By Kendal Egli
When Efosa Obano (BBA 2018, Strategic Management) talks about solving the problems he has witnessed firsthand in Africa, you quickly begin to realize there’s no challenge too big for him to take on.
As co-founder of African Impact Initiative—the Toronto-based non-profit that works to accelerate sustainable development across Africa by investing in local youth-driven innovation—Obano and his diaspora team recognized the need early on to improve health outcomes for mothers and their newborn babies in the rural community of Ikot Eko Ebon in Obano’s home country, Nigeria.
“We knew there were no existing health care facilities in that local area. The nearest functioning hospital was at least 30 kilometres away. Most of the residents didn't have cars, so there was no way for them to get there,” Obano said.
“From our research and our conversations with the locals, we learned that they were using traditional medicine, or things that you would take from the soil, in the area of child birthing and post-natal care. They didn’t have the facilities to safely deliver babies and keep them alive at the very beginning. That was a big problem for the community.”
Together, Obano’s team launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised about one million Naira (approximately CAD$3,500) to purchase machinery then partner with local leaders to open a new clinic. With the help of translators, they mobilized the community to start using the new facility, and the results were immediately encouraging: babies were being delivered successfully, new mothers were safe and healthy, and medical records were being recorded in the community for the first time.
When Obano and his team returned to North America and their graduate studies or full-time jobs (Obano is a Senior Account Manager at Dell Technologies), they began thinking about how to launch the next project—the African Impact Challenge—starting with Ghana. Rather than coming up with ideas and crowdfunding them from Canada, Obano and his co-founder Ernest Nyarko (BBA 2018, Management and Marketing) saw a unique opportunity to extend the key learnings from their U of T Scarborough Management studies, in particular Prof. Bill McConkey’s Entrepreneurship course, that would help take African Impact Initiative to the next level.
“It was like an ‘Aha!’ moment when I realized there were lots of young people [across Africa] just like us who had the same type of passion and drive and ideas, but they didn't have the resources or capital, or the guidance,” Obano said.
“From that moment, we decided to focus on enabling local innovation. We were going to work directly with youth living on the African continent, starting in Ghana, to fix things from the ground up.”
Leveraging his professional experience at Dell helping businesses adopt technology to enable their strategies, and with new inspiration from the book The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty, Obano set about redefining the partnership model to focus on building sustainable, scalable, technology-driven solutions led by African youth. He travelled to Ghana in December 2019 and met with several leading academic institutions—including Ashesi University, Ghana Technology University College, and the University for Development Studies Ghana—all of whom signed on to partner with Obano’s diaspora team and build a pipeline of talent for the forthcoming African Impact Challenge.
The following January, Obano—who regularly volunteers his time at U of T Scarborough and serves on the Board of the Black Students in Business—spoke about his vision for Ghana at the annual African Impact Conference (pictured) co-presented by the Scarborough Campus Student Union (SCSU). There, Obano connected with U of T Scarborough Principal Wisdom Tettey, who suggested partnering with the University to help move the project forward.
“To hear that directly from the Principal is something I did not take lightly at all!” Obano said.
In collaboration with The BRIDGE, U of T Scarborough’s business research centre and applied learning space for entrepreneurship and innovation housed within the Department of Management and UTSC Library, Obano and the African Impact Initiative have pledged CAD$50,000 to create an accelerator fund, which was matched dollar-for-dollar by the University of Toronto’s True Blue Fund, for a total investment of CAD$100,000 to bolster entrepreneurship in Africa. Over the course of five years, the grant supports the African Impact Challenge, a joint project between African Impact Initiative and The BRIDGE, to partner with local entrepreneurs who are committed to driving social development and long-term economic growth in their home countries—beginning with the Ghana Challenge (2020), then Kenya (2021), then three other host nations—and to provide selected startups with systems infrastructure (e.g. reliable internet connection), operational support, and strategic counsel to help them build and deploy their solutions.
As of April 2020, three proposed innovations were selected for amplification based on the merits of sustainable business impact and scalability among more than 100 applications from Ghanaian youth. The successful startups went on to participate in the 12-week Summer Incubation Program delivered by the African Impact team in partnership with The BRIDGE and its New Venture Program, Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST), Arielle for Africa, Casa Foundation for International Development, and The Christensen Institute, as well as a host of strategic advisors and technical mentors.
"We provide the training, tools, technologies—and funding—that entrepreneurs need to solve some of the problems commonly associated with running a startup," said Jessica Udo, Program Manager for the African Impact Challenge.
"Beyond this, we take a very hands-on approach through one-on-one coaching and ongoing feedback, ensuring our teams know what trends and patterns to look for and how that influences their startup."
As the Summer Incubation period wraps up, Obano says the goal for each team is to have a fully functional minimum viable product or service that is ready to be introduced to its target market or community. The next three months will be dedicated to Implementation: launching the product or service and testing it in their target region, then tracking downloads, sign-ups, etc. to validate the ideas best positioned for scaling. Learn more.
“My optimistic dream is that by the end of the Challenge we’ll have kick-started 10 innovations across the continent and helped the selected teams bring their solutions to life,” Obano said.
Furthermore, the collaboration with The BRIDGE opens doors for current U of T Scarborough students to gain experience working with African Impact Initiative as well as a diverse roster of startups, founders, and entrepreneurs who help students build their global business acumen through Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) engagements and supporting U of T faculty research portfolios. Learn more.
“I have a passion for development economics and have already spent time working in Africa. [I've learned that] when individuals who share the same values and passions come together, it sparks innovative results that give people the opportunity to make a difference,” said Angela Athanasios, a fourth-year Management and International Business student who provides operations assistance through The BRIDGE to track the participation of stakeholder groups engaged in the African Impact Challenge.
Obano says that the path forward depends on continuing to build and enhance partnerships with organizations and thought leaders who recognize the value of investing in African youth and empowering them to solve problems through impact entrepreneurship.
“Every time we’re able to tell our story, we can connect people that believe in what we're trying to do. It’s a part of my life journey. I take it very close to heart,” Obano said.
Through co-op positions and Work Integrated Learning (WIL), students can work and learn in The BRIDGE to develop entrepreneurial skills and support innovative community projects.