Girl in from of computer

When it comes to girls, it's not business as usual

The SPRING accelerator aims to scale up social enterprises with girl-focused goods and services, beginning this year in East Africa. Roo Rogers, an advisor on SPRING, tells us how the accelerator’s unique approach can answer the needs of this overlooked market.

The snow is melting in New York and, for the first time this year, I am able to ride my bicycle to the office. My three young daughters, Ruby, Mei and Coco, are in the playground, energised by the weather and its hints of what’s just around the corner. As I watch them, I’m on the phone to London talking about the SPRING accelerator, and I’m thinking of their future and the promise it holds.

As women, they’ll be forced to face inequity throughout their lives. The glass ceiling has yet to be shattered, women are still paid less for their work than men and workplace discrimination persists.

Yet in many ways, my girls will have it easy: these challenges are multiplied exponentially for their counterparts in the developing world. Adolescent girls at the bottom of the economic pyramid suffer from a fundamental lack of social and economic agency. They are too often overlooked by their communities and their families. The corrosive consequences of failing to engage them in civic, political and economic life permeate for generations. 

Adolescent girls at the bottom of the economic pyramid suffer from a fundamental lack of social and economic agency.

A business accelerator takes an operating business, usually in its early stages, and aims to speed up its development over a fixed period of time. The SPRING accelerator – a joint venture between USAID, the UK’s Department for International Development and the Nike Foundation – is a unique attempt to address the economic and social inequality of girls in eight countries throughout East Africa and Asia.

At the core of SPRING are two simple hypotheses: first, that by providing them with access to affordably priced, well-designed products and services, we can give girls the tools and assets to control their educational, financial and physical well-being. The second is that the best way to stimulate and support the sustainable development of these sorts of market-based responses is through a business accelerator that takes an untraditional human-centred design (HCD) approach.  

Turning these hypotheses into an actionable intervention is no easy task, and the team working to make SPRING a reality comes from nearly a dozen organisations across three continents.   

Fuseproject, where I am a partner, is responsible for researching, designing and implementing the accelerator’s key components. In the true spirit of HCD, this is a co-designed effort done with the girls and their contexts in mind. At every step of the process we are collaborating with local experts and entrepreneurs, working with SPRING’s country managers in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, and validating the outcomes with the very girls whose lives we hope to impact, a process that is overseen and supported by Rebecca Calder, one of the foremost experts on economic development issues surrounding girls.

By providing girls with access to affordably priced, well-designed products and services, we can give them the tools and assets to control their educational, financial and physical well-being.

We believe that localised, entrepreneurial, agile businesses are best positioned to respond to the unique needs of adolescent girls and SPRING is designed to help them do so in a sustainable, scalable way.

These businesses will help girls learn, earn, invest, save and be safe, empowering them to unleash their potential and to begin lifting themselves, their families and their communities out of poverty. As a father and an entrepreneur, I can think of no greater impact an organisation can have. 

We expect the ventures that come out of SPRING to offer a variety of responses to the issues faced by girls in poverty. There will be physical products and digital platforms. There will be companies focused on everything from physical health and agriculture to financial inclusion and energy.

Girls walking to school

But while we are industry agnostic, there are a few things we believe every SPRING business must have. We’re looking for entrepreneurs who are transformative leaders and whose ventures have been generating revenue for at least one year. Their products and services must either be girl-focused or have the potential to pivot to address their unique needs. Above all we want companies whose sustainable, scalable success will be core to their ability to provide solutions for girls’ needs.

Of the hundreds of applications we are expecting, up to 50 entrepreneurs will be chosen to attend a selection camp in their home country, where they will have the opportunity to showcase their businesses. Of these, a select group of up to 18 entrepreneurs – those whose businesses we believe to have the greatest potential for scale, sustainability and impact – will be invited to SPRING’s inaugural cohort.

We believe that localised, entrepreneurial, agile businesses are best positioned to respond to the unique needs of adolescent girls.

The SPRING experience is designed to be an intensive one, giving entrepreneurs access to expert advice, necessary resources and invaluable networks. For participants, it begins with a two-week residential boot camp in Nairobi, where a group of advisors will work with them to dissect their business, diagnose their needs and prototype solutions. These coaches – experts in business, investment and design – will help them with everything from sales and distribution strategies to brand definition and financial modelling.

With these prototypes in hand, entrepreneurs will head to the field to test them where they matter: with the users they’re meant to address. Under the supervision of our team of girl experts and in tandem with a team of strategists, they will transform their initial ideas into solutions that have been informed and validated by the real-world context in which they will exist. 

Through the ensuing nine months, local partners will provide entrepreneurs with support, mentorship and guidance as they move to implement their ideas. Along with this comes an average of up to US$80,000 per company and introductions to a network of local and international investors who we have carefully selected for their patient, impact-driven investment philosophies. We believe that the ecosystem of support SPRING provides will accelerate our ventures’ growth and impact, and that they will leave the programme ready to take on an infusion of growth capital. 

While the SPRING team represents some of the best talent from the worlds of development, business, entrepreneurship and design, we know that it is the cohort itself that will prove to be our greatest asset. This initial group of leaders will comprise a truly inspiring group of entrepreneurs from across East Africa. Coming from different nations and working in different fields, they will share the belief that girls living in poverty matter as a target market and the passion for creating organisations that work to make their lives better. They will support one another, learn from one another and become the foundation upon which SPRING’s future successes are built.

The questions we are asking with this project are ambitious:

  • Is it possible to reorient economic markets to address the unique needs of girls at the bottom of the pyramid?  
  • Can we persuade entrepreneurs and their investors that, if designed properly, girl-centred products and services can have not only significant social impact, but financial success as well?
  • Is a human-centred design process the best way to approach these challenges?

I believe that the answer to all these questions is an unequivocal yes.

I cannot wait to meet our entrepreneurs, get to know their businesses and see the tremendous impact their ventures will have on the lives of millions of Africa’s most vulnerable girls. 

The first SPRING accelerator takes place in East Africa. Applications are being accepted from businesses based in this region. The deadline to apply is 16 March 2015. To find out more about the SPRING accelerator, visit springaccelerator.org

Roo Rogers is a partner at fuseproject, a strategic innovation and deisgn company based in New York City.