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Voluntarism is one of the most effective ways to engage in society because it helps individuals, gain skills, build stronger networks, gain new experiences and access new opportunities. However, the opportunity to access opportunities to volunteer effectively are not available to all.
Over the past few years, I have taken the time to distil the formula that led to my professional positioning and current level of experience and expertise and realised that I have gotten to the place I am in today because I saw an advert seeking volunteers at my local MPs office. I had just failed to get into the university of my choice and was so shocked by that revelation that I decided to take a year out to recalibrate, resit a couple of exams and then apply again. To justify my choice to my parents, I promised that I would spend the year volunteering. It wasn’t a promise I had taken very seriously and really rather considered it as an offer of self-punishment for having not secured the grades I needed.
Before I actually experienced formal volunteering, the only type of volunteering I was familiar with was volunteering at church, which is valuable and a fantastic opportunity to give back to my own community, but the access that I was able to gain outside of my community through volunteering is what got me here. Advocating for voluntarism in the black community is about access. Voluntarism was not something I was taught in any sphere of my life, to see as an opportunity to achieve and access greater things. Before I started my role, I was more than prepared to sit in an office and file documents one after the other for hours on end or otherwise stare blankly into a computer screen while proofreading long policy and regulation manuals that I couldn’t possibly have cared less about. However, my volunteer managers had something much more interesting and dynamic planned for me.
I admit before I started the role, for which I was properly interviewed, I had no real understanding of how MPs helped people or that MPs helped people. I didn’t engage with local services, and my immigration status actually specifically forbade me from doing so. Giving back to a system that had already been so difficult to navigate and had put such a strain on my parents as they sought to exist within it, make a living and adequately provide for their children, seemed nonsensical. Yet there was treasure hidden in the beige and brick walls of the MPs office, manned primarily by old ladies with a deep love for strong black tea and digestive biscuits. While there were moments of filing documents and proofreading proposals, there were many more moments that I spent speaking with constituents of the borough who had real problems and were hoping for real solutions.
For six months, while I rarely saw people that looked like me sit in for meetings with the MP or his senior staff, I still felt seen and supported in those offices by people who were committed to ensuring I gained skills that would help me excel in the future. I learned about time management, customer management, project planning, budgets, database management and I soaked it all up. My enthusiasm for the opportunity must have come across because after those first few months, a job became available in the Westminster office and it was offered to me. My first real job made me the sole breadwinner of my family at that time, and the youngest professional employee of the House of Commons that year. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to help out my family in our time of need. That voluntary opportunity came at a time that I needed it most and provided teaching that became so beneficial to me from that point on. More than that, it was that experience that taught me to choose first the thing that helps people, and secondly find the people that will seek to help you and third, weigh the financial reward that it promises. Those values have remained the core of my entire professional career.
Over the past 10 years in the workforce, I have sought to imbibe those values in everything I have done, which invariably led me to the world of technology and social entrepreneurship. Perhaps not inevitably, but sincerely. My passion is to ensure that every Black person around the world has access to the tools and resources they need to become the fully realised most functional version of themselves. Unlike other demographic populations around the world, Black people, no matter the geographic location of our bodies, typically find ourselves disadvantaged in terms of social mobility and access. The two spaces that affect the development of our world more than any other are civil society and technology. Hence, for the past few years, here at Do it Now Now, we have been asking and seeking to provide answers to the question, “what do Black people need to succeed in this day and age?”, because if you help the lowest-ranked or least likely to succeed in a space, do so, you are inevitably building up the rest of the population that could seek to utilise those services in the future. That’s why we start from the Black perspective and have worked with many organizations to help them develop strategies from that perspective as well. By working with some of the leading organisations in the world, like Google for Startups, the British Council, PwC and others, we have learned, adapted and evolved as an organisation to better support Black people into better circumstances.
I am excited to announce that I have an opportunity to do something extraordinary over the next few years. I have recently been appointed as a Trustee and Director of the Royal Voluntary Service in the UK. As the name suggests, the organisation, backed by The Royal Family, has a rich tradition of voluntarism that started with the second world war during which they engaged women to volunteer their time to the war effort; leading to a revolution that forever changed the country’s workforce as women became aware that they too are capable of work in all its forms. Today, Royal Voluntary Service is the leading voluntary organisation in support of the NHS and care facilities in communities across the country.
I am honoured to have received the invitation to join the Trustee Board because I recognise the opportunity it will provide me to utilise my learning in a new context (which is always a joy), but also help an organisation that has such an incredible influence over an integral industry understand the needs of Black people (who are typically a proxy for other people of colour groups and people from low-income backgrounds) when it comes to engaging in voluntarism in the formal volunteering sector. One of our key goals as an organisation is to significantly contribute to the increase of formal voluntarism within the Black community in the UK. Currently, according to the Office of National Statistics. 48% of the UK’s Black community would like to be formally involved in their community, yet only 8% are doing so. We’d like to see this number rise (particularly for young people) because, as I hope my story exemplified, formal voluntarism bring real benefit to those who engage in it. It provides work experience, professional references, the opportunity to see the world through a new lens, and to get accustomed early to navigating the White spaces every Black person needs to learn to navigate to survive as a minority.
Bayo Adelaja | Chief Do-er at Do it Now Now | This is how I got here
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It has taken me longer than I wanted to figure out what I wanted to say about this situation so awfully affecting the black population globally. My first draft was incendiary, my second draft was incomprehensible and this, my third attempt, I hope conveys the difficulty we face, acknowledges the preventability of some of the impact we are noticing and provides some thoughts on what we can do moving forward.
The black community globally is not one without issue. I recently saw a photograph of the rapper Andre3000 wearing a bomber jacket purporting a slogan that read, “Across cultures, darker people suffer most. Why?” It ignited a thought-spiral that begun with this statement and follow-up question:
“The Black population is systematically oppressed by social policy decisions that negatively and disproportionately affect our wellbeing and financial stability. What is the potential long-term effect of this reality if it continues to go unchecked?”
In this post, I’m exploring that question in light of the expected outcomes of the coronavirus in the UK.
For context, I’d like to introduce you to the reality of Blackness in the UK:
The above figures are all according to the most recent reports by the Office of National Statistics who also state that 45% of the Black African population in the UK is living in poverty and 53% is on some form of government support. For comparison, 56% of the white population is in receipt of government support while 20% are living in poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. In that final comparison, the disparity may be accounted for by “No Recourse to Public Funds” cases; Black African immigrants are living below the poverty line but are unable to claim any government support due to their immigration status.
Finally, according to the British Heart Foundation, Black people are more likely to be living with co-morbidities that are worsened by the contraction of Coronavirus such as High blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
At the time of writing this post, data has not been released about the specific racial breakdown of the disproportionate amount of deaths of people of colour in the outbreak. However, we do know that, according to the BBC, despite making up only 14% of the population, people of colour represent 33% of Coronavirus in-patients.
With that information as a backdrop to the current global pandemic we’re living through, a severe impact on the Black community is to be expected. We are at risk and we are dying. Yet we continue to be ineffectively supported. Unconscious bias is rife within the system that we have to rely on to save our lives. The people in the Black community in the UK have been repeatedly “gaslit” by the health system that in aggregate, won’t believe our pain is real. We are reliant on a system in which even our service is unwelcome.
We don’t yet know what the overall figures look like, and we won’t be able to tell for a few years the extent of the long-term effect on our personhood as individuals or as a society. These are very tough times for everyone across all races and spheres of life. Despite the difficulty, it is time to press into change and innovation, to address challenges in real-time and curb disturbing trends before they can be described as willful negligence.
Here are two possibilities:
Address Unconscious Bias within the UK’s healthcare industry. A short term solution could make an incredible amount of difference in the immediate circumstances. I’m not suggesting the NHS shuts down for a 24 hour period to re-train staff, as Starbucks did when a member of their US staff was caught on video displaying extreme bias against a couple of black patrons. I am however suggesting that something can be done to help both medical and non-medical staff address and avoid occurrences like the one described in this The Independent newspaper article.
Raise unemployed and self-employed support, to reflect full-time minimum wage across the country. Black people are typically financially unstable with a high rate of unemployment. The recession brought on by Coronavirus has led to hiring freezes and lay-offs across the country. Without the expectation of a somewhat immediate return to normalcy, even a short-term boost similar to that being provided for furloughed and self-employed workers could be an effective way to support groups, like the Black population, who are more likely at risk of financial ruin.
With all of that said, I recognise the privilege I have in writing this post, speaking into the void without any responsibility or ability to affect change in these circumstances. I wholeheartedly applaud everyone working day in and day out on providing solutions to the problems they perceive and prioritise.
It is my hope that as more people use their platforms to voice their concerns about the trajectory of this goings-on, we may collectively affect the direction of the discussions in the rooms where power is wielded.
Bayo Adelaja | Chief Do-er at Do it Now Now | This is how I got here
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If we keep going at the pace and in the way we have been, we won’t meet the sustainable Development Goals until 2094. With that in mind we have joined a global movement called Catalyst 2030 to galvanise the collaboration and infrastructure that is necessary among social innovators worldwide to reach the Goals by 2030 as intended.
We’re proud to be a Founding Member of this fantastic organization that was launched in Davos with the active support of the leading social innovation organisations in the world; Echoing Green, Ashoka, Schwab Foundation and Skoll Foundation. I was given the opportunity to present the introduction of the Catalyst 2030 movement at the 2020 Skoll Forum alongside two other Founding Members; Kristine Pearson, founder of Lifeline Energy and Colin McElwee, co-Founder of Worldreader.
Our global membership group spent months deep diving into the methodology that would support widespread collaboration within the cohort and to ensure the sustainability of this volunteer movement. In February, the founding members met in Northampton (UK), hosted by Spencer family in their stately home, Althrop, and there we decided on engaging members in working groups.
The majority of our members utilise the connections made within the network to further their own work and find new qualified partners for their endeavours, while also engaging in the organisation and development of one of the following aspects of our work.
WG1 - Governance - as you can imagine, this working group is focused on ensuring we are effectively working together to meet our collective goal as a movement.
WG2 - Communication - in this working group, we ensure that the Catalyst movement is effectively portrayed at all times, and devise methods to ensure more people get to know about the work we are doing.
WG3 - Collaboration - this working group is at the core of the Catalyst movement. Through the use of technology and other key components, members are given the opportunity to effectively communicate their needs, offer support and gain new insights to help them catalyse their own individual work.
WG4 - Impact measuring and visibility - for those of us that are passionate about impact measurement, the democratisation of impact information, usability of that data and transparency within the social sector, working group 4, impact measuring and visibility has been a great opportunity to explore ideas and methodologies with like minded people.
WG5 - Financing - this group’s mission is to catalyse the development of powerful systemic change to the financing infrastructure that supports social entrepreneurs. It’s all about embracing complexity from the funder side of things.
WG6 - Country and UN interactions - to ensure that we achieve the SDGs we have to work more effectively with governments and the UN. The aim of this group is to create an ecosystem in which all governments, UN & multilateral funding bodies recognise, respect & enable social entrepreneurs/social innovators to take action to implement solutions in their nations and organisations
WG7 - Private sector interactions - their aim is to represent the rest of the world that engages with the ecosystem in which we all operate. They work to engage and mobilise corporations, communities, civil society, and young people as catalysts to bring about systemic change.
WG8 - Convergence - in this working group, members are focused on designing the architecture for a systems highway that will allow us to share data and information easily to help build capacity for non-profits.
The Secretariat offers varying levels of support. In some initiatives it is a guiding force, whereas in others it is hands on. Its role is to coordinate, support and facilitate engagements, projects and opportunities with Catalyst 2030 members and working group members. As we worked to develop the governance structure of Catalyst 2030 it was important to us that this volunteer run organisation adopted a bottom up approach and that is reflected in the modality of the Secretariat which acts primarily as a Backbone structure, the core of that backbone being One Family Foundation, led by Catalyst 2030 founder, Jeroo Billimoria.
We have 10 years to achieve the goals. So over the next decade we are going to have to evolve our approach to meet the challenges that arise and to continue catalysing the impact of the status quo at the time. Right now, we’re in the Preparation phase. We’re building the movement’s foundation, performing scoping activities and determining what our key actions are to be.
In the Incubation phase, over an 18 month period, working groups will initiate pilot programs that will foster learning, and produce effective iterations.
In the Expansion phase, we’ll spend these 4 years scaling the proven models developed within our working groups, with the scope of the projects reaching across geographies and sectors.
In the five years following, what we have named the Maturity phase, we’ll further scale our interventions. By this time, we intend to have created new structures, policies, practices, and norms that can be embraced by system actors.
We know that we’ll have to be adaptable and that, as we are currently experiencing, focus can shift and change. Thankfully, the model itself, from the start, was built to absorb shifts and changes well. I’m excited about how well all of this has come together in such a short space of time, and how well we are collaborating and developing across our working groups, as an entire body.
Catalyst 2030 is made up of many fantastic organisations around the world that have decided to work together and make a concerted unified effort towards the meeting of the SDGs in 2030. Surely if the entire world can change in a matter of weeks, as it recently has, the entire world can change again for the better, and faster through efforts such as these.
If you would like to find out more about what we’re building, head over to the Catalyst 2030 website for frequent updates on our activities.
Bayo Adelaja | Chief Do-er at Do it Now Now | This is how I got here
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Insecurities left unmanaged will find you in your business, and they will limit your ability to move, grow and envision a future beyond the barriers of the comfort zone you have built around you. Rona has forced me to reckon with an insecurity that I have lived with for years; a debilitating fear of change.
The illustration I have frequently used to explain the depth of my fear of change is my reaction to a colleague’s role being re-vamped. It was to be changed from top to bottom, the title, the duties, none of it was to remain the same. She was ready to roll with the punches and I sat next to her hyperventilating, imagining the stress and tribulation that would befall me if I too had to experience such a mammoth change in my own work life. I was 22 at the time. Since then I have built this business and dealt with extreme highs and excruciating lows that come with entrepreneurship at this level. Yet, I live and breathe. Yet I create, I build and I work towards a better day. This will not break me and it won’t break you either.
We have each lived through change, hardship, extreme difficulty and challenges that have been overcome and won. This too shall pass. No matter how bad it is right now, there will come a day when it is better. The hope for a better day has been my saving grace over the past few weeks and I am assured that those days will arrive soon(ish).
I hope that short story encourages you in this time. The world is changing, the world has changed. So have I, so have you.
I’m spending each day in self-isolation reminding myself that some of the best innovations come in a downturn, that this is the best time to delve deeper into understanding the needs of our beneficiaries and it’s the perfect time to lean in rather than back down.
Wishing you and your loved ones good health and safety,
Bayo Adelaja | Chief Do-er at Do it Now Now | This is how I got here
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We were invited to work with the UN’s World Food program and the Elon Musk funded XPRIZE Foundation on their efforts to democratise access to the resources they have available to agritech founders across the world. The context of our invitation was this, how do we get more African tech founders engaging with our resources?” As program organisers working directly within the African tech ecosystem, we are providing the organisations with our insight. Our secret sauce or primary methodology is co-creation. With that in mind, ahead of the visit to meet the teams of both organisations in Munich, we asked some of our founders to give their views on the topic as well. A couple of the Afritech XYZ founders and our team are heading to Munich to discuss these insights in detail.
The UN’s World Food Programme has been tasked with delivering the Global Learning XPRIZE; a $15 million competition sponsored by Elon Musk which challenges teams from around the world to develop technology created to support children’s education in the world’s poorest and most remote places.
For those of you that don’t know, XPRIZE uses large-scale global incentive competitions to crowdsource solutions to global social challenges and strives to inspire and guide innovators to create breakthroughs for a world “where every man, woman and child can access all the energy, clean drinking water, shelter, education and healthcare they require”.
The AfriTech XYZ team asked some of our founders what barriers they faced within the African agriculture ecosystem, particularly when applying to large-scale, international startup competitions. While our founders strive to solve a range of problems in different parts of the continent within the agriculture space, their struggles as African entrepreneurs are very much shared across contexts.
The challenges of having a solid “proof of concept” and proving sustainability
This is a very real issue for many entrepreneurs worldwide - but fundamentally more challenging for African startups who tend to not be gifted with easy access to capital.
According to Luna Bawa, CEO of EveryFarmer, “a real challenge for us in the African agriculture founder community is being able to demonstrate return on investment. I find the level of data that international large-scale competitions require in order to prove viability can hinder our ability to progress through to final rounds. This is often through no real fault of our own as the data for elements such as governing laws, regulations, land ownership, insurance, agronomics, and price volatility are just not available. Our inability to evidence profitability because of these gaps in our documentation can inevitably lead to rejection.”
While not being able to obtain data to prove business sustainability hinders progress in applications, some founders express an added challenge of not having the capacity to pull the needed data together to a standard that would be suitable for large scale competitions.
Apprehensions around intellectual property and business readiness
Joash Bwambale, CEO of IRRISOL tells us:
“One of the key challenges I’ve come across is startups’ lack of understanding of Intellectual Property. A lot of African agricultural founders haven’t patented their solutions and also don’t really know the legal steps to take in order to protect their ideas. The fear of their idea being stolen or copied by other people often puts them off applying for international startup competitions. Those that do apply sometimes worry about disclosing too much information about their business for this very reason”.
Not giving enough information about the startup’s true capabilities immediately puts it at a disadvantage and in some cases can cause its elimination from the process. This highlights a real need for startups on the continent to be part of a support network that not only provides information on every area of business growth but also access to people that can help them understand the complex entrepreneur landscape.
With so little funding available to pay professionals to effectively protect the startup’s rights during the process, vague language about the way information submitted will be used during and after the competition is a hindrance. The burden should be on the side of the international organisations running the competitions. Providing a webinar or two about the way their information will be used, the rights of the startups and the expectations on both sides of the table would help ease apprehensiveness and encourage more African startups to trust that they are not ultimately being taken advantage of.
One of the things we did in building the AfriTech XYZ application and recruitment process was to recruit a selection committee of figures the startups were already familiar with and could trust. We effectively traded on the trust the startups already had with our brand and borrowed the trust they have in the members of our selection committee (as approachable experts within a small but thriving ecosystem).
Competitions need a more inclusive measure of financial success
Cynthia Aveh, Founder of Trusteefarm, thinks that the requirements to advance through these competitions are almost insurmountable:
“A typical example of the requirements in a competition states that the startup must have $100,000 in annual sales or revenue, must have raised about $500,000 or more in investments and must have a team with some professional backgrounds and so on. A lot of African startups have yet to have this level of capital in their business so it becomes a real barrier for founders to feel confident in applying.”
When developing criteria for the application process, are the competitions that seek to engage founders worldwide actually inclusive of those founders experiences? A simple example is currency exchange rates. A highflying early-stage startup in an African country could be making very impressive revenue, but when put in context of the criteria of some competitions and that revenue is converted to USD or GBP, it pales in comparison to the revenue being accumulated by startups already in those regions working primarily in that currency. It forms a bias immediately. It sacrifices high potential African early-stage startups for late-stage startups and puts them in competition with early-stage startups from wealthy countries with more favourable currency conversion rates.
The way we sought to tackle this in AfriTech XYZ was to create an “up to” barrier rather than an “over and above” barrier. That means our language clearly expresses the criteria we apply doesn’t discourage startups that have not yet made that level of finance from trying to become part of the cohort. What tends to happen is that if a startup is not yet making $100,000 in annual revenue but does fit the majority of the other clearly laid out criteria, they are not discouraged from applying. In most cases, the revenue barrier is used as a proxy for an assumption that program designers are making. However, it is rare for assumptions to work in a global context. Instead, fill the application with yes or no and multiple-choice questions that can be used internally to develop a rich scoring system that will put all the applicants on a level playing field.
Issues with infrastructure, bias and network
The need for a better infrastructure across Africa continues to be a topic of discussion - and for very good reason. Poorly built roads, frequent power surges, and underdeveloped transportation can challenge a company’s ability to produce and deliver services on time, to the point of inhibiting growth and incurring losses, our founders tell us. Founders also feel that international investors hesitate to fund companies in the agricultural space in Africa because the risks can be deemed too high.
“Apart from underdeveloped infrastructure, the wide range of confusing political, regulatory, and trading laws and trading in multiple currencies can limit the expansion of an agricultural business within the continent,” explained Cynthia Aveh. Founders’ awareness of these issues puts them off applying for growth funds because they are acutely aware of the environmental shortcomings such as infrastructure and existing working capital.
High-tech isn’t always the best tech
While more and more startups are adopting technology to help solve problems within the agricultural space, some of our founders feel that high-tech solutions aren’t necessarily always the best solutions. Angie Madara, founder of Growd Global, who previously ran a startup in the AgriTech sector explains:
“While high-tech solutions are highly sought, smallholder farmers in most of the developing markets are low-tech or even non-tech users. Lack of the necessary infrastructure in these areas can mean that high-tech solutions are impossible to adopt by farmers. The solutions can be impractical and unworkable due to lack of required understanding and resources to implement the technology.
“What chances do we have when most competitions these days only pick solutions that are extremely high-tech? I also think that most investors in these competitions don’t understand the end-users and therefore what help or solutions can they offer for problems they don't understand themselves?”
This sentiment is one we have heard a lot as we speak to investors across Europe and the UK about barriers they face when it comes to investing in African tech startups. The solution that most seem to agree on is the need to identify strong partners in individual countries who understand the local landscape and have them choose the best of the best on behalf of the competition, fund or grant body. Rather than imposing assumptions on the African tech landscape of shirking it off altogether, identifying partners who understand the landscape, know how to run competitions and scout startups ought to be the most effective way to create a more inclusive system for including the world in a global competition such as the Global Learning XPRIZE. While the competition has done made a commendable effort so far we are encouraged by their effort to double down on their learning to find ways to become even more inclusive in their outreach.
Founders in the African agricultural tech space truly face an uphill task in progressing in large-scale, international startup competitions. Listening to what our founders have to say, it is clear that they all face similar challenges. Barriers to taking their ideas to the next stage include having mentors, business know-how, issues with infrastructure and regulatory conditions and adequate data. There remains so much more to be done in order to support the continent’s innovators in finding solutions to Africa’s development, progress and growth.
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In the first weeks of 2020, I met both Afua Hirsch and Fuse ODG. I bumped into Cephas of 56 Black Men and met 15 African female founders in London on a British government-sponsored trip, in collaboration with our friends at OneTech. Including one founder I mentored who is now part of our AfriTech XYZ cohort.
On the topic of AfriTech XYZ, our startups have begun to take part in their 1-2-1 virtual mentoring sessions with the experts in our network. They have worked with the fantastic Rashida Abdulahi, and have already received warm introductions to the teams at Google Launchpad Africa, Baobab Network and Founders Factory Africa, all of whom we’re extremely glad to have the support of as we roll out our program.
Things haven’t slowed down on the UK front either. We re-launched our My Moon Landing initiative with support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. We re-vamped our Black and Good initiative, and we’re about to run our first private event with PwC’s Design Thinking team in a few days. This is an exciting year for us as an organisation as we build on the wins and lessons of last year so that we can continue to improve the level and impact of support we offer our beneficiaries.
As for clients, we’re still working with our major ones like the British Council, for whom we’re currently running a virtual mentoring programme as part of a larger piece of work we began last year. You can read up on the project here.
We’re also working on a few projects that I hope we’ll be able to announce next month. Until then, here is a blog post I wrote about my thoughts on Meghan and Harry’s decision to “step back” from their roles as senior royals.
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Bayo Adelaja | Chief Do-er at Do it Now Now | This is how I got here