Problems that Matter: Collaboration between the Conrad Centre and Kenya's Strathmore University

From problems to solutionsWe all see big, important problems every day. You can't watch the news without seeing something that has far-reaching implications. But a common resonse is: “what can I do?” 

Rather than focussing on the problem, we can change our mindset: are there opportunities to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems?

"But this problem is too big for me—what can I do?" Even if we see opportunities that may positively impact some of the major problems facing society, we often fail to act. Why? Is it lack of motivation? Is it too hard? Is it lack of resources, or is it lack of ‘know-how’?

A recent collaboration between the University of Waterloo’s Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre and Strathmore University in Kenya, two leading entrepreneurial universities in their respective regions, has given Conrad researchers an interesting view on how to address these really big problems.

Through this collaboration, big problems became the basis of challenge opportunities for students in the East African community. These individuals see the issues every day and, by rising to the challenge, they demonstrated that they have the desire to make things happen.

The first part of the challenge was to identify local, innovative solutions and encourage those possessing entrepreneurial motivation to make them happen.

Challenging entrepreneurs

The challenge posed to students was this: address agricultural issues in sub-Saharan Africa using mobile and social networking technologies.”

Why this challenge?

Various forums, such as the Davos World Economic Forum, have recognized that food security is a major issue facing this region in East Africa. Mobile technologies are transforming sub-Saharan Africa, with Kenya at the forefront of this technological revolution. Individuals in this region now have previously unimaginable access to information, significantly impacting the economies of the region,  and redefining the so-called “bottom-of-the-pyramid.” Kenyan students working in agriculture

As a result of this opportunity, a novel collaboration developed between the Conrad Centre and Strathmore University’s @iBiz Africa Incubator to both transfer knowledge and support the creation of new local ventures. Each collaborator's strengths were leveraged: Strathmore’s in business and mobile technologies and the Conrad Centre’s in entrepreneurship education and development. This collaboration has been built around a research initiative at the Conrad Centre called the Virtual Incubation Program, Jamii, funded by GMAC’s MET-fund and the MasterCard Foundation.

Is it a problem worth solving?

Although solutions can be small steps, they begin the process of creating a future in which these problems are alleviated. Rather than simply recognizing that there is regional problem of food security and agricultural productivity, we asked students to imagine the implications of a future where East Africa is the agricultural backbone of a continent; what does it take to get it there? With this mindset, we can develop solutions wherein we are not trying to solve everything at once, but are seeking those small, meaningful steps.

Through the challenge question, we sought to identify those individuals with bright ideas and the drive to make them happen; this is the best combination of vision and entrepreneurial motivation. 

Providing knowledge and networks

It is one thing to have the idea and the interest to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity, but it is quite another to have the means to successfully move this idea forward. How can we help from here?

Providing know-how is important, but it is only part of the equation. The key is to build upon the students' ambition by forming supportive networks that encourage and facilitate their progress. Through the collaboration with @iBizAfrica and Conrad’s Jamii initiative, student entrepreneurs are provided with the means, know-how and networks required to pursue their dreams.   

Although some of these ventures may fail, it is the development of the individual entrepreneurs that matters. If they continue to see opportunities to address the truly big problems facing society and have the entrepreneurial courage to try, then in the long run they will be successful.

 The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

-Winston Churchill

How do we help? This in itself is a big problem to be addressed. Is entrepreneurial collaboration the future of international development? We’ll see—one challenge at a time. And yes, small steps matter.

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