The year 2020 will go down in history as anything but ordinary. The unprecedented impact of COVID-19 rocked business, society and the world as a whole. Life will never be the same again after COVID and this is echoed in the common phase ‘Life is different now’ expressed in small talk before most zoom meetings (which have become a common occurrence now). In the first few weeks of hard lockdowns, most people talked with pessimism and uncertainty about the future and expressed a sense of hopelessness. However, in every crisis there is an opportunity that exists where innovative individuals can build solutions to the challenges we will be facing.

Looking back during the great depression, a time were the world faced a seemingly insurmountable crisis, one of the most influential economists of all time, John Maynard Keynes, expressed an optimistic view of the world and that the best days were ahead of them and not behind them. He used his framework to prove that the gains in business and workforce productivity were due to innovations in technology at the turn of the century. This contributed to an increase in worker wages, a decline in hours worked, and a corresponding increase in leisure time. Indeed, even today during the COVID pandemic, innovations in technology have kept people connected and provided a platform for creative and agile approaches for solving business and societal problems; and as such allowed industries, organisations and governments to remain relevant in the economy, now more than ever, the digital economy.

Applicable solutions should ideally lead to poverty reduction and greater wellbeing of these vulnerable communities in SADC. The first era of financial inclusion (FI 1.0) fell between 2000 to 2019, and the focus was on extending formal financial services to the excluded. However, there was no clear linkage to the extent to which livelihoods were improved or poverty was reduced in the targeted communities. This brought the need to focus on financial inclusion 2.0 (FI 2.0), where we address real economic outcomes that lead to poverty reduction and greater wellbeing. FI 2.0 is about demand driven innovation and not ‘innovation for the sake of innovation’.

In the era of Financial Inclusion and the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic; FinMark Trust (FMT) is focusing on the role that innovators can play in solving real economic challenges identified in vulnerable communities across SADC. Our vision as an organisation is to facilitate accelerated economic growth by improving market outcomes that matter to financially excluded vulnerable communities. In February 2020 we launched the SADC Innovation and Investment Challenge, an initiative which aims at supporting the design of innovative technological solutions that promote the use of and access to financial services to support the FI 2.0 agenda initiative in the region. The initiative was implemented through a series of virtual capacity building activities for entrepreneurs interested in developing solutions to challenges identified across four thematic areas (Access to Basic Services, Women and Savings, Digital Financial Identity and Access to Finance for SMMEs). With over 170 enthused participants from 7 countries (Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia) the top four start-up companies were selected as winners and have been enrolled into a six-month incubation programme. The goal of the incubation programme is to support the four start-up companies towards becoming impactful and high-growth self-sustaining companies. Furthermore, the start-up companies are provided with experts and trainers to support in various capacity building activities that will facilitate the process to commercialise the product/service offering.

The SADC region requires more deliberate initiatives that support young entrepreneurs. In my experience with similar initiatives across sub-Saharan Africa; I have learnt that there are many ideas and a real desire to solve the challenges and problems we experience on a day-to-day basis. For these ideas to be a reality, we require more relevant stakeholders to actively support our innovative entrepreneurs. As a facilitator/enabler FMT continues to explore the options available; and how to bring similar minded stakeholders together for the purpose of developing strategies that will enable an innovation ecosystem for entrepreneurs in SADC.

As a famous writer once said, “before there can be entrepreneurship there must be the potential for entrepreneurship”. In my opinion, the potential is already there in sectors such as agriculture, health, energy and education. We face numerous developmental challenges that will require innovative solutions to be developed and implemented to ensure a better future for us all. Our call to action this Global Entrepreneurship Week is for stakeholders in SADC to collaborate in supporting our entrepreneurs, which will enable us to achieve the mandate of human development impact.