Photo showing trained entrepreneurs and facilitators of Limkokwing University of Creative Technology. Photo: UNDP

In Sierra Leone, United Nations Development Programme Accelerator Lab’s nationwide grassroot solutions mapping exercise started in October 2019 and subsequently, was followed by a national validation process of selected high potential solutions. During our mapping campaign and even with the many speed bumps they had to run over,  the team met with over 50  innovators in very hard to reach communities such as Mongor and Mattru Jong and far-flung village like Rosenor to conduct one-to-one interviews and gathered more information and insights about their solutions. This field visit exercise brought a lot of relevant information to light regarding each individual solution. Three key noticeable things were:

1.       A lot-about 85% of the prototypes were of a poor standard in terms of design. Innovators used scrap materials and rudimentary tools available in their communities, which made the prototypes a death trap. This proved problematic for the lab to run adequate experiments on some promising prototypes due to safety concerns.

2.       Most of the innovators’ mindset was to create prototypes for events and competition, applying for multiple cash challenges with no thought given to how their prototypes can be turned into a Minimum Viable Product and marketed as a viable business to the public.

3.       Following on from point 2, there is also a lack of national infrastructure within the innovation and technology ecosystem to support young innovators who are aspiring entrepreneurs with budding ideas, designs and/or prototypes,  and are passionate about  creating jobs for others rather than seeking one in a country with very limited job opportunities.

Even in the wake of Covid-19, colleagues at our Accelerator Lab gave their heart to a UNDP course and leverage on a glaring life-changing opportunity,  partnering with the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT) to run a 6 months (July-December, 2020) online and limited in-person (due to the Pandemic restrictions)  Design and Entrepreneurship Training for  20 (8 females; 12 males) high potential innovators to build their capacity, coach and mentor them. A private sector telecommunication company, Africell, provided the students with data services to ensure smooth running of the online sessions. The course content was designed to cater for their various levels and  the different educational background of the innovators, as they were from all over Sierra Leone (Freetown – 8; Western Rural – 3; Kono – 2; Pujehun – 1; Bo – 1; Port Loko – 1; Moyamba – 1; Kailahun – 1; Bombali – 2). 

Photo showing one of the class sessions at Limkokwing University of Creative Technology. Photo: UNDP.

The content of the course covered basic, intermediate, and advance levels of entrepreneurship training with topics covering conceptualizing and idea, information technology for business, communication and creative thinking skills, financial literacy, computer aided design and business planning. The course also provided unique selling points for the innovators to network with fellow trainees with the potential to forms partnership to set up successful enterprise, work with mentors with practical industry experience and LUCT has a ready incubator facility to provide the innovators working area for building and breaking.

“The Design and Entrepreneurship Training has changed my life and the way I used to think; from innovation for self-gratification to innovation that understands a market and is viable enough to create jobs and help people to make money while responding to community problems. I am grateful to UNDP and partners” -Says Monica Jackson, a female innovator and participant from Koindu City, Kono District. 

The six-month has now passed, and at the end of the course, the plan is for the innovators to be guided by the Lab, LUCT and other partners to set-up their start-up businesses. We have witnessed a real transformation of the innovators from shy young people not too sure of themselves or their innovations to confident, forwarding thinking and enthusiastic individuals who have been motivated and shown by industry leaders what could be possible with some critical thinking and hard work.

What now for these enthusiastic budding entrepreneurs! With innovations ranging from re-usable sanitary pads for women to hydroponics agriculture, from a sensor security device to fuel-less generators, from a solar water purification system to energy efficient cook stoves, the potential for long lasting impact is very real if these solutions and innovators are nurtured and guided. To kickstart this process, the accelerator lab will be holding a showcase event in the first quarter of 2021, to introduce the innovators and their innovations to key stakeholders in Government, development agencies and the private sector. We hope potential investors will see somethings that inspires them to invest resources in the innovators, whether money, time, or networking opportunities.

2021, we hope will be a better year for all. At the UNDP Accelerator Lab, we hope to run experiments on a selected number of these innovations, which was the aim at the start of the journey. We hope to do it in partnership with other stakeholder so that the impact can be catalytic. The showcase event will be the foundation for sparking widespread interest and excitement in other potential partners.

Alas! Together with our partners, we have been able to give these young people the opportunity to grow themselves, critically rethink their innovations and operating models, and leading a life-changing experience with young people during a pandemic that reminds us how to support our beneficiaries from a distance. “The UNDP/Limkokwing Training has shifted my focus from just designing a prototype to product effectiveness, affordability and user-friendly.”- Franklyn Koroma, a young male innovator and participant from Freetown Western Urban Area.

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