Five questions to Toon Driesen | Enabel - Belgian Development Agency

"With innovation, what matters most are the steps from idea to materialisation."

Five questions to Toon Driesen
Lead of Enabel’s Innovation working group

Innovation can take many forms. How would you define innovation?

At Enabel’s, for innovation to be supported, we consider innovation must fulfil four criteria:

  1. Innovation must be relevant, meaning it must respond to local challenges, problems experienced by the local community for which there is not satisfactory or affordable solution yet.
  2. It must be technically feasible. We want innovation to provide a concrete and immediate response to the problems it solves, not in a distant and hypothetical future.
  3. It must be realistic, both financially and socially. This means that it must not only be affordable for the audience it is targeting, but it must also be socially appropriate. There is no point in developing a product or service if restrictions to its use are too strong. As for financial sustainability, it is the only way to ensure the solution will last. Otherwise, the initiative will stop as soon as the sources of funding dry up.
  4. It must be in line with the values of Enabel, particularly inclusion and sustainability. We pay particular attention to the last aspect, because respect for our values is the foundation of all our actions.
On the other hand, in general, it is important to understand that innovation does not stop with generating ideas. Most important is the long way to convert these ideas into concrete and viable solutions. You have to test, learn, retest, give up certain tracks. And then, scale up the solutions and practices that work on the ground.
"Co-creation with all partners involved gives the best results."
Can you give examples of innovation in that sense?

In DRC, for example, we support local businesses in the design and marketing of reusable sanitary pads. The idea comes from a finding: At school, young girls rarely have the means to buy regular sanitary pads. They use "home-made" solutions. Often such solutions are unhygienic and can cause health problems. But not using pas towel at all is also not possible, since these girls then feel shame and take time off school during their period. So, we stimulated the search for a sustainable solution to make pads accessible. The idea is to create reusable pads made from local materials like bamboo fibre fabric. We worked with local production businesses and tested and adapted the product before launching production on a larger scale.

Presentation of reusable sanitary napkin designs in DRC.

In Uganda, the opportunity cost of long training courses is very high. There is the distance to one’s home, but also the length of training, which can make the value of training in the labour market change. We helped launch the "instant training" there. These are training courses lasting 10 to 100 hours. They focus on existing needs: beehive construction, shoemaking, bakery. These are training courses focused on the acquisition of techniques. At the end of training, students receive “start-up kits” in kind to start their business.

In Gaza in Palestine, we help create jobs in the circular economy. We have conducted studies on opportunities in the industrial sectors of the local economy. On this basis, we will organise hackatons and select the best ideas offered by young innovators. These young people will benefit from launch support, with the support of circular economy experts of VITO, a Flemish research institute. The idea is to have youths in Gaza benefit from their coaching experience from start-ups of StartIT, the KBC incubator in Brussels.

In Benin, we have launched an InnoValorana innovation challenge on how to value waste and by-products in the pineapple sector, for example waste from juice-making. Young innovators from Benin have come up with very creative ideas: make pineapple powder from the pulp and heart of pineapple, which is rich in enzymes; use the seeds to make cookies; grow mushrooms on waste; or use it to make livestock feed or compost. A jury selected the best ideas, which will benefit from technical and financial support to refine the business model, create a first prototype or Proof of Concept (PoC) and put it into practice.

Photo 1: Alison John makes beehives in Imvepi refugee camp, Uganda.
Photo 2: Participants of the Go Green Hackaton in Gaza, Palestine.
Photo 3: Winners of the "InnoValorana" competition in Benin.

Enabel created the Wehubit Programme. What does it consist of and why is it now at the core of Enabel’s DNA?

Wehubit is a one-of-a-kind programme. It is really focused on scaling up innovation, i.e. realising innovative solutions: launching concrete products and services on the basis of a PoC, adapting them following the reactions and experiences of users, and finally extending the scope of innovative solutions. Our role is to facilitate the scaling process by mitigating the risks associated with it. Enabel is one of the few institutions active in development to have launched such a programme.

Why is scaling up such a challenge?

Here, in Belgium, innovation is mostly considered positively: The possible gains from innovation outweigh the risks involved. This is not always the case in more fragile economies. Resources are scarcer, the context is less predictable, and there are fewer formal safety nets in the event of failure. The vision of innovation is therefore much more risk-based. Yet, these difficult conditions can sometimes play a stimulating role, as people seek low-cost, robust solutions that are truly adapted to local situations — so-called "frugal innovations".

In the innovation process, the biggest risks are in the scaling-up phase, when working to bring the idea to fruition on a larger scale. Not only is this step risky, but it also requires more investment. That is why we have decided to focus our efforts on this part.

What successes can the Wehubit Programme present?

The Wehubit team supports some 20 projects in 12 partner countries. In Senegal, for instance, we are accompanying an interactive radio project. Broadcasts focus on agricultural practices, and farmers can call to give feedback or ask questions. In Zanzibar, there is an AI and machine learning programme to improve care for pregnant women. This project is led directly by an international NGO, in collaboration with the local hospitals and 2000 health workers and the Ministry of Health.

Another aspect of our vision of innovation is co-creation with all partners involved with a view to get the best results.

read more about wehubit


© photos: Enabel

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