Corporate social partnerships can tackle societal challenges: Lessons from the Aspire Higher Project


Bhekinkosi Moyo


Sponsored content from our partner, The Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment (CAPSI)

Introducing Aspire Higher

A lot is expected from the private sector today, especially in Africa where high levels of inequality, poverty, and other social exclusion have persisted for a long time. However, when a private sector company approaches charitable, development or civil society institutions or movements to do good, this can quickly be of public benefit if focused on the collective impact outcomes.

This was the case at the end of 2019 when Wits Business School‘s Centre on African Philanthropy and Social Investment (CAPSI) was approached by Reckitt Benckiser (now Reckitt) to explore possibilities of a partnership by implementing a project that would achieve community development through social investment and collaborative arrangements. The project had to address the vexing challenges that the continent faces with the continued spread of HIV and AIDS in the sub-region. Reckitt provided ₤100 000 for seed capital and coordination costs. This resulted in the birth of the Aspire Higher Project. And, of course, it’s always valuable for a partnership when more partners come on board: Gilead Sciences saw the project’s potential impact and offered to match the funding provided by Reckitt with their own ₤100 000.

This happened when CAPSI was developing its academic offerings for postgraduate students that included a module on Social Entrepreneurship Initiatives for Wits Business School MBA students. In developing this, CAPSI had also conducted several research studies across the continent focusing on social investment and different forms of philanthropy while considering how non-profit organisations in Africa, primarily social enterprises, could explore alternative ways to sustain their initiatives. But it wasn’t just about social enterprises looking for income-generating activities to support themselves, but rather how responsive they are to issues on the ground and to social challenges that different communities across the continent face. The development of this teaching module took these factors into account. It resulted in the making of the module on Social Entrepreneurship Initiatives, which provided students with several components around how to set up a social enterprise, how to support it, how to make it relevant and how a social enterprise can sustain its interventions beyond the start-up capital as well as how it can build relationships, collaborations and partnerships.

So, when we were approached by Reckitt, the timing was perfect as it presented an opportunity to challenge our students to put what they had learnt into practice. As the lecturer of the course, I gave students an assignment to identify an organisation struggling financially, and work towards revitalising it by developing a new strategy, securing the resources required and putting in place a resource-mobilisation plan. The meeting with Reckitt created the opportunity for us to go out into the lab – the lab was a partnership between CAPSI and the private sector – to challenge students to come up with innovative solutions to solve a problem at hand.

The problem on hand

The problem, of course, was the high level of HIV/AIDS infections in sub-Saharan Africa. When Reckitt approached us, we joined hands with UNAids Regional Office for Eastern and Sothern Africa which provided valuable information and data that became foundational in developing the partnership and the conceptualisation of the Aspire Higher Project. Between 2018 and 2019, UNAIDS indicated that the global number of people living with HIV and AIDS stood at 37.9 million, with 18.8 million of these being women 15 years and older, while 1.7 million were young people 15 years and below. The number of people newly infected with HIV and AIDS stood at 1.7 million, with 160 000 of these being young people. Thirty percent (30%) of new infections in East and Southern Africa were predominantly in South Africa, compared to 55% of the infections in seven other countries combined: Mozambique, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi and Zimbabwe. In South Africa, at the time, the number of people living with HIV and AIDS stood at 7.4 million and 4.5 million of those were women aged 15 and above, while 270 000 were children. The number of new infections stood at 250 000, with 150 000 women and 11 000 children. The number of deaths stood at 80 000, and 30 000 of these were women while 4 000 were children.

UNAIDS recommended that multiple approaches to solutions be adopted to curb this pandemic. These included biomedical interventions that had to deal with behavioural and structural change interventions. These insights meant that the project would address issues such as risk reduction, community mobilisation and norms-changing programmes. Even though the programme would focus on young girls and boys, it would also consider some parenting programmes and coping mechanisms around stigma and discrimination, among others. The project partners agreed to have two objectives to address. The first objective was to develop education and information required to address HIV/AIDS infections: what kind of information was needed, especially for young girls to empower themselves to be in charge of their lives and circumstances so that they would be able to make decisions without being dictated to by economic, cultural, religious or political conditions. Thus, the first challenge was to see which innovative solutions the students could come up with to address the lack of knowledge and data, and provide easy access to information that would help young girls empower themselves during the pandemic. The second objective was to create access to quality condoms. We know that there are religious, traditional, historical, political, administrative and infrastructural barriers to accessing condoms. But accessing condoms is not just a physical issue; it is also a behaviour question. How do we change behaviour so that condoms are easily accessible and used responsibly?

The project had to look at these two objectives, and students who entered the competition had to develop solutions that would address them. After running the competition, which was open only to postgraduate students at Wits University, we selected four groups that were provided with seed capital of close to ₤25 000 each. The four groups focused on several issues related to HIV/AIDS infections and were to implement their projects in the community of Tsakane which is located east of Johannesburg in South Africa, where data showed high numbers of HIV/AIDS infections. As a pilot project, there was a need to ensure that all the projects were implemented in one community so that lessons could be aggregated, outcomes synchronised, and data analysed so that it allows for scalability and comparability.

The finalist groups

The first group was Imbokodo Launchpad, which was run by an MBA student at Wits Business School who initiated an after-school programme that provided assistance to students, especially those at the high school level. Imbokodo observed that girls, mainly, are motivated to take their education seriously and provided incentives around other initiatives, such as computer programming, coding, and after-school work with tutors. An example of encouragement through incentives is if you do very well in the programme, you get a free driving lesson. Beyond that, Imbokodo Launchpad has collaborated with several other institutions, taking young girls on excursions such as retreats and personal development workshops with experienced motivational speakers. In terms of facilities, the group refurbished old shipping containers and created a learning hub that students in the community could access after school – where they’re able to do their work while receiving  assisted on technical subjects using the computers on-site and other resources.

The second group, Aganang, was managed by a medical student who had an interested in HIV/AIDS vaccines. The group entered the competition because of the alignment in disciplines and their concern about the high levels of infections in some communities. Using their academic experience in developing vaccines, the group saw the project as an opportunity to work with young people and instil entrepreneurial skills in them. Aganang focused on empowering young girls and boys through farming techniques, art and design, especially animation, and the development of soap detergents. This was done in a way that would allow the students to gain skills but also have entrepreneurial mindsets. The idea was that beyond Aganang, the young girls and boys would use these skills to set up their own projects. These skills would also help students generate an income for themselves.

The third group, GirlLead SA, focused on after-school programmes, mainly in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The group comprised of MBA students who were all engineering graduates. They collaborated with other partners to provide 26 computers, which they used to establish a computer lab at the school they were working from. Previously, this school did not have a computer lab, so this contribution went beyond the project focus – not only did the students from the project benefit, but all students at the school have access to the lab now! Beyond the project and providing a computer lab, GirlLead SA ran projects that empowered girls through other motivational inputs, linking them with mentors and resource people while offering them sex education.

The fourth group, Gratitude Project, made up of three MBA students whose field of specialisation is Energy Leadership, empowered girls through wellness initiatives. The group used yoga, sport and technology and collaborated with yoga instructors and netball coaches. They also used WhatsApp groups to run their modules and share information widely with the girls.

Challenges and lessons learnt

As in any project of this nature, there will be challenges, with many lessons gained along the way. One such lesson was when the Aspire Higher Project coordinating team had to dismiss a group that had been shortlisted for funding. We learnt about projects based on syndicates and collaborations of diverse teams. Unfortunately, or coincidentally, or even ironically, the group, which was called Storm, caused so much trouble that we disqualified it from the competition. The group dynamics made it impossible for it to be coherent. There was too much competition among group members without an effort to work as a team. As a result, the objective of the project was lost and the group fell apart.

The groups were initially given a year to implement their work, but due to the limitations brought on by the covid-19 pandemic, the pace of execution was slowed down. We had imagined that the group members would be on the ground to implement their projects and, in a year, we would have been able to finalise the projects and decide whether to implement it in other countries. But due to the pandemic, the period of the Aspire Higher Project was extended by another year. This taught us some lessons about project management, implementation and execution – through planning is always essential, room should be left to allow for reviews, incidences and even crises.

The groups were very innovative and immediately came up with technologically based solutions on how they would implement. The lesson here is that you have to be flexible, adaptable, innovative and creative, especially in a crisis. South Africa and Africa face a huge task when it comes to social challenges. We can never give up because there’s a crisis. Instead, we should be creative and innovate. This is what this moment of the project taught us: to keep our eyes on the ball, to focus on the target, innovate our strategies or tactics, yet still implement the project. This is a perfect lesson for philanthropy – African philanthropy and social investment – not to give up amid failure. This is what philanthropy is known for. So there is a link between the Aspire Higher Project and philanthropy features.

Another lesson we would like to take on board and potentially apply across the spectrum of philanthropy and social investment is that no amount of resources is ever enough to address a challenge. Instead, what is required are multiple collaborations and partnerships. This is what the groups also learned: that they need to form alliances and coalitions, work together, and work with the communities, schools, teachers, students, parents, and the Ministry of Basic Education, among others, for their projects, firstly, to have relevance, secondly to be visible, and lastly to be effective and impactful. Collaborations are therefore very critical and essential. This is probably one demonstration by the project applicable to all forms of developmental initiatives that the continent and South Africa, in particular, might be implementing.

Finally, the Aspire Higher Project has demonstrated how it can join forces with different institutions for a good cause. Companies can use their corporate social responsibility and resources to identify reasons they want to support and partner with others on the ground so that their investments are effectively utilised. This project demonstrates that institutions of higher learning produce some of the best minds on the continent. Wits Business School has some of the best leaders in Africa. It provides and feeds the private sector with leaders, CEOs and others. To what extent are these CEO and leaders ethically trained or socially conscious? Are they trained in a way that makes them take partnerships and collaborations seriously? To what extent can they translate what they’ve learnt in class into practice? Bringing together the private sector and academic institutions through the Aspire Higher competition provided an opportunity for a lab to be created, put into application some theoretical undertakings, some theoretical proceedings and apply them in real-life situations. 

The winner of Aspire Higher

In April 2022, the Aspire Higher competition was concluded at a final judging event where Imbokodo Launchpad was announced as the winning finalist and was awarded an equivalent of ₤80 000 to scale up their projects. This posed a new journey for the group and CAPSI, Reckitt, Gilead and other partners, as we are very keen to make it work to learn further lessons and begin thinking about the possibility of scaling this up in other countries where both Reckitt and Gilead operate.

As I write this article, I am very grateful for the journey I have travelled with Peter and the team at Reckitt, Michael and colleagues at Gilead, Aeneas Chuma and Alankar Malviya at UNAIDS RST ESA and most importantly, with each of the members of the four finalist groups. I am looking forward to forging more partnerships of this nature. There is no contesting that such social investment initiatives with purpose are needed today more than before.

Bhekinkosi Moyo, Director of CAPSI

Tagged in: Funding practice

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