Dr. Robert Karanja hands over CEO ‘baton’ to Mr. Wilfred Njagi
It is with great honor that I accept this appointment as the CEO of Villgro Kenya. This comes at an exciting time as we prepare to scale the Villgro brand throughout Africa but also at an unprecedented time as the world continues to grapple with the novel Corona virus.
My heart goes out to all those who have lost their loved ones and those whose livelihoods have been affected in a way that we never imagined. The only encouragement is that when you hit the rock bottom you can only go up from there. I am optimistic that humanity will ultimately overcome this pandemic. I believe in the ingenuity and resilience of the human race that has kept us going in the face of our adversaries, be it in the form of disease, war, famine and other calamities. With the power of entrepreneurship, technological advancement, and innovation we even have a much bigger toolkit to rise from any pandemic than our ancestors had. There is no reason why we should not be able to build back better and restore sanctity of life.
Last weekend, in a low-key event in the serene Karura forest surrounded by a few colleagues and family, my predecessor “handed me the baton”. We enacted a relay sprint for a role that both of us know very well that is going to be a marathon. The eagerness to sprint as opposed to jogging is representative of the times we are in when the world is eager to open up the economies and sprint in order to redeem, or rather salvage, the time and economic loss we have suffered since the onset of COVID-19. As we walked briskly in the woods with our masks on, it was a stark reminder of the things we had grown accustomed to and taken for granted, like basic clean breathing air.
While most of the world wore a mask for the first time of their lives in 2020, the mask has been a living reality for decades in most cities due to unchecked pollution. This is just one among many other issues that we need to address if we are genuine about “building back better” post-COVID.
There are other myriad issues that require our attention. Cutting across multiple sectors from biotechnology, green-tech, public health, agric-tech to edu-tech, social innovators have a huge responsibility to help address issues ranging from pollution to access to healthcare and water & sanitation. The list is endless. As we all try to figure out how to get out of this menace and how to avoid future pandemics, Villgro Kenya has its role cut out in the advancement of entrepreneurship & innovation. As we do so, we will continue seeking partnerships with other like-minded folks to mobilize and deploy capital where it matters most to ensure protection of livelihoods, access to quality healthcare and other basic needs. The pandemic has managed to expose glaring social issues whose cure can be found in social entrepreneurship. This is a clarion call for social innovators to come up with scalable, sustainable & market-based interventions to social economic problems that continue to imperil the future of humanity.
Last week while attending a UNICEF PSUP online workshop, I was shocked to learn that we lose 1.6 million lives every year to waterborne diseases, most of them children under 5. Just think about that for a moment. That’s over 3 times more deaths than what COVID-19 has claimed globally since the onset of the pandemic. This is a prediction that (Peter H. Gleick, 2002) had foretold in his research paper in 2002 that if no action was taken, we would end up losing up to 135 million lives in the last 2 decades (2002-2020) due to water borne diseases. Sadly, that prediction has come to pass. Those numbers are just mind-boggling. There is no justification as to why in this day and age, 3 billion people lack access to proper waste management and handwashing.
I welcome you to pick any other SDG and with a little bit of desktop research run the numbers. You realize how much more we need to work in attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals notwithstanding the fact that COVID has caused us to regress even further back. This effort cannot be left to Villgro alone or to governments alone or to NGO’s alone. We need more and more incubators, social entrepreneurs, social activists, philanthropists, and venture capitalists to start putting resources where it matters most. COVID was just a wakeup call. Therefore, I would like to dedicate the next few years in furtherance of this mission – a more equitable society. This will take a Village mentality. In the coming months Villgro Africa will embark on building a Pan-Africa network of Social Enterprise incubators to create, guide and foster innovative market-driven enterprises that create significant impact to the base-of-pyramid population. We want to be one of those organizations at the forefront in driving Africa’s SDGs.
As I take on this task, I reckon that I will be stepping into the very big shoes of my predecessor, Dr. Robert Karanja. What Villgro Kenya has accomplished in the last 5 years is not a small fete. Thanks to Roberts leadership, Villgro Kenya has gone on to invest over 800K USD in SEED capital to over 24 social enterprises. These enterprises have gone on to unlock over 8.1 million dollars in follow on funding and touched over a million lives. It’s taken years of sweat and burning “mid night oil” with a lot of passion. I am lucky to still have Robert as a co-founder & director. That means I can continue benefiting from his wise counsel and mentorship as he transitions to the Chief Innovation Officer role. I couldn’t have asked for a better co-founding team. Rob Beyer’s decades of hands-on experience in building and managing teams combined with Robert’s experience in research and academia makes us a formidable co-founding team. Over the last 5 years, we have grown to an 8-member multidisciplinary team with combined 80 years of experience & expertise in biomed, entrepreneurship, finance, ICT & engineering and transaction advice. This team gives me a lot of confidence as I take office.
What should the world expect from Villgro Kenya in the next 3 to 5 years?
I would like to summarize my action plan into 5 priority agenda items
Collaboration – Over the last half a decade, we have built partnerships with key funders who have invested significant financial resources and believed in our mission. These partnerships, and many others, have allowed us to demonstrate the impact of social entrepreneurship on lives, the sustainability of our incubation model and many other nuanced lessons for a Pan-African uptake. We have also signed MoU’s with academia and research organizations as well as impact investment funds. Thanks to these partnerships, we have leveraged over 8.1 million dollars in follow on funding in just 5 years. Moving forward we are reaching out to other donors, actors, incubators, and investors across Africa to increase our reach to 100 million lives by 2025. This brings me to the second point.
Capital Efficiency and maximum social returns – In the last 3 years, it has cost us just 1.2 USD to change one life. This was possible due to capital leverage from downstream investors and also due to the dedication of the team, often sacrificing hefty salaries and perks that are seen in the traditional NGO sector. Our leadership has been taking a 30% pay cut for the last 3 years in order to maximize on social returns. When the pandemic broke, they went a step further to commit 5% of their salaries towards funding Covid response innovations.
We have continued to put our money where our hearts are. As we move forward, using a robust incubation management software built by Villgro Innovation Foundation (India), we aim to streamline our operations and increase efficiency to further bring down the cost of impacting one life. That’s the beauty of market-based approach as opposed to pure aid. You can achieve much more with so little and because the enterprise model is inherently sustainable.
As we gear towards opening shop in multiple countries in Africa, we welcome in-country foundations, corporate CSR and local philanthropists who are willing to experiment with sustainable models in areas where aid has failed to bring long lasting change. A combination of both international and local funders is going to be game changing in the way we perceive social enterprise. What Covid has taught us is that home grown solutions and local ownership is the way to solve Africa’s problems. We risk missing out on the demographic dividends if impact investment continues to be a preserve of foreign actors. The international donor community is awakening to this fact. Villgro Kenya’s current funders are always keen to see how we unlock local funding. We are willing to join hands with partners like Africa Venture Philanthropy Association and other like minded organizations to see how we take this agenda forward.
Expansion/Rebranding/Reposition – As my predecessor alluded to in his previous blog post, time is ripe for Pan-Africanism in social enterprise. We have already experimented this on a small scale in Uganda and Ethiopia where we have been active for the past 5 years. 8 enterprises in our current portfolio are located outside Kenya. We have seen collaboration with local incubators and universities yield tremendous results. The local context will always be a key ingredient for any international incubation or acceleration program. In 2018, Villgro Kenya was part of a consortium led by Duke University that offered a 2 year business acceleration support (Technical Assistance, Mentorship, Networks, Market Discovery, Navigating Regulatory Landscape & Go-to-Market Strategies) to Maternal and Child Health Innovators spread across the world in a program funded by USAID, Gates Foundation, Grand Challenges Canada, NORAD & KOICA. This program drew participants from over 20 countries. This was only possible through local partnerships. Rebranding to Villgro Africa essentially means that we are open to sharing our playbook with in-country partners, incubators & universities across Africa. If this sounds like something that your organization is interested in we welcome you to join hands with us.
Gender Lense Investing – The recently released Global Acceleration Learning Initiative (GALI) report on acceleration of women led startups exposed how accelerators and incubators have had an adverse effect of widening the gap between female led startups and male led startups. According to the report Women-led ventures are under-represented in acceleration. Within the GALI dataset, 52% of founding teams are made up entirely of men, followed by 35% with both men and women, and only 13% comprised entirely of women entrepreneurs. As President Barack Obama once said, excluding women in the economic contribution is like being in a match where you don’t let half the team play. Having been raised by a single mum, I have experienced firsthand the power of gender inclusivity. If my dad had not let my mum pursue her career, we would have been left as beggars on the streets after the demise of my dad. We need to encourage more women led enterprises. Research has shown again and again that women led enterprises are likely to create more impact. Women are wired to be more nurturing and caring than men, a recipe that is required in social entrepreneurship. Another research showed that less than half of women entrepreneurs are likely to participate in a pitch competition than men. We have experienced this at Villgro Kenya.When we host a pitch challenge or a hackathon women who show up are less than 15%. We commend initiatives like Women-in-Tech by Standard Chartered bank that are trying to change this narrative. To encourage women participation, we need to change how we have organized pitch festivals and business plan competitions. A simple tweak like ensuring a fair gender representation in the investment committees that pass these investment decisions could have a huge effect. I welcome ideas and suggestions on how Villgro Kenya can improve this.
To close my remarks, I would like to reemphasize that we are at a much more advantageous position than those who came before us to build a truly equitable society and protect fundamental human rights like shelter, food and clothing. With technological advancement in the area of predictive modelling, data science, AI, CRISPR, Biotech we shouldn’t wait for the next pandemic, we should get ahead of it. We should hack it before it happens. As I wrap up, I would also like to thank an incredibly special person in my life – my mum. She made it possible for me to be the man I am today. Widowed at age 38 and with 6 children to fend for, I saw the huge sacrifices she made to put food on the table. This also goes to all the women out there many of whom risk losing their own lives at birth due to lack of access to maternal healthcare. No woman should have to lose her life while giving life to another human. Villgro Kenya will continue doing its best to restore the sanctity of life and empower women.