One of the challenges in turning ecosystem building into a recognized profession is the lack of definition for what it is and what an ecosystem builder is.
The vast majority feel that making connections-connecting entrepreneurs to resources and stakeholders, and connecting the dots-is a primary attribute of who ecosystem builders are and what they do.
In Brief – An ecosystem builder is a creative who sees a gap in the diversity of a potentially vibrant, regenerative community. They are the natural connectors because they see the strengths in a community down to the smallest contributions and unique qualities each person and organization offers. They build from a place of purpose and accountability well beyond their own individual gain.
One of such individuals is John Rexford Nzira!
John Rexford Nzira is a big believer in the future of today’s youth and he serves as the Executive Director of Twende Social Innovation Center.
To inspire and equip the youths with training in creativity, innovative thinking, and practical “hands-on” implementation. He is an Ecosystem builder.
Metohuey Michael Adoglo recently sat with John, to help shed light on the challenges of ecosystem Building in Africa and of course the positives and potential of the entrepreneurial landscape on this young continent for Dream Talks.
Dream Talks: There are a lot of opinions to the definition on who or what an ecosystem builder is –can you very briefly define your concept and approach to ecosystem building?
John Rexford Nzira: In my opinion, ecosystem building is a component in many that play a role in building something as a whole. Ecosystem builders, as you say, are people who see the gaps and how they can support each other. How one builder may function can help another in making something work.
We support grassroots innovators because it’s a gap that has been existing for a long time in the ecosystem. Going to the very beginning of the ideas of enterprise is where the grassroots, innovative ideas come. So for me, it is identifying the gaps and seeing how we can collaborate with other builders to start from the grassroots and develop that ecosystem directly.
Dream Talks: What’s the objective of Twende Social Innovation Center?
John Rexford Nzira: Twende exists to empower people to be innovative enough to design and make technologies. We work with people from different backgrounds who do not have the equipment or know-how to create technologies. We bring them through various programs we run. These are a series of workshops where we start with the basics of creativity, brainstorming, generating different ideas, and coming up with solutions to challenges. During this ideation stage, they can still get challenges. Still, we allow them to continue brainstorming until they come up with tangible prototypes to solve their problem and develop into a final product through testing. So, our organization exists to equip people to design and make technologies that, in the long run, create products that would be life-changing in the community.
Dreams Talks: How is Twende funded?
John Rexford Nzira: Yes, we have various sources of funding, but as a registered non-government organization, we rely on grants, for the most part, grants which are directly injected into the programs that we run to support the youth, to support the community members, and for them to be able to be creative and for us to empower them. But we have program-generated revenue. Some of the programs are premium which people have to pay for them to be able to access. And we usually charge that to international and private schools, and we subsidize this by injecting it into the work we do with the community workers, the community at large, and public schools. So that is how we generate our income.
We receive unrestricted multi-year grants from Segal Family Foundation, who we have been partners with since 2016.
Other grants come through other partnerships, including AfriLabs and IDIN – Southern Africa Consortium and Southern Africa Innovation Support (SAIS). We also have crowdfunding projects we list on Global Giving
Dream Talks: Since its conception, for a large part, how far would you rate Twende? Has it mainly been successful with its objectives?
John Rexford Nzira: YES! It has. Seven tech startups have come from our maker space, which is a massive success because these technologies are operational and solve problems. We are also changing as we stretch ourselves to reach more people. So the success is there. Challenges will always exist, but yea – success is evident.
Dream Talks: What are the challenges ecosystem builders face on the continent?
John Rexford Nzira: We’ve gone to the root cause of lack of creativity in our countries. We believe it’s in line with the education system as it does not have room for creativity. Because of this, another challenge we face is how difficult it is for us to reach more people through our workshops and programs. We understand that every challenge is an opportunity. The opportunity here is that we still have a vast community that lacks innovation. That’s where we come in.
Another challenge is that there’s that apprehension for most people when accepting different ideas. People might be apprehensive about the fact that they can make technologies by themselves. For instance, someone might only rely on, let’s say, computer technology to solve a problem because that is what they know. They may not realize that another tool, like recycled plastic, could solve the same problem. Other times it’s just the process of learning and understanding your environment and the solutions it holds. …
The challenge is not just with the participants we serve but also the enablers –parents. How would you tell a parent we’re running this program and that it’s beneficial to the kids?
But the bigger challenge right now would be the resources that we have are not enough to meet the needs in training and reaching out to public schools in turn serving the community as a whole.
Dream Talks: Does the Tanzanian government help Twende in any way?
John Rexford Nzira: Yes. Well, we’ve received some support from the government in various ways. In one way or the other, we have collaborated with the government in different programs that we run. For instance, we are being supported by the Commission of Science and Technology in Tanzania, which is the Commission issued by the government. And its emphasis is primarily on innovation and technology, which is what we do. They have been supportive when it comes to the innovators we support in a way that they get funding from this. We’ve also received funding from the government through the Commission of Science and Technology through various grants and partnerships. In a way, they do support our mission.
Dream Talks: How important is social media towards the development of ecosystem building in Africa?
John Rexford Nzira: We must accept that social media currently runs the world. More people are on social media. Everyone is involved, and different social media platforms have various barriers and communication methods. Social media has played a considerable part because this is where it acts as a source of information. For the most part, this is how I know what’s happening. In Ghana, for example, we are working with our partners in Kumasi, Ghana. Social media is how we know something is going on there. All these updates are a part of forming connections with other builders and other role players in the system. I’ve connected with many people through LinkedIn, which has supported our work in various ways, so it works for me in multiple ways. That includes information and connecting with others.
Dream Talks: What long term positives can you highlight from ecosystem building in Africa itself?
John Rexford Nzira: So I see the future being well connected and a tomorrow with all African countries collaborating on solving these problems, in my opinion. I envision tons of technologies created in Africa for Africans by Africans and an ecosystem built to enable us to achieve significant long-term success. So if we collaborate, if we work together and accomplish this together, everything will be easy for each one of us.