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Why R&D Matters for Social Entrepreneurs

November 21, 2016

By Charlotte Sagan - Individual

Most entrepreneurs can agree that research and development (R&D) are key to innovation. Take the mobile phone, which weighed 2.4 pounds when invented in 1973. Today, the iPhone clocks in under 5 ounces. This transformation is the result of years of R&D and thousands of prototypes and iterations. Last year alone, US companies spent $514 billion on R&D efforts.

While news that Apple has opened a new R&D center in Japan may be unremarkable, imagine the surprise if a nonprofit like the Red Cross set up an entire hospital just for testing new humanitarian relief processes. What many people don’t realize is that R&D is equally important for nonprofits creating new products and processes to help them better achieve their missions.

One Acre Fund

One Acre Fund lifts smallholder farmers out of poverty by providing a bundle of agricultural services including improved seeds, farming techniques, financial services, and connections to markets. This year One Acre Fund will serve over 400,000 farming families with products shown to increase agricultural yields. With larger yields, smallholder farmers are able to save money, support their families, and improve their economic wellbeing.

Working with farmers across six East and Southern African countries, One Acre Fund has been careful to adapt existing products to each new location, while consistently developing new products and services. Cue the Innovations team, whose job is to push the frontier of innovative agricultural solutions.

The Innovations team leads the testing of new crops, rotation cycles, and tools using a rigorous experimental methodology. One of the crops the Innovation team has tested is the pigeon pea, a legume native to India. After consulting agronomists on the best management and planting practices for the plant, the Innovations team planted a small trial plot to determine its viability in Western Kenyan soil.

If a crop like the pigeon pea shows potential in the research station pilot, it will be scaled to successively larger land trials. In these early stages, the team also investigates farmer acceptance of the crop and market demand.

Through increasingly larger experiments, the Innovations team is able to refine and scale new crops and services. One Acre Fund’s Insights Library includes reports on products in every stage of the R&D cycle (including efforts that have failed to succeed), offering a transparent platform for information on what has and has not worked for the organization.

Medic Mobile

Medic Mobile develops web and mobile-based tools that equip health workers to deliver better health care to populations in hard-to-reach locations. R&D for the tools involves extensive design and iteration alongside community members and users, and has always been a priority— in early years all team members were asked to spend a portion of their time exploring new use cases. However, the team found that this R&D time was frequently deprioritized for work to scale existing interventions. So in 2015, Medic Mobile established a dedicated R&D team.

When a Stanford professor raised the idea of creating an application to combat child malnutrition using the Medic Mobile platform, the R&D team jumped on the task. Beginning with comprehensive research on malnutrition interventions worldwide, the team identified successful child health programs to inform the design of the tool.

Next came needs assessment interviews with nurses, doctors, and patients in Guatemala. By mapping the work flow in Guatemalan communities, Medic Mobile was able to identify bottlenecks in care where their technology could help. After numerous prototypes and feedback from local health workers, the Medic Mobile team deployed their new tool.

Using the SIM application, health workers can enter a child’s height, weight, and date of birth into their mobile phones and immediately receive a comparison against expected height-for-age, weight-for-age, and weight-for-height measurements. This data allows for immediate identification of cases of chronic and acute malnutrition. Medic Mobile now plans to expand the use of the application to new geographic areas suffering from malnutrition.

Proximity Designs

Proximity Designs creates and delivers affordable agricultural technology and services to increase productivity and improve the livelihoods of Myanmar’s farmers. From start to finish, the product development process at Proximity is rooted in principles of user-centered design.

“Good design is not only about good ideas, good design is about taking a real prototype in front of a real customer and getting feedback,” says co-founder Debbie Aung Din. Every product sold by Proximity Designs begins with the team collecting in-depth interviews with farmers in the field and rural-based pop-up studios. Prototypes are then developed and rigorously tested in the design lab, a converted warehouse in Yangon’s industrial center. Tests are run for durability, usability, effectiveness, and aesthetics.

With a working model, the team returns to the farmers to get feedback—and then goes back to the lab to iterate again. It is this user-centered, multistage R&D process that allows Proximity Designs to produce low-cost products tailored to the specific needs and preferences of its rural customers.

One product that passed the rigorous design process is the Baby Elephant, an ultra-affordable irrigation foot pump that uses a unique rope and pulley system to help farmers pump water to a tank for irrigation purposes. Families who purchased the Baby Elephant for $18 saw their incomes increase on average by $254 per year—money which is used to improve their food security, keep their children in school, and buy inputs for the next crop.

Proximity Designs has used this same user centered model of research, testing, and iteration for new projects including sprinkler systems, financial services, and most recently, the Lotus, a solar irrigation pump which allows farmers to completely mechanize the irrigation process using low cost solar panels.

Investing in R&D

Exploring new products and processes allows social entrepreneurs to test ideas without putting all their eggs in one basket. Experimenting on a small scale allows teams to adjust innovations and create better products that fit specific environments and users. R&D also creates a space for the successes and failures that lead to functional, efficient models.

But for nonprofits that rely on donor funding, R&D is not always prioritized. Funding tied to specific programs and outcomes often leaves social entrepreneurs with no resources to engage in rigorous research and development—and therefore no room to innovate. Donors tend to emphasize measurement and evaluation after the fact—but wouldn’t it make sense to understand whether innovations are likely to succeed before they are launched?

Unrestricted funding gives social entrepreneurs and nonprofits the resources they need to invest in essential R&D efforts. Ultimately, adoption of innovations by other actors is reliant on building strong proofs of concept and demonstrating adaptability in different contexts—and for that, R&D is key.

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