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Uniting theory and practice in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem

Author: Andrea Warriner

My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.

Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.

So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.

Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.

Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.

What’s next?

The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work.  We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.

Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.

As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.

Sign up to the Skoll Centre’s thought leadership newsletter, which highlights the best social/environmental impact research coming out of the University of Oxford.

If you’re interested in being added to a Google Group mailing list for individuals who want to forge partnerships between practice and research, drop us an email.


The Global Challenge: A Rigorous Approach to Solving Global Issues

Anisha Gururaj is studying an MRes in the Medical Sciences Division, at the University of Oxford. In June 2016, she and her teammate, Ashley Pople, DPhil in Economics at University of Oxford, won our inaugural Oxford Global Challenge competition. Their topic? Maternal Depression. Anisha describes her account of the competition, how she found her topic and the benefits of undertaking the Challenge.

There are few opportunities where the incentives to be most effective and also do the right thing are aligned. The Global Challenge is one of these initiatives, because it provides the chance—the imperative, really—to delve into the contextual landscape of a problem and the existing solutions as we know them.

I was missing a more holistic understanding, a bigger picture of how solutions to global problems fit into global societal structures.

As it happens, this is the reason I came to Oxford. As an undergrad engineering student, I loved the idea of designing technological solutions to solving problems in global health. But after working on a few projects and actually engaging in fieldwork for low-cost diagnostic devices, I felt that I was missing a more holistic understanding, a bigger picture of how solutions to global problems fit into global societal structures.

The Global Challenge emphasises that an important part of the design research phase for any solution needs to be deep engagement with structural context, often best understood and communicated through visualisations. Why is this important?

First, it enables a very deliberate and specific problem definition process. My teammate Ashley and I spent quite a bit of time upfront exploring larger themes we wanted to focus on, like global health, gender discrimination, and building awareness around mental health, to get a feel for what the broader health landscape looks like. Focusing on the intersections between fields is particularly promising because global issues don’t usually fall within the lines of academic divisions and asking interdisciplinary questions is often not done well. Through intentional scoping, we identified our topic as maternal mental health in specific cultural contexts, India and South Africa, because it was truly a confluence of so many of the fields mentioned above and which was rendered invisible by very specific social factors in both of these countries.

ensuring that we examined the entire landscape reduced the risk of “falling in love” with a particular idea.

Second, the format of the Challenge forces us to question our own underlying assumptions, which is why earlier stage ideas are more conducive to this kind of exploration. As an engineer, I brought a particular bias into my research, just as Ashley did as an economist. For example, I was particularly intrigued by mobile solutions for diagnosing depression, but ensuring that we examined the entire landscape reduced the risk of “falling in love” with a particular idea.

Finally, the Challenge provides a platform to be more innovative about how we research. Academic journals and the results of randomized controlled trials are important. But the most rewarding part of this whole experience for both of us was interviewing a large range of experts around the world, from academics to leaders of nonprofits, to clinicians in both countries, to pregnant mothers right here in Oxford. This allowed us to tap into experiential information that we could not have uncovered otherwise.

Of course, the research and design of visual ecosystem maps is just the beginning—they provide a comprehensive framework with which to engage with solving the problem. But too often we jump into solution-building before taking the time to “apprentice with the problem,” resulting in costly assumptions. Our world of limited resources and increasing need deserves better.

To see Anisha and Ashley’s research along with other finalists’ work, head to The Global Challenge website.

Applications to The Global Challenge 2017 open on 20 October 2016.







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Winners Announced: The Global Challenge 2016

The Global Challenge offers participants a chance to learn more about an issue they care about, by researching what is fuelling the challenge and holding the status quo in place, what is already being done to try to solve the issue, as well as the gaps in the landscape of solutions. Entrants are then asked to compile the findings into an ecosystem map as well as a report and bibliography outlining their research. Winners are awarded cash prizes and tickets to the Skoll World Forum, with top teams also given the opportunity to apply for Apprenticing with a Problem funding. This funding provides students with the opportunity to go out into the world and ‘apprentice’ with issues the care about, through research projects, internships, or secondments, giving them opportunities to learn more about how they might use their careers to create positive change.

Saïd Business School offered the first Global Challenge this year, with leadership from the Skoll Centre and a partnership with Malaysia’s Sunway University, inviting students from two ends of the globe to partake in the inaugural challenge. After an initial problem assessment round with nearly 50 applicants, The Global Challenge received 23 final applications from individuals and teams across both Universities, and then nine teams were selected as semi-finalists to present to an esteemed panel of global judges.

The judging panel included Dr François Bonnici, Director at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Jane Leu, CEO and Founder of Smarter Good,  Jessamyn Shams-Lau, Executive Director at the Peery Foundation, Alexander Goodenough, Investment Director at Big Society Capital and Daniela Papi-Thornton of the Skoll Centre. The judges narrowed the cohort down to three finalists who presented to a public audience on 13th June.

The winners were announced that evening, and included an additional prize for Best Presentation decided by live audience vote. Papi-Thornton commented after the event: ‘We designed the Global Challenge and the Apprenticing with a Problem funding to support students to learn about and get involved in the global issues they care about. At the Skoll Centre we don’t think the only path to impact is by starting new ventures. We will feel successful in our work at the Centre if the students we work with go on to effect change as intrapreneurs, policy makers, thought leaders, or by plugging into any gap in the landscape of solutions for the issues they care about’.

[The Global Challenge] is such an important piece of preparation for students to become the change-makers the world needs!’ Shams-Lau also commented.

One purpose of this contest is to change the discourse around traditional business plan competitions. The Global Challenge team plans to open this contest up to partner universities around the world next year in the hope of influencing other universities to create funding and support for students to ‘apprentice with problems’. Papi-Thornton added, ‘By creating an award that encourages and celebrates an understanding of the existing landscape of solutions to a given challenge and helps students build upon the work of others before asking them to ‘solve’ problems they don’t yet understand, we hope to help more students build successful social impact careers.’

The Winners

First Prize
Maternal Depression
Anisha Gururaj, MSc in Global Governance, University of Oxford, 2016 and MSc in Evidence-based Social Intervention, University of Oxford, 2017; Ashley Pople, MSc in Economics for Development, University of Oxford, 2017

Second Prize
Fresh Produce Value Chain in Sierra Leone
Songqiao Yao, Kaspar Baumann, Ryan Chen-Wing – all MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16; Julian Cottee, Researcher at Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

Third Prize (and the Best Presentation Award)
An Analysis of Gaps and Opportunities in Germany’s Refugee Integration System
Noura Ismail, Avinash Nanda, Karen Ng, Amrinder Singh – all MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16

Culture Prize
Cultural Trauma and Resilience in the Pacific: Ho’owaiwai
Laura Taylor, MBA, Oxford Saïd, 2015-16

Honourary Mention
Urban Air Pollution in Kuala Lumpur
Seng Zhen Lee, BSc in Accounting and Finance, Sunway University Business School

All semi-finalist ecosystem maps and reports can now be found on The Global Challenge website.

Apprenticing with a Problem

Funding was awarded to six individuals and teams

Kaspar Baumann, Ryan Chen-Wing, Julian Cottee, Songqiao Yao
This team will travel to Sierra Leon and learn more about the barriers to success and opportunities for scale in fresh and canned produce distribution.

Noura Ismail, Avinash Nanda , Karen Ng, Amrinder Singh
The team will volunteer/research in Germany and learn more about the solutions landscape and gaps in the work addressing the refugee crisis.

Laura Taylor
Taylor will travel to New Zealand and intern with successful organisations working with Maori cultural preservation and economic empowerment, and then take that learning back to Hawaii to share with local organisations there.

Zweli Gwebityala, Melissa McCoy,  Allan-Roy Sekeitto
The funding will enable the team to spend the next 3+ months in South Africa testing assumptions about technical solutions to doctor scarcity, to learn more about the public healthcare system, and to map and understand the reasons other global telemedicine initiatives have succeeded or failed.

Alexandra Littaye
The funding will support Littaye’s follow up trip to Mexico to do further research on the state of milpa farmers and the potential for commercializing blue corn products and to spend a few months working with a successful agricultural product export company, likely in Ghana, to understand how their business works, the difficulties and barriers they have faced, and what lessons can be applied to a potential business model in Mexico.

Adrienne Yandell
Yandell will return to Jordan and spend 3+ months volunteering with a skills-training organization in the region, to understand their model, and see if/how it can be expanded.

Further reports will be created by the teams and individuals, so be sure to watch this space!

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An evening of getting to grips with world-scale problems

Skoll Scholar and Oxford Saïd MBA student, Pip Wheaton, shares her insight into the Live Pitching Event which took place on Monday 13th June 2016. Images are courtesy of MBA Student, Ryan Chen-Wing.

The Saïd Business School’s mission refers to “tackling world-scale problems”. While there are days where the pressure of assignments and classes gets in the way, this year I have seen proof that this school lives its mission. Last night was one such moment of proof. At an event that combined the inaugural Oxford Global Challenge, and the fourth Skoll Venture Awards students and alumni from Oxford Saïd and the wider Oxford University student body came together to showcase the diverse ways they are addressing world-scale problems.

The Oxford Global Challenge came about as a response to the normal university business plan competition. An initiative of The Skoll Centre, it is based on the premise that tackling global challenges starts with understanding a problem and its wider context, rather than jumping straight into a business plan or an idea for a quick fix. It gives participants an opportunity to develop a deep understanding of a pressing social or environmental issue by mapping out the landscape of the current solutions and identifying missing opportunities for positive change. In this first year, there were 43 teams who applied, of whom nine were selected as finalists and four pitched at last night’s event. The issues ranged from telemedicine in South Africa, to refugee integration in Germany, and agriculture in Sierra Leone. The winning team were two students focused onmaternal mental health in India and South Africa.


Songqiao Yao, Ryan Chen-Wing and Kasper Baumann (2015 MBA Students) presenting their Oxford Global Challenge project on thr Tomato Value Chain in Sierra Leone.

The Skoll Venture Awards support ideas in the next phase of development: where solutions have been developed and tested, but are still in the early days of implementation. Alumni and students apply for a £20,000 grant to grow their existing, early stage ventures. Here the applications were just as varied as in the Global Challenge: a large-scale renewable energy project in Mongolia, an early-childhood development initiative in Kenya, and online tutoring in India, and more.

In what was one of the toughest projects I have worked on since coming to Oxford, I was part of the team of students who short-listed the 21 applicants and selected the two finalists who presented last night. Having spent the last six years being on the applicant side while running my own venture in South Africa, it was fascinating to learn about the selection side. Specifically, there were three main learning points

  1. About how much process matters – the criteria and questions might seem arbitary from the outside but unless you get them right, it’s almost impossible to make fair decisions.
  2. About how to minimise cognitive biases like ‘group think’ and ‘curse of knowledge’; and
  3. About the challenges of comparing ventures at different stages, in different geographies, tackling different issues.

Through this experience, I found myself looking at organisations like Acumen and LGT Venture Philanthropy and appreciating why their due diligence processes last upwards of six months. I also found myself relieved to be able to hand over to a judging panel of industry experts rather than having to make the final decision myself.
Last night the two Skoll Venture Award finalists presented their organisations. The first, i-Drop Water, is one of the most exciting clean-water access businesses I have come across; and is piloting concurrently in Ghana, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The second, was Tulivu – a medical diagnostics service provider, currently offering low-cost ultrasounds to pregnant women in Kenya. While originally there was only going to be a single prize of £20,000; in what felt like a fitting result, the judging panel were able to award not one, but two grants. i-Drop Water was awarded £10,000 and Tulivu was awarded the first place prize of £20,000.

Skoll Venture Award Winners - MBA Students, Matt Rehrig and Adam Storck

Skoll Venture Award Winners – 2015 MBA Students, Matt Rehrig and Adam Storck of Tuliva.

These two initiatives, the Oxford Global Challenge and the Skoll Venture Awards, are exciting not only because of the inspiring ideas that were pitched last night, but more because of the shift in thinking they demonstrate. Too often we fetishise the big exciting ideas, before testing whether or not their premises and assumptions hold. These initiatives show that the school and the Skoll Centre are serious about giving students an opportunity to “apprentice with the problem” they care about, rather than jumping straight to the solution-stage. I am excited to see how each of the ideas showcased develop in the coming years.


Air Quality Monitoring with the UN in Kenya


Author: Priyanka deSouza

At the 2014 inaugural UN Environmental Assembly (UNEA), sickness air pollution, sildenafil responsible for 7 million deaths annually according to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), was identified to be a top priority to be addressed by the international community. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) was mandated to help governments set standards and policies across multiple sectors to reduce emissions, and manage the negative impacts of air pollution on health, the economy and sustainable development.


It is clear that in order to set air quality standards and policies accurate, reliable data on air quality is required. This is because data on air pollution in a region can enable the identification of pollution hot spots and local source apportionment of air pollution. In turn, this will then allow appropriate, data driven legislation to be put in place to tackle the root causes of bad air quality.

However, there are few credible air quality monitoring stations around the world. Historically, this has been because of two key reasons:

  1. Cost: Current high precision air quality monitoring stations are prohibitively expensive, costing between $150,000 to $200,000;
  2. The current state of sensor technology: The calibration of current sensors in highly polluted environments has not been undertaken. This means that data from such sensors in regions such as New Delhi or Beijing are not credible.


The Division of Early Warning Assessment (DEWA) of UNEP thus contracted the development of an affordable, mobile air quality monitoring unit, costing < $1500 that can function well in highly polluted climates, as a first step in helping countries, especially in the developing world, to collect reliable air quality data. A network of 50 of the new monitoring units that DEWA envisages will cost $75,000 — much less than the cost of the single high quality monitoring station currently available on the market. Data from such a network can be used to generate a map of air quality in a region.

Finally, the units can be programmed to ‘talk’ to each other, and calibrate each other, when aligned in the same microenvironment, thus improving the accuracy of the data.


I moved to Kenya on July 7th, 2015 to work as an intern at the United Nations Environmental Program headquarters in Nairobi on the development and deployment of this system. My internship was unpaid. The Skoll Apprenticing with a Problem grant covered my living expenses during this time and enabled me to work on this project. I am deeply grateful for the support I received as I would not have been able to do my internship otherwise.

The contractors for this project had examined previous air quality measurement studies and had chosen the best available sensors on the market for the development of the monitoring unit. I aided them in developing a visualization app using the software: ArcGIS, as well as in the testing of the unit in Nairobi.

The monitoring system was officially launched on August 31st in Nairobi. The Executive Director of UNEP as well as Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary of the Environment were present at the launch. Following the official ribbon cutting we set the unit on the top of a bus, and drove around in the bus with journalists so that they could see the real time data the box was producing.


Post the launch we were inundated by requests from citizens and national environmental agencies from 29 different countries for our unit. We are currently working on creating a documentation page with full information on the components of out system, as well as instructions on how to assemble the same. We will make these blueprints freely available as a global public good in order to allow countries/citizens to manufacture/buy/assemble our units as they see fit. UNEP will license the box for quality assurance under the Creative Commons. We will be releasing this package on our platform to the world in the next few weeks.

I am now working on writing up project proposals for the deployment of a network of our units in different cities around the world. For more information on our unit- please see the attached leaflet.


From Accenture to Rwanda and Back

Author: Marina Nuri

Four years ago – while working at Accenture – I began my first project with the Accenture Development Partnerships in Tanzania. My role was to build personnel capacity for the Ministry of Health’s supply chain arm, and to develop public-private partnership between The Coca Cola Company, Global Fund and the Gates Foundation. Since then, my passion for the role of business in development has grown and I managed a few other social impact consulting projects with Accenture Development Partnerships. After these experiences, I decided to do my MBA at Saïd Business School, Oxford and to use the year to think of how I could apply my business experience to international development in a more integrated way.


Thinking about the various challenges faced in international development, I realised that often people’s behaviours present the biggest challenge to development, especially in terms of their acceptance of the tools and practices that are easily available and have the biggest impact on changing lives. For example, changing people’s hand washing behaviour does not require expensive inputs, but it has the potential to prevent various infectious diseases that currently kill millions of people. It became clear that behavioural change, more specifically the ability to influence behavioural change, represented a huge opportunity.


Changing behaviours is often a hard, timely, and costly process. However, an intervention that could be very effective and at the same time cheap given its potential impact, is the use of mass media for behaviour change. Most people in developing countries have access to at least one type of mass media — mostly radio, with mobile phones catching up. Through the use of mass media, it is possible to deliver important messages that foster development in an entertaining and engaging manner. The effects of this can be both in terms of people’s perceptions and on a subconscious level (as opposed to pure educational, instructive, or logic-based messages).

In the pursuit of wanting to learn more about the role mass media can play in changing people’s behaviours, I was able to use the Apprenticing with the Problem grant from the Skoll Centre to spend two months working with Development Media International (DMI). DMI is a London-based non-profit that runs a fascinating range of projects using mass media campaigns to affect behavioural change around the world.


There are quite a few organisations that specialise in using mass media for behaviour change. Many of them target behaviours around health, family planning, education, etc., and often work as part of larger development programs sponsored by the donors like the World Bank, DFIF, USAID, Gates Foundation, etc., that have a behaviour change component.

DMI’s differentiator is that they use a very rigorous approach to impact measurement and evidence collection. The organisation is trying to answer the same question I had been asking myself: how effective is mass media in changing certain types of human behaviour? To answer this question, DMI conducted a thorough assessment of each of its programmes, and is currently conducting a large multi-year randomized controlled trial (RCT) in Burkina Faso, focusing on reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health (RMNCH). The midline results published earlier this year have shown significant changes in some health-related behaviours as the result of the campaign.


The format that DMI found the most effective is the use of 1-minute drama spots broadcasted multiple times per day, and a longer-format evening talk show with a call-in component. The methodology DMI uses is called Saturation+, and it has three pillars – Saturation, Science and Stories. Saturation means broadcasting spots multiple times a day (10 times via radio, 3 times via TV), in local languages and using the most popular stations/channels – to cover the largest audience. Science means using comprehensive qualitative and quantitative research tools to predict, maximize, and measure the impact of the campaigns; and to plan the campaigns in the most impactful way possible. Stories means convincing people to change through developing locally relevant content and highly entertaining stories that resonate with people.


I was smoothly integrated into DMI’s small London-based team, and was kept busy throughout the whole two months working on various initiatives. My time at DMI enabled me to get exposure to the various aspects of running a small company in the international development sector and also continue to explore my passion for the work.

It was a hugely valuable time for me where I was able to use my existing skills as well as learn a lot of new ones. I used my strategy consulting experience to help DMI’s management to review the organization’s strategy and positioning. I helped to design an approach to several of DMI’s new programme areas, including: early child education, tuberculosis and road safety, as well as doing business development to scale up DMI’s existing programmes. The highlight was being asked to conduct a feasibility study for a new potential DMI’s campaign on agriculture where I spent a week in Rwanda doing field research and exploring opportunities with potential partners and donors.