator and it’s a long term program, a year.

They get more support and more funding, more expertise, training. It is more intense and more tailored; it’s about really helping them develop their organization to the point where they have proven their model both in terms of social impact and business and revenue model and we help them to get to the point where they are ready to grow.

So those are our main two programs, we have had five entrepreneurs so far and we have just selected seven more into this year’s incubator. The third program we are about to launch is our rapid scale program. We are going to launch it this year and it is for more established organizations that are at the point where they are ready to develop their business and we help them do this  really effectively.

Capital: Do you get a lot of entries to be a part of these programs and what are some of the interesting social entrepreneurship ideas that have gone through the programs?

Chojnicka: We do have a lot of people applying and we are actually doing a call out for two new accelerator programs now, we are running auditions at the moment to find 45 entrepreneurs to support through our accelerator. We want as many people with ideas as possible to apply as possible. In terms of ideas we have had so far, they vary so much depending on people’s backgrounds and interests.

In terms of what we look for, as long as they improve the lives of women, children and youth, we don’t mind what sector it is in; it can be health, education and so on. But there are some core elements that need to be part of it.

So the first thing we look for has to do with the leader especially when you are just starting out, it has so much to do with the entrepreneurs whether or not it succeeds, so it’s not so much about the technical skills or the exact professional background they have, it’s more about if they are really smart, if they can solve problems, be creative and think around challenges, come up with good ideas, be passionate so you know being an entrepreneur is very difficult and you get told “no” a lot so you really have to care about what you are doing  and be really passionate, otherwise it’s not going to work.

The other thing we look for is bravery; when you are an entrepreneur you do so many things that don’t come naturally to you whether it is public speaking or finances so you just have to go for it; all that has to do with the leader.

In terms of the idea itself, we look for ideas that are innovative, that is a word that is thrown around a lot but what we mean by that is that you are not just replicating what already exists, you are either bringing something that may be done in another context for Ethiopia, or it might be an entirely new idea or you are just finding a different approach to something that has been done and bring some element of freshness to it.

It also has to do with social impact of course; all these ideas that can genuinely improve people’s lives in a real way. We are not trying to reach numbers for the sake of making funders happy; it’s about how we can actually prove these ideas are having a really big transformational impact on the beneficiaries’ lives.

Then it is about financial sustainability so it has to have the potential to generate income and stand on its own two feet so it’s not relying on outside donations. Of course Reach for Change does give them funding to get them going, because it is difficult when you are just starting out and you have no capital. But beyond that we want them to be able to really generate their own income.

Potential to grow is another one; we wouldn’t expect that for the first couple of years, but we want to find out if it can be something that could possibly grow throughout Ethiopia. We also look at system change; what we mean by that is something that can really go to the roots of how things are done and have the potential to change systems.

Capital: Can you give me an example of an idea that can bring about a system change.

Chojnicka: So in terms of system change, say for example you are looking for an education program, one of the entrepreneurs that has just been selected onto our incubator, she was in last year’s accelerator program, her name is Masresha, she is running a digital skills development training program. But the way she is doing it is very practically based.

So rather than just learning how to use Word or other computer programs in a very theoretical way, it’s all about how to develop practical skills, how to build Apps, how to code, and she is taking children all the way from how to first use a computer; basic computer skills, all the way to coding.

So the potential there for system change is that it is a whole new way of teaching tech, it’s about developing practical projects. Say for example that this, off in the future, was shown to be really effective way of developing skills, and it was picked up by the Ministry of Education and made part of the curriculum for secondary schools or primary schools; it would be change the system in a big way. So that is what we mean by that.

Capital: Do you monitor the enterprises that go through your programs to see how successful your programs and their ideas have been? Have there been entrepreneurs that have had setbacks?

Chojnicka: Yes we do monitor them pretty closely; mostly it’s providing support and not so much about checking. As an NGO we are also required to make sure that they are sending us reports and know how the money is being spent and so on.

The nature of entrepreneurship is that you are testing things out. So a lot of the time it doesn’t go according to plan. We have had challenges with people who have had difficulties with developing the enterprises they envisioned at the beginning but then what we try to do is work around that and bring in different types of expertise and coaching to just kind of overcome those challenges. Find a way that works, even if it’s not the original way they thought it would be.

Capital: Obviously not everyone applying for your programs will get the opportunity to be a part of them. As an organization that knows the entrepreneurship climate, what would you say are the major challenges and how should startups solve those challenges?

Chojnicka: There are many challenges; first, it’s to do with trying to build something that’s new, there is a lack of understanding around it, so you are having to persuade people and obviously you have to build a lot of partnerships to make things work, you have to collaborate with the government, different delivery partners, find the right team, find beneficiaries and engage them effectively and one of the major one is capital; accessing funds.

If they don’t get selected onto our program, first of all, in terms of what we can provide, I would advise them to still be involved in the forum; The Ethiopian Social Entrepreneurship Forum because what we tried to do is provide an open opportunity for anyone who is interested in social entrepreneurship to come to the events that we run and access information, learn skills, be connected with different experts and people who can support them and try an bring in investors and people who could mentor so that they can still access that support even if it’s not directly through our program.

Outside of Reach for Change, I would always recommend that people just start doing it but to start small. There is such a thing as the lean startup approach which is all about basically starting your project or business in a way that allows you to test your idea with real customers and bring it to market but in a way that doesn’t cost you a lot of money time and resources.

So you can very quickly learn what works and what doesn’t work and then continue on what you have learned. Rather than investing a lot of time and money coming up with a big plan; plan every little detail and finally bring it to market and realize it just doesn’t work, because of something you could have never anticipated. But if you bring it to the market in a small scale, test it with just a small number of people from your target market group, you can quickly learn what works and what doesn’t and then build it from there.

That is also much more appealing for investors because they can see you have tested it and you know what you are talking about; you have got evidence to show that it works and also they can see that you are committed to it and you are not just waiting for someone to come around and help you to make it happen, you are making it happen yourself.