Eswatini – A Hive of Innovation
Earlier in the year Eswatini woke up to the news that UNDP would launch its first Accelerator Lab later in the year. Indeed, in November this lab was fully constituted and finally established to hit the ground running. The challenge now is how to position the lab to successfully serve the development challenges of the country. With an emphasis on deploying the Lab protocols in order to learn through failing forward, the Lab team has had to define an area of strategic risk within which to roll-out its first cycle of experimentation.
Fortunately, prior to the very first Lab staff member assuming responsibilities, the UNDP Country Office had already been engaging partners and stakeholders to define potential areas of focus for the Lab. The response received was very clear. The frontier challenge the Lab was tasked to focus on was the burning issue of youth unemployment. In fact, the national unemployment rate in the country stands at around 23% with youth unemployment being at 47% which is twice the national average. To make a significant and immediate impact, the Accelerator Lab would have to present viable interventions to address this most pressing problem in the Kingdom.
The small size of Eswatini’s economy as well as the weak economic environment caused in part by the on-going fiscal crisis translates to reduced employment opportunities for young and inexperienced job-seekers. A related challenge is the mismatch in skills between job-seekers and labour-market needs. A lack of access to labour market information only serves to exacerbate the problem.
Because of the above-mentioned constraints, policymakers, civil society and private sector have identified entrepreneurship as a key potential driver of economic growth and employment, poverty alleviation, as well as innovation and technology adoption. Over the last 10-15 years there has been significant emphasis on youth entrepreneurship (specifically SMEs) as a remedy to the youth unemployment challenge. In that period several entrepreneurship and incubation programmes have been initiated to promote youth entrepreneurship.
Entrepreneurship education programmes such as Junior Achievement Eswatini and Enactus have focused on training school-age and university-level on the skills required to establish and run successful enterprises. Technoserve (now Catalyse), particularly through the donor support has run multiple programs to identify and incubate entrepreneurs. Their focus has predominantly been in agriculture, specifically livestock and horticulture. More recently there has been a shift towards service focused enterprises as well as areas relating to climate change and the environment such as renewable energy and sustainable farming. What is clear is that Eswatini is a hive of innovative ideas that have potential for upscaling and commercialization.
To achieve this though, appropriate mechanisms to facilitate the establishment and scaling up of small and medium business ventures are required. Comprehensive technical and financial support is needed to allow potential entrepreneurs to refine their ideas and launch successful business ventures. An enabling business environment free of the usual and well-known constraints is a pre-requisite for such ventures to thrive.
For the UNDP Eswatini office, innovation and entrepreneurship represents an area of clear potential for the next Country Programme (2020-2025). Already, UNDP has ventured into this area with a project “The SDGs Innovative Enterprises Challenge" implemented in collaboration with Standard Bank and the Royal Science and Technology Park and is focusing on resolving the constraint of access-to-finance for SMEs by providing a credit guarantee scheme for loans advanced to them by the bank.
A Portfolio of Experiments
Through its protocols, and with a focus on a system-wide approach, the Lab will emerge with a portfolio of experiments to be deployed in order to impact positively on the Eswatini entrepreneurship ecosystem. In the form of an ‘’Entrepreneurship Policy Lab’’, Sense-making will assist partners to understand whether there exists a fit between current efforts and trends in the evolving environment. Collective intelligence is about drawing on the power of distributed intelligence and decision-making to identify specific challenges and areas of potential support by partners; Solutions-mapping emphasises the need to collaborative efforts to define solutions to identified challenges, including harnessing the potential of local solutions towards accelerating development. Lastly, Experimentation is about defining and rapid testing of a portfolio of solutions to deploy at scale.
To the UNDP Country Office, rapid implementation and learning from this first experimentation cycle will yield multiple benefits. The Country Office has begun developing its 2020 - 2025 Country Programme Document (CPD). Innovation and entrepreneurship hold much promise as future areas of cooperation in the next programming cycle. What emerges from the entrepreneurship Policy Lab could validate this as an area of focus for UNDP and could also assist the CO to define the nature and shape of interventions UNDP could undertake under the new CPD.
Furthermore, learnings from these first iteration cycle of the Lab will help the UNDP Country Office clarify the value offering of UNDP and the Lab to the Government in areas beyond youth unemployment and entrepreneurship; including regarding fast-tracking the implementation of the Master Plan that the UNDP has supported the government to develop. This Master plan aimed at Eswatini’s economic recovery, has 26 proposed flagship projects across the SDGs and is anchored in the National development Plan (2019 – 2022) and the Strategic Roadmap (SRM 2019-2022). The Accelerator Lab will crowdsource user-led solutions to address the constraints and enablers of National development Programme priorities. It will experiment on potential solutions that could be scaled up to promote rapid progress towards the country’s priorities. The true added value will be having UNDP working at multiple levels (national and local) which will accelerate the connectivity of grassroots level solutions to inform current national policies and efforts.
There are potential long-lasting benefits to the entrepreneurship ecosystem as well. In preparation for its first Collective Intelligence and Solutions-Mapping workshop, the Accelerator Lab has been engaging key stakeholders around the need for such a Policy Lab. Multiple partners have validated the need for such a platform, even if only to facilitate better coordination of the eco-system towards improved outcomes for entrepreneurs. For instance, the need for greater sharing of information to inform future and more relevant programme design and implementation is overwhelmingly evident. Accordingly, they also see UNDP as an an integrator that could facilitate difficult, yet much-needed, conversations by interlocutors in the ecosystem.
What is clear then, is that there is much interest and excitement about the contribution the UNDP Accelerator Lab could make to economic development efforts in Eswatini. Since our initial introduction of the Lab at the 2nd Eswatini Economic Conference (themed ‘Knowledge, Innovation, and Development in Eswatini: Current and Future Prospects), and where we facilitated our first Sense-making workshop, different individuals and organisations have been knocking on our door looking to find out more about how they could work with UNDP and the Lab on the country’s development Agenda. The immediate next step to officially Launch the Lab on December 11, 2019. After that it’s all systems go. Onwards and upwards!
For more information on the Accelrator Labs click here.