Research on the potential of impact networks to effect ecosystem level change

Locally led impact networks play a critical role in strengthening business ecosystems by bringing their members together to address complex systemic challenges. They have the potential to deliver significant impact by aligning key actors who are committed to strengthening financial systems and resources, and increasing the income generating opportunities needed to improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2019-20, Creative Metier worked with six membership networks to explore their potential and to test the Converge network approach, adapting it to the local context in Kenya and Uganda.

The impact was immediate. It demonstrated both the value of the network approach and the reach and potential for impact of the participants. To cite two examples:

Invest in Africa Kenya (IIA Kenya) established in 2015

IIA (Kenya) enables trade between large companies, SMEs and SGBs by providing better access to markets, enhancing skills and improving access to finance. IIA Kenya connects multinationals and larger businesses to credible local suppliers (SMEs) through the procurement platform

Through deepening their engagement with members and stakeholders, IIA (Kenya):

  • Identified an existing partner who delivered training to over 500 of their SGB members
  • Facilitated a learning event which resulted in two business deals between their members worth +$100k
  • Unlocked access to membership for entrepreneurs served by a major financial institution
  • Increased attendance at webinars and events from 20 to +100 with far less effort

“Previously we focused on connecting SGBs to larger corporates, but adopting a networks approach, we realised that the SGBs could benefit from engagement with each other.  Through this work, we realised that by convening the right organisations and enabling them to collaborate while we step back, there is far greater impact, and that impact is cumulative.” Wangechi Muriuki, CEO, IIA Kenya

Africa Rural and Agricultural Credit Association (AFRACA) established in 1977

A pan-Africa network of financial and non-financial institutions promoting rural and agricultural finance held a three day virtual meeting for their East Africa members resulting in:

  • 41 participants attending (expected attendance 15)
  • Increased access for bank staff at all levels due to zero cost of travel
  • Immediate interest from other regions; AFRACA has now run two day meetings for its West Africa (Anglophone), Central Africa (Francophone) and Southern Africa Regions
  • Deepened understanding of member needs, resulting in a reworking of the strategic plan to incorporate development of member engagement as a key theme
  • Increased payment of membership fees
  • The creation of international linkages for members with the potential to increase access to investment for agri-businesses in Nigeria
  • Requests from members seeking to set up national AFRACA chapters

“What we had in mind as a work plan has been made obsolete because of the feedback we are getting; it has changed the whole mind-set of how we are thinking of our work plan; we want to convene more virtual meetings to hear what members want ….. “ John Amimo, Head of Programmes, AFRACA

‘From hindsight, the support from Small Foundation through Creative Metier, was as if AFRACA was being empowered to respond to COVID-19 and rethink its strategy of engaging its members in an impactful way’ Thomas Essel, Secretary General, AFRACA

Key Research Findings

The research highlighted the significant, yet often hidden potential of locally led multi-stakeholder networks in addressing complex ecosystem level issues. It also highlighted the challenges and barriers that they face in realising this potential and achieving the impact they seek to create.

The five findings are:

  • Locally led networks are the invisible key to unlocking a systemic approach to a range of complex challenges faced by SMEs in sub-Saharan Africa
  • Entities addressing complex issues can achieve greater impact with less cost and effort through adopting a network approach
  • There are six particular factors which entities transitioning to a network approach need to consider as they change and grow
  • Passionate, driven and determined commitment of the local leadership of these entities, along with a deep understanding of the challenges faced and the ability to convene others in service of a shared mission combined with using a tailored and facilitated networks approach enabled them to quickly create impact in the issues they were seeking to address
  • The research has identified a tendency for growing networks to move towards programmatic funding with more predictable inputs, outcomes, and funding sources. Ongoing research to retrospectively demonstrate the impact of long-standing networks will seek to further articulate emergent network impact. This will support funders, and more mature networks, in better evaluating and prioritising network activities in the interest of ecosystem level change.

Creative Metier identified 78 networks in Kenya and Uganda as part of their initial scanning at the start of this research. The work has demonstrated the potential of just six of these networks and raises important questions about the need to create and support effective networks with deep local knowledge to achieve ecosystem impact.

We would like to thank Small Foundation for their generous support for this research, Converge for their willingness to share their work which was one of the inspirations for this initiative, and our research participants who entered so enthusiastically into the research and continue to engage with it.