On March 9, I moderated a workshop called “How to Engage and Support Local Innovators” at the USAID Digital Development Forum. I was joined by three expert panelists: Danielle Dhillon from the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) at the UN Foundation; Toni Eliasz from the World Bank’s Digital Entrepreneurship Program; and Tyler Radford from the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). All three are focused on nurturing local technologists and innovators. Toni and Danielle support local startup ecosystems and Tyler builds communities of volunteer mappers. What have they learned through these efforts?


1. Focus on Institutions, not Individuals

Many of us in the development community—both donors and implementers—once approached the challenge of engaging local innovators based on an assumption of scarcity. The assumption is that talent, especially local tech talent, is scarce, and we have to scour local communities for people who are motivated and able to be champions for digital solutions. Once we identify those individuals, we then build their capacity, provide them funding, or both, in an attempt to maximize our ability to use these individuals in our projects.

However, Danielle, Toni, and Tyler are all examples of people who have shifted their thinking from the assumption of scarcity to one of (relative) abundance. Without doubt, technology capacity isn’t ubiquitous all over the world, and there is a long way to go before we can say that it’s a truly abundant resource. But this change in assumption does allow us to shift our approach. We can continue to support individuals and build their capacity, but this new assumption also allows us to focus on supporting and nurturing local ecosystems and institutions. These institutions can, in turn, meet local needs in a more organic, sustainable way.

2. Understand Your Appetite for Risk

During the event’s lightning talks, David Madden of the Omidyar Network talked about the need for financing among early-stage entrepreneurs: “Startups need seed capital, not subgrants.” Indeed, while many development actors want to support technology entrepreneurs, they want to do so in ways that mitigate risk. Subgrants—with their complex application and compliance processes—are often a way for donors and implementers to maintain oversight over an inherently risky venture, especially in a budget-strapped environment. But these mechanisms, with their long timelines and onerous bureaucratic procedures, can prove to be significant burden on the time and resources of a small startup. “A grant that takes me four months to apply to and another eight months for me to receive is a waste of time for me,” said one entrepreneur in the room. “My business could fail in that time.”

The key is not eliminating risk, but understanding how much risk you’re willing to take on. Understand that 90 percent of startups fail. Understand that all startups, regardless of their maturity, are risky ventures. Understand where in the growth cycle (seed funding, Series A, Series B, etc.) you would like to invest, and adjust your key performance indicators accordingly.

3. When Local Innovators Solve Local problems, Everyone Wins

Throughout the session, speakers and audience members alike pointed to success stories of local innovators meeting local needs—whether mapping floods in Tanzania, connecting tech startups to traditional industry in Bangladesh, or building social enterprises in Malawi. In each case, the energy and innovation did not emerge from external actors. Rather, external actors played a catalyzing role—making connections, creating incentives, or testing new models. Understanding the appropriate role for your support is as important as understanding the appropriate amount of risk you’re willing to take. The World Bank achieves this through country assessment toolkits. Others might use leaner, more ad hoc processes. Regardless of the method, understanding the gaps and helping locals fill them can be more effective—and easier—than trying to fill them yourself.