Empowering Communities in South Africa to Leverage Technology for Local Solutions

Empowering Communities in South Africa
Source: Empowering Communities in South Africa

Ashoka’s Executive in Residence program fosters high-impact collaborations between corporations and Ashoka Fellows, the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. Corporate executives work on-site with social entrepreneurs around the world to tackle a challenge that is critical to the Fellow’s ability to scale their impact.  In return, the executives bring back lessons learned about new innovations, emerging markets, and leadership techniques that can contribute to their company’s strategic goals. The following story chronicles the experience of Cindy Cross, an executive at Western Union and Ashoka Fellow Ahmed “Smiley” Ismael, a social entrepreneur working in South Africa.

The Challenge

As Vice President and Associate General Counsel for Western Union Business Solutions in ‎Toronto, Canada, Cindy’s day is often filled with the regulations, processes and bureaucracy that are necessary to her role.  These factors made it difficult to be flexible and efficient. With an eagerness to develop her own abilities as a more agile leader, Cindy was selected by Western Union to participate in a leadership development program called Executive In Residence, in collaboration with Ashoka.

From an early age, Ahmed, known as “Smiley” by his friends and colleagues, participated in community development initiatives, and in his late teens rebelled against the apartheid government. He worked in the corporate sector for 30 years before retiring to found Siyafunda, an organization of Community Knowledge Centers (CKC’s) designed to engage disadvantaged communities and ensure that local community members are able to utilize basic technology skills to develop tailor-made solutions to social challenges.

With more than 135 Community Knowledge Centers, Siyafunda is scaling quickly. They decided they should implement a social franchise structure in order to remain sustainable as they grow.  The challenge, as Smiley describes it, is that, “The relationship we have with our community partners isn't as formal or structured as we'd like to have it. Using the terminology ‘franchising’ has a social aspect, which is a bit of a challenge. People relate it to a commercial franchise like McDonald's and KFC where it is very restrictive of how you're going to run your business.”

Cindy’s task was to collaborate with Siyafunda to build the framework needed to set up a social franchising structure, ultimately delineating the steps that the Community Knowledge Centers would need to take in order to operate independently, while also creating sustainable revenue for the Siyafunda organization.

The Collaboration

During Executive in Residence placements, the scope of the project often shifts, and as Cindy recalled, “While I was there, both Smiley and I realized that perhaps it wasn't financially sustainable to go to a franchise model. So we talked about how to set up a for-profit arm to generate income to support the social enterprise.”

Getting started with work was easy, as Smiley pointed out, “The way Cindy came across, her attitude, and her relaxed approach made us feel comfortable. High profile executives are on a high level, but she was approachable.”

Cindy is used to having meetings internally at Western Union, but with Smiley, he took her to meet the minister of the province, where she was suddenly handed a microphone to speak to a crowd of 300 people. She added, “My most significant challenge was flexibility. While I would generally deem myself flexible, the experience pushed me to rise to situations which I would likely have wanted to be more prepared for in my regular job.”

Cindy’s experience at a company like Western Union, which is adept with franchise models, related directly to her ability to assist Smiley in thinking through a new strategy. After meeting with multiple stakeholder partners, from government to private sector, Cindy and Smiley worked successfully to communicate the idea of the for profit arm, explaining how it enables Syafunda’s sustainability. As a result, the community partners began to understand the goal of the approach and became more comfortable with pursuing this model.

The Impact

“One of the benefits that we’ve had is that Cindy has fallen in love with Siyafunda and the communities in South Africa.” said Smiley.  Following the on-site portion of the placement, Smiley and Cindy keep in regular contact to identify key partners and discuss financials, as Smiley and his team continue implementing the action plan Cindy helped put in place. Since Cindy left South Africa, Smiley has set up a for-profit company and registered it. “Now I am helping to put together a financial business case for that. We email and want to do monthly calls.” added Cindy.

“Siyafunda has grown by its unique ability to make things work, principally by the efforts of a handful of people who leverage those outside to grow the enterprise. This is a valuable lesson that I would like to apply to the growth at Western Union and cutting through bureaucracy. Sometimes we think so big! If something doesn’t have a certain level of impact, it won’t move the dial. Smiley started with nothing, and has now built over 120 Community Knowledge Centers with multiple partners. His model has become so prevalent, and he has such far reach by building this one step at a time.” said Cindy.

Lessons Learned

Cindy described how her experience is affecting her work at Western Union. “When you live in an urban environment you sometimes forget empathy. As a lawyer, you can start to be a little negative because you think that’s your job. Looking at how much Smiley has accomplished, nothing to him is too far outside the box. He has such a vision about things. Since I've come back to Western Union, I'm less negative, but instead looking for vision and strategy.”

Cindy added “I will 150% recommend Executive In Residence to my colleagues across Western Union, as it is such a valuable experience. It is a great way to unsettle people, since people lose their dynamism [when they] have gotten comfortable in what they do. The experience empowers people to realize the skills they don’t use all the time. It reminds them what it is like to be on the ground working directly on the problem. I feel that a successful career requires a branching out into other areas as opposed to the change one can make in their commercial context. I feel that a successful career has come to mean something again.”

For more information about the Executive in Residence program contact us at [email protected]

Photo credit: Cindy Cross. See more pictures on her blog.