As a part of our series on NGOs and inclusive business, we spoke to Maija Seppälä, Programme Advisor, Uganda and Kenya from World Vision Finland, an international charity with a focus on children’s rights, on how they help companies to build and grow sustainable business in co-creation with low-income communities so that they solve economic, ecological and social challenges.
What is the idea behind Weconomy and how does this approach work?
We started Weconomy five years ago when we realised that a number of companies had an interest in this kind of collaboration. Weconomy is a one-year programme that we also see as a feasibility study: This project model is for testing a partnership, a product or service in the market in order to see if there is a need for it and because inclusive business models and partnerships take time to develop.
When we start the co-creation process, we first get to know the target place, for example Kenya. A company for water purification services might approach us wanting to develop an inclusive business model. Then we would contact World Vision Kenya to see whether there is a need for such a solution. Ideally, there is already a water project operating in Kenya that is looking for such a solution. Then we start negotiating. As we go forward, we organise meetings and workshops, so we get to know the business better and vice versa. The most important part of the collaboration is the fieldwork when the companies travel with us to the target sites. There, we organise co-creation workshops with the community members and business meetings with county representatives, local businesses or some of the stakeholders in relevant ministries. In a joint learning process, we adjust the plans as needed. Usually at the end of the year, we start to make plans for the future, because the idea is to start a more in-depth partnership after the first Weconomy cycle. (see below)
When is the moment when you bring the companies on board?
We have realised that it is best to start the collaboration towards the end of the development programme, because there are so many basic needs that need to be met at first. We always go to the areas where we already work. World Vision works through long-term area development projects and we are in a sub-county for 10 – 15 years. That means that we already know the area, the people and the context quite well. This is why companies would like to work with us: We can guarantee them that we will introduce them to the relevant people and that there is a trust basis between the local communities and World Vision. Of the whole 10 – 15 year period for the area development programmes the last five years are ideal, because then there is more room for innovation, for partnering and for building new networks.
What kind of businesses are you collaborating with?
We are very open to all kind of businesses that meet our values as long as the product or service really benefits out target community. There are some industries we do not collaborate with, but we do not have limitations in terms of size: So far, we had small start-ups, for instance companies that import craftwork from India to Finland; we had some medium sized companies working on water and solar energy. Then we have worked with at least one big corporation from the energy sector in India. For them, the collaboration was more like an RnD within one of their business sectors.
What are key challenges and opportunities when you integrate local communities in the process of business creation?
I can definitely tell you that it is not without challenges. On the positive side, we can see that there are new things and innovations developing in the communities that would otherwise have not been there. In addition, the way of working through business is faster and sometimes more effective if you look at the livelihoods projects. This also opens new funding opportunities for us.
The general challenge is that this approach is so different from the normal way of working for World Vision. I guess integrating business projects into the normal programme cycle and the organisational structure is challenging for other NGOs as well.
Another challenge is to manage expectations. When it comes to innovating and building a new business, there is no certainty on what will be coming out of it. Every time when we go to a community and introduce a new partner, everyone has high expectations, but there is no guarantee on the results and people need to be aware of the risks involved. Thirdly, there is the general question of the different organisational cultures of NGOs and businesses. We are a bit slower, if you think about our time frame for development. The companies expect that when they are sending a message to our teams in the field that they would respond within the same day and that is not to what they are used to.
There are also certainly some risks to consider. We are many times asked how we guarantee that the companies are intrinsically ethical and that nothing harmful will happen. Even though this question is very relevant for us, it is not in our hands to guarantee that. Our target is that, after the initial introduction of the company to the communities, World Vision’s role will diminish while the companies continue their work with the communities. Whatever will happen then is not within our reach but of course, there are concerns from people. To a certain extent the Weconomy process prevents that by making sure that partnerships are built properly, with patience and that important things are addressed from the beginning instead of just jump into something.
Can you give us an example of a Weconomy co-creation process?
Of course. Most of our area development programmes have a livelihood component and most of the people are small-scale farmers. Their challenge is that they have only a small production, don’t really add value to the product and sell it to very low price or through middlemen. Adding value to their product through helps them to become sustainable and that can increase their income level greatly.
In 2016 we have started to work with a company called Solar Fire Concentration that also started the GoSol.org initiative. The purpose of this initiative is to make solar energy available for people worldwide, especially a solar heat technology that can be used to roast, bake, boil or dehydrate food items, thus adding value to them. We first identified two target groups in Kenya and the company representatives trained them how to use the machines. Their project manager has spent months on site, ensuring that the process takes on well and the producer groups feel comfortable using and repairing the machines. Now, the most important thing is the data collection because this company wants to get new donors and investors and that is something where World Vision can help.
One practical outcome from this collaboration was to get further funding from a corporation called Wärtsilä. This example also shows how inclusive business models are a good opportunity for new partnerships and new funding.
What criteria do you apply when you decide to engage in a new business development project?
It depends on the company. We have now three countries (Sri Lanka, India and Kenya) where we have started Weconomy and that limits the area. The reason why we decided to limit ourselves is that there needs to be a certain level of capacity in the World Vision national offices. Then when we go to the actual project, it really depends on the company’s area of business – water, livelihood, health, education. In GoSol’s case, we realised that we need to find whether there are certain producer groups in some of our programmes that are already working as a group and might already do some value addition using other technologies or if they are planning to do this. Then we scanned some of our programmes in Kenya and we came up with a list of potential groups. We started to talk with them and checked if there is interest for the collaboration.
Do you have partnerships that are already ready to scale?
This GoSol project is already at the point of upscaling. We started with two groups, then two more and now we are planning to scale it up to other areas and even other countries.
I think one of the biggest challenge is to move to the scale up phase. This culminates at the end of the Weconomy process when we start to intensify the collaboration. Then it gets more complicated and processes take more time. This is why there are not so many examples of scaling up yet, but I think the project by Solar Fire Concentration is the most promising so far when it comes to scaling up together with World Vision and a company.
This blog is a part of the October 2017 series on NGOs in inclusive business, in partnership with endeva.
Read the full series for insights on what kind of roles NGOs have carved out for themselves, either as partners of companies, as intermediaries, investors, or even as entrepreneurs and their lessons learnt in doing so.
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