“After a very long night on a plane, I stepped onto the runway into the beautiful morning light of the Namibian bush. The 40°C temperature change within a 12h time frame wasn’t as shocking as assumed – it was actually nice to suddenly arrive in summer, coming from the cold winter in Berlin. I was looking forward to the first-hand insights to be gained on this trip and to meet the people working behind scenes.
At the beginning of 2018 we were asked by one of our partner organisations, GIZ, to join a scoping mission for one of their new projects. So far we had worked on several great projects together, but this was to be the first time we’d be supporting them with their process as part of their internal team. The task seemed challenging and at the same time well placed with us: 1) Find out how the GIZ can best support the formation and successful fostering of startups in Namibia. 2) Develop the impact logic and targets. 3) Suggest how the local team of GIZ and their Namibian partners best structure the delivery.
We were thrilled: What a great opportunity to apply our learnings from the past years! And what an opportunity to learn even more. Our experience in building Impact Hub Berlin and its ecosystem of change makers came in handy as well as the learnings and support we gave and had received from other Impact Hubs around the world. Our work in developing thriving ecosystems for various projects over the past three years came into play – it all could potentially apply here! So we happily accepted GIZ’s request and I landed back in Germany just a couple of days ago after 12 days of back-to-back meetings with high-level government officials including the First Lady (who impressed me greatly), various high-level government officials, entrepreneurs, investors and foundations. All in all, almost 40 meetings in which my GIZ counterpart and I asked endless questions and answered many questions ourselves to finally suggest a high-level project outline on our last day in the country.
Here are some of my personal take-aways from the trip:
It was striking to me how similar some of the statements sounded when talking to the different stakeholders compared to what I had heard the last 6 years in Germany. For example, investors claimed a lack of projects to invest in while entrepreneurs claimed a lack of access to capital – a classic “valley of death” situation that many social entrepreneurs still face in Germany (check out the positions on this by SEND e.V.). But when we inquired further we learned that there was a general problem around „scared money“ that encompassed all sources of potential capital like banks, angels, and even fellow entrepreneurs. Similar learnings happened repeatedly and showed me that while many of the problems are similar, the roots causing these problems are often very different and thus may require different solutions.
During our interviews, I learned of various past and still ongoing attempts to support enterprise creation in Namibia. They all seemed to have some things in common: 1) They were run by government institutions. 2) They were built on a set of assumptions and a plan that was fixed and could to be altered. 3) The management team involved never had the possibility to try things out, learn and then adjust their offerings accordingly to fit the needs of the target group. Also, the bureaucracy that comes with the integration in government institutions often slows an operation down to the point where it is not operational anymore. After hearing all this we realized how fundamentally important it is to be able and capable to actually act entrepreneurial when supporting entrepreneurs.
Especially when talking to existing intermediaries I was impressed with what they managed to create with the limited resources at hand. At the same time in many conversations, I ended up answering more questions than actually asking them. It was somewhat shocking to realize how little access there is to a support system of experienced entrepreneurs, best practice learning and just plain orientation when it comes to everyday challenges. I had to learn again how huge the difference is between reading a blog post or best practice paper and being actually able to talk to the person that wrote it. It really was a lesson on how valuable being part of a strong network like Impact Hub is – where I can call upon peers around the world for help and be welcomed as a friend.
Having majored in development studies and actively decided against a job in the sector for ideological reasons, this mission also posed a personal challenge of sorts. After years I suddenly found myself in a role I had never wanted to end up in: The international consultant, hired by the government, getting high-level access and giving recommendations on how huge amounts of money should be applied. And all this after spending 12 ridiculously short days to understand the country. This being said I also realized that my experience, but also my role as an external with no direct stakes at risk, allowed me a different view and a more open approach on how a possible solution could look. In the end, the local government together with local GIZ staff will decide if and how they will implement the proposal we suggested. But the role of the outsider enabled me to present our findings and make a bold suggestion without having to fear repercussions – as a result, I can say I am still critical, but also more appreciative of the value of the outside look.
I want thank the great colleagues at GIZ from whom I learned a ton. It was extremely insightful to learn how the work and with what kind of challenges they are confronted. Finally, I want to congratulate the passionate and talented people I met in Namibia. In a country with only 2.3 Mio. inhabitants spread across a country the size of half of Europe, they are tirelessly working towards a better future. One of them said: „We look at the problems of our society and try to solve them.“ Seldom has a sentence so textbook social entrepreneur has rung more honest and true.