Map the System: Plastic Waste in Ghana

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The ‘African Transformers’ team from Ashesi University competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world at the event, reaching the live public final as one of six finalists in the competition. Team members Lloyd Teta, Denver Chikokonya, Munyaradzi Madzoma, Nadine Afkwah Tim and Marshal Ruzvidzo tell us how they mapped the system to understand the root causes of improper waste management in Ghana.

African Transformers is a team of five undergraduate Engineering students at Ashesi University in Ghana. We come from two countries: Zimbabwe and Cameroon. In our freshman year, we connected over a common problem of plastic waste management in our Foundation of Design and Entrepreneurship class. Despite completing the course, we decided to continue the project because we could attest to the fact that improper waste management is not only a problem in Ghana but also in our home countries of Cameroon and Zimbabwe. When we were introduced to Map the Systems, we saw it as an opportunity to learn about the systems thinking approach of problem-solving and to expand our research and work.

To understand the root causes of the problem and its effects beyond what we had seen in our communities, we conducted 22 interviews with students, itinerant plastic collectors, plastic waste buyers, market vendors and representatives from recycling companies. We also carried out secondary research by studying and analyzing research papers, academic literature, national policy publications, news articles, websites, and Governmental reports. Our study of existing solutions made us realize that the problem of improper plastic waste management would be almost impossible to solve if we cannot identify why the problem persists.

Visual map showing the plastic waste problem persisting in Accra. Recycling facilities, population growth, government policies, poverty, people's mindset, capital and plastic production leads to poor plastic waste management.
Visual Here is a map showing why the problem persists in Accra

Gaps in Existing Solutions

  • Waste Collection Companies fail to segregate plastic waste from other solid waste after collection
  • The Government: No proper regulation on the operation of waste management agencies. Poor implementation of plastic management policies.
  • Informal Waste Collectors: Lack of credibility, since high volumes of plastic waste are required as minimum selling quantity.
  • Recycling Companies: Only a small range of plastics is recycled
  • Sensitization by NGOs: These organizations are not consistent with campaigns for plastic waste management due to a lack of funding and sensitization strategies to draw the local people’s attention.

System Map

Based on our research, we came up with a map that shows the different stakeholders within our system and how they interact. Modelling these interactions helped us see that stakeholders such as Informal Waste Collectors are often neglected but they contribute largely to solving the issue of improper plastic waste management. They are said to collect, sort and recycle up to 18% of the total municipal waste generated in small communities within Accra and can reach rural communities that other stakeholders cannot reach. So, we hope to leverage this information to create a sustainable business model that will connect these waste collectors to recycling companies and allow them to deliver waste to the companies at a standard fee.

systems map

Key Insights and lessons learned

  1. We thought that turning to biodegradable plastic was the way forward to manage plastic waste, but we realized that drastic change would take many years before implementation, the reason being that biodegradable plastics are still expensive to produce.
  2. We also realized that sustainable solutions are the ones that come from within society. Solutions should blend with the typical lifestyle of the people.
  3. Solutions that work in other countries may not work in Ghana. So, there is a need for appropriate technologies built for the context of Accra.
  4. We believe that everyone has a part to play in saving our land, sea life and our communities from the effects of plastic waste. The governments alone cannot eliminate plastic waste from the environment, neither can an individual, but with collective action we can reduce improper plastic waste disposal.

Our journey to the top six finalists was interesting due to the transition online. We had to adjust to changes and meeting other teams virtually gave us the chance to connect on various platforms like Slack and share ideas. Moving forward, we will use what we learnt from the Map the System competition to continue our research and publish our findings as an open-source document for other researchers to build on our work.

Impact Measurement for Systems Change

With the emergence of systems thinking in social impact, the need for measurement and evaluation tools informed by systems thinking is increasingly becoming a necessity. An increase in publications such as Principles for Effective Use of Systems Thinking in Evaluation by the Systems Thinking in Evaluation, Topical Interest Group (SETIG 2018) and the Systems Practice Workbook by the Omidyar Group is further advancing this thought.

The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, in collaboration with Forum for the Future, also organised a session at the Skoll World Forum 2018 on measuring systems change, engaging academics, practitioners, and researchers.

Our research team has identified key challenges to overcome to measure the impact of a system focused intervention:

  • Time and distributed impacts: Systems change interventions typically require a concerted effort, involving many actors, over a long period of time, during which both challenges and opportunities shift. While the timeline of progress in the social impact sector is slow,  the funding available is short term and outcomes focused.  Researchers and practitioners agree that these arelong-term efforts with no agreed finish line or point at which you can say you are done.
  • Attribution: Because of these complex features of  systems change undertakings, it is often difficult to collect consistent, over time data at the ‘systems level’.  This complicates the aspiration to attribute causality to the interventions and to cumulate efforts. There are typically several different steps between the intervention and eventual outcome, along with a large gap in timing of the intervention and the resulting outcome.
  • Consensus: We do know from scores of efforts, that a key element is common ground and agreement about some basics of measurement and interpretation.  Building this kind of shared view across a sector is itself a challenge.  But it is crucial to have this broad base of agreement on how to measure systems change. If we do not have consensus on an approach in the social impact sector, it is very difficult to mobilise funding or encourage concerted action.

There are still disputes about what is social enterprise and what is systems change. Another dispute is how you measure it. You can lose a lot of people from the debate if you decide to measure following one approach.”

Systems Thinking educator working with a Foundation, USA

Key Principles

Our contributors shared some principles that they follow when designing a strategy for measuring systems change.

  • Integrity of approach: Since we cannot measure change at the system level and progress is slow, we start by looking at the approach of the organisation. 

As an example, if we take a lab that is working on a cure for cancer, suppose they have been working for decades with no cure in sight. This does not imply that they have failed in their mission. However, how do we measure the impact of their work? This requires us to do system sensingbeyond the scope of the intervention or product. Instead, you measure the quality of the lab and their adherence to scientific protocol.”

Systems Thinking educator working with a Foundation, USA

Similarly, you use a somewhat rigorous way of assessing impact to look at change over time. This change can be non-linear. However, you must spot the ability to adapt and maintain focus on a goal but be open to changing tactics and strategy.

  • Guiding star: It is crucial that at the beginning of an intervention, a team has plotted the dynamic of the current system that they wish to change in order to measure the effect of their intervention. After this dynamic has been mapped, they need to envision an end-state that they want to achieve in order to create a guiding star for their intervention.
  • Innovation versus transformation: It is important to differentiate between systems innovation, which implies working within a system to create incremental change, and systems transformation, which is working on transforming the dynamic of the system itself. For our interviewees, systems innovations are more provisional and contextual, they don’t necessarily change the status quo. These contrast with the much rarer system transformations, the ones that profoundly transform the system by addressing root causes of problems or by changing how agents relate to one another.
  • Spill overs: Funders must determine the spill over effects from engaging in a specific systems change venture. There are other organisations operating in a system that funders can disempower by funding one specific enterprise.  What if we back one organisation that inadvertently leads to the failure of nine others? In such cases, we can typically only use estimates. 

Metrics to keep in mind

  • Custom Metrics: One of our contributors is running a multi-sector coalition developing custom metrics early in the intervention based on a sound theory of change. For them, they measure how many new actors they are bringing into the solution, placed in a system where they can affect change. They also measure how they are impacting funding strains in their problem area.
  • Impact levels: You can also differentiate between the levels of impact you are exploring, whether it is short- or near-term outcomes, or impact on more complex system dynamics. As an example, when examining impact, we can look at correlations with better outcomes in the system itself, ripple effects on other outcomes and the non-linear spread of impact. You can also look for evidence that the system itself as gotten healthier in some way. In fact, a key question for funders is, what are the indicators aligning to make deeper progress in making systems healthier?
  • Failures: We also must look at people who have failed to achieve their desired outcomes and walked away. This is a critical piece of information on what tactics might not achieve systems change and helps to eliminate self-reporting bias.
  • Using a secondary data source: A secondary data source is always helpful to get feedback from outside the organization. If we have self-reported data, we must enquire about independent sources of data on the health of the system. This can also help us find a baseline or control along with self-reported data.

From our contributors, those who are funders expressed a keen interest in the ability to spot early signals from ventures that are geared to create systems change. Identifying proxy-indicators for what makes an organisation more effective at influencing systems and shifting the status quo can help them optimise their funding strategy.

As we can see, impact measurement for systems change is a work in progress. The principles stated above are currently used by our contributors to define their individual approaches to measuring their activities. 

Author: Nikhil Dugal is a systems change consultant with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. He is a Skoll Scholar, having completed his MBA from the Saïd Business School in 2018.

Everywhere is Different and Everywhere is the Same

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System competition held its Global Final virtually. As a member of this year’s judging panel, Ed Straw shares his insights.

The more researchers are conscious of their ‘traditions of understanding’ in relation to the subject, the less biased will be the output. Through culture, education and experiences of many forms, everyone holds preconceptions about their field of study – their ‘positionality’. The tendency for many is for US-European norms in economics, democracy, science and so on to be the starting point. As a judge for the Map the System competition, surfacing my own inbuilt assumptions in relation to each of the 31 finalists is a tenet of systems thinking. This was not easy. The entries ranged from the Youth Suicide Crisis in India to Why Women-Owned Businesses in South African Townships Fail, from Consumer Food Waste in Navarre to Affordable Housing in Utah. Everywhere is different.

Yet, I came away with the sense of ‘Yes, and Everywhere is the Same.’ What struck me most was the commonalities in many of the entries. The most obvious example is menstruation. This is actually an issue that affects over 3.5bn people for long parts for their lives. Normalising periods, treating them as just another bodily function requiring proper facilities and materials to be readily available in every institution, being able to talk about them in an understanding and knowledgeable way, not stigmatizing and so on would benefit so many lives. It is a common global issue. ‘There will be blood’ as one entry put it so succinctly. At its root, it is about shifting social norms.

This theme extended to several other entries where appalling norms in the treatment of women are underlying high adolescent pregnancy in Peru, female genital mutilation in Somalia and modern slavery in Papua New Guinea. But where is the global learning in shifting social norms?

Youth homelessness in Vancouver brought out another commonality – the lack of coordination and integration by public and third sector agencies. Funding is not the issue: masses of it appear to be available. As so often, it is poor overall governance leaving lots of intermediate interventions with few aimed at the whole person and the purpose of the funding. How often have I seen that. At what point will the world of government know instinctively that sound governance is where any solution has to start?

Poor plastic waste disposal in Accra Ghana, fake news in Germany, systemic barriers to public transportation in Boston US, the flooding crisis in Canada, type 2 diabetes in Latino-American communities, and depression in China are all entries with universal insights. Yet few of them get transported around the world, as a matter of course.

This led me on to thinking about the sort of ‘global learning engine’ that has been so effective in developing world class manufacturing from Japanese practice in automotive and consumer electronics from the 80s onwards, which is now almost universal in its application. It is the reason we can buy products of such extraordinary complexity, use and reliability, and at such comparatively low cost. These learning engines consist of management gurus, consultants, trade and specialist journals and news media, design authorities, business schools, industry analytics, trade associations, professional institutes, software developers, state funded R&D institutions and more. All of them are intent on scouring the world for what works best, why, and how, and transferring this knowledge.  

Could world class governing and government be developed through a global learning engine? Bits and pieces of knowledge transfer do happen. The OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation is working hard in this direction. A few university departments are active (e.g. Arend Lijphart at the University of California). This competition is a fine example. But the total is tiny compared to the billions spent on knowledge acquisition and application in the commercial world. And typically governments are spending 40% of a country’s GDP, a vast sum that would be spent so much better stimulated by universal knowledge transfer and application.

The faster this learning platform can be activated and institutionalized, the faster governments will improve. None of the situations of concern analysed by the entrants would be solved through the application of today’s, often ramshackle political processes. Politics is more often an obstacle than an answer. Systems thinking works. In 2017 the UN, the WHO and OECD all called for the use of systems thinking to deal with highly complex problems. Which issue in government these days is not? Rise up systems thinkers – our time has come.


Ed Straw, Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University’s Applied Systems Thinking in Practice unit, headed by Professor Ray Ison, with whom he recently co-authored a book on The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking, and its application to governments and governance.

Strategies for Implementing Systems Change

Initiatives using change strategies in the tradition of Collective Impact (CI) work on the levers of systems change and collaborative action, while funders such as Co-Impact are seeking to find a new way to fund systems change activities.

At the SCO, we spoke directly to actors engaging in systems change to capture a brief snapshot of the strategies that are salient to them in their day-to-day practice. The following list represents a distilled version of the topics that were raised:

Collaborative Change:

Often, the problem to be addressed is so large and complex that it is outside the scope of a single organisation to solve it.

As a single organisation, you pick a geography and a service, and you grow bigger and bigger and attract more resources. In order to create a systems focused organisation, you go big at the beginning.”

– Social entrepreneur running a multi-sector coalition, USA

One of our contributors shared that their journey started with a focus on growing one organisation, but they were leveraging their learning to tackle a problem faced by a billion people. This led them to start an organisation informed by collaborative initiatives and alliances looking to solve a problem in its entirety. It was critical for them to be a neutral broke/r, so they spun out of a social venture into a multi-sector coalition solving the same problem but with a new set of tools. Now they are bringing the government and private sector into the solution to solve for scale.

While a major focus in this space is on toolkits, building relationships in this space to work in collaboration is equally important.

“Changing systems is a lot about realignment of relationships within a system. Connecting new people to people they were not working with before.”

– Systems Innovation Expert, UK

Field Building:

Another key activity that a systems change venture undertakes is building the sector and focus on the problem itself.

One of our contributors started by asking where they can add value in the field. They made the case that their target problem was a global development issue and put a spotlight on it with a front-page article in a major news publication. They continue to advance the work by discussing how to solve the problem, building a roadmap to reach 1.5 billion people. This is a role that no single organisation could fill.

Understanding Power:

It is critical to be aware of the power you hold in the system. A contributor running a financial inclusion venture stated that they spent significant time as a small player building an ecosystem in the geographies in which they worked. Over time, their organisation and the sector grew, making it more appealing for major incumbents in parallel sectors to enter the space. Due to their power in the system because of easy success and visibility, the venture came to be part of  an exclusive group of key policy professionals working to grow the sector and establish best practices at the policy level in multiple countries across an entire continent.

“It about power, which is often not talked about. Are you aware of your power, the system and how you can influence this change?”

– Systems Innovation Expert, UK

For a note on power to cause harm, see point below on Impact Measurement under ‘Funding Systems Change Activities’.

Taking a backseat:

There is a delicate balance between being a servant and a thought leader. Both skills are required to undertake systems change. This requires a lot of listening and developing a positive reputation for being more of a listener than a talker.

“From studying organisations that manage to shift systems, we know that they identify what needs to happen in the system and then let go of being the ones to do it.”

– Director of a Social Entrepreneurship Incubator, UK

Iterative learning:

Experimentation and iterative learning are also key. This work requires engagement in constant learning from various approaches used. This also prompts us to recognise the limited control any one actor has when trying to change a system. Unanticipated changes can also change systems and we have to be cognisant of that.

Funding Systems Change Activities:

With the increasing importance of ‘field catalysts’ that galvanise systems-change efforts of disparate stakeholders to achieve population-level change, how do we fund these systems change efforts? Our contributors noted several interconnected elements needed for funders to effectively support systems change efforts. 

  • Impact Measurement: “Donors have to get better at understanding they are affecting a system just by putting money into a problem. You’d want to know the positive and negative impact of getting a grant or investment. How can we know the potential negative impact?  How do we account for negative impact?” –  Systems Thinking Educator working for a Nonprofit, USA
  • Understanding Systems: “A lot of prominent programmes in the sector are talking about deploying large sums of money for single organisations. This is a positive direction, but we have to observe how the capital that is deployed fits into the definition of systems change?” – Director of a Social Entrepreneurship Incubator, UK
  • Funder Selection: “Selecting your investors and making sure that you have the right fit for the kind of systems work you want to do is very important. Are they willing to spend money on the systems changes that need to happen in that product or service market?” – Social entrepreneur running a multi-sector coalition, USA
  • Capacity Building: “How do we prepare foundations for the type of work they want to do? At the end of the day, if programme officers define who gets funding, how can they think about this differently? We see a need for a thought partner to donors on how this affects their grant making.” – Social entrepreneur running a multi-sector coalition, USA

Designing a system change intervention requires consideration of a range of strategies that are system-focused and enacted from the beginning of an intervention. The values of field-building, collaborative change and ‘taking a backseat’ are prominently applied by practitioners. Practitioners also note the value of understanding their role and power in the system in which they work, and how important it is to pick the right funder for implementing their systems change activities.

Author: Nikhil Dugal is a systems change consultant with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. He is a Skoll Scholar, having completed his MBA from the Saïd Business School in 2018.


Map the System: Youth Suicide Crisis in India

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The team from Amani Institute competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world. Team members Bhairavi Prakash, Maya Narayan, Anshul Agrawal, Neeraja Kulkarni and Tushara Ravindranath tell us how they mapped the system for addressing youth suicide crisis in India.

In February this year, when India had still not experienced the gravity of the COVID19 pandemic, five of us got together and decided to participate in the Map the System 2020 challenge. Although we come from diverse backgrounds, Bhairavi (Psychology), Anshul and Maya (Systems Thinking), Neeraja (Design Thinking) and Tushara (Academic Research), the common thread which connects us together is that we are all young professionals who have spent at least two decades of our lives, being a part of the Indian education system, and have been witness to some of the challenges it exposes students to. The situation has only gotten from bad to worse in the past decade, where roughly one Indian student dies by suicide every hour. Given the alarming rate of deaths by suicide among Indian youth, we chose to explore the various factors that contribute to this crisis.

Secondary Research

We undertook extensive literature review and realised that death by suicide is a complex biopsychosocial phenomenon, requiring a multi-sectoral approach for tackling. We particularly looked at Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) as spaces, where psychosocial determinants play out in myriad ways.

Primary Research

We created an online survey (436 student participants) across different HEIs in India to understand this issue. The survey had questions on factors that impacted student wellbeing, and on coping mechanisms that they used to deal with emotional distress. In addition to the survey, we also conducted 10 in-depth interviews of experts working in the fields of education, mental health policy and practice, funding ecosystem, etc.

Following were the findings from our research:

  1. Complex bio-psycho-social factors can contribute to emotional distress, which can lead to death by suicide.
  2. Young people are open about their struggles with mental health, however, usage of services is low.
  3. Deaths by suicide are found across the spectrum of HEIs in India, not just engineering and medical institutions.
  4. There are barriers to both seeking and providing help, which widens the treatment gap among young people.

Problem Landscape

We used system mapping tools to further analyse the data collected. We identified four major systems that interact to have an impact on one’s mental wellbeing. Interconnections between these systems, further exacerbate the challenges faced by youth, affecting their mental wellbeing.

We also classified the existing solutions in three categories: Knowledge and Awareness, Services and Skills.

Shifting the Burden Archetype

Analysing the current solutions landscape, we found an overwhelming focus on short-term remedial solutions that are easier to formulate and less expensive. This consequently, acts as a barrier to implementing restorative solutions that address the root causes and could have a long-term impact on reducing emotional distress.

Gaps & Levers

We observed multiple political, social, cultural, and economic factors, possibly acting as tipping points that contribute to suicidal ideation amongst young people. Based on these factors, we identified four overarching gaps in the system and 22 levers for systemic change.

Key Learnings from Systems Mapping

  1. Deaths by suicide are symptomatic of larger structural and systemic challenges and completely preventable.
  2. Preventive interventions for youth suicide need to be prioritised in schools, colleges, families, communities, and society at large.
  3. Contextualisation and scalability are important factors for proper understanding of the problem space, and require adequate human and financial capital.
  4. Visualisation of the system by diverse stakeholders can help build a comprehensive narrative that is key to determine the success of interventions.

Way Forward

Being one among the top 31 global finalists at Map the System 2020, was a wonderful opportunity to connect with systems thinkers across the globe, and learn about the complex problems they are working upon.

To further our study and alleviate this challenge, we have applied for a Think Tank Grant. Our goal is to organise an immersive conference and introduce contemplative practices (traditional forms including yoga and meditation, and expressive forms including art, theatre, and movement therapy) for building resilience and emotional regulation in young people.

Do Social Entrepreneurship and System Change follow the same principles?

This is the latest blog update from the Skoll Centre’s main research initiative, the Systems Change Observatory.

Many organisations, platforms and coalitions have reported examples of systems change in action. These include the Finance Innovation Lab, Future of fish and EYElliance. However, these organisations do not fit into the model of for-profit social entrepreneurship. Their approach is cross-disciplinary, with a focus on collaborative action and building coalitions of actors from each system they intend to change.

“While implementing a solution inordinately changes systems, the approach to the programme design and its guiding principles are a key differentiator.”

– Systems thinking educator working with a Foundation, USA

In our last post, we discussed the distinctions and overlaps between shifting systems and scaling a solution. This includes focusing on root cause analysis and shifting a system permanently in the long-term. From these discussions another thread emerged – differences in the principles which underline social entrepreneurship and systems change. Although the terms can overlap, there are a few distinctions to note. These include:

Scaling impact vs. problem solving

As a social entrepreneur, there is a tension between growing an organisation’s impact and working to solve a problem.  Our contributors noted a difference in working at the system level and at the enterprise level. One of our contributors emphasised that as a ‘systems entrepreneur’, they spun out of a social venture to not just grow one organisation’s impact but solve the population-level problem.  When engaging in systems change, work must be focused on analysing and mapping the system with the intention to create systemic change.

“Should you grow impact or solve a problem in its entirety or both? [We are] bridging the gap between social entrepreneurship and systems change.”

– Social entrepreneur running a multi-sector coalition, USA

Role in the Ecosystem

Social entrepreneurship fulfills a different role in the ecosystem as well. The focus is typically on a specific venture or organization, while systems entrepreneurship is more likely to focus on making connections between different elements of a system to address the target problem.

“…you sit in a different place in the ecosystem. One of the benefits of that is we have very different conversation with institutions like WHO, USAID, Game changing conversations”

– Social entrepreneur working in the technology sector, India

Conflict of Interest

Our contributors noted that there is a tension between creating returns for investors and taking systemic approaches that require collaborative action. This implies that a lot of systemic interventions fall outside the scope of for-profit social enterprises that are in-turn responsible to their shareholders. Spending time away from the business also has a disconnect with funders and investors.

“In the marketplace you are trying to win, building the ecosystem is a tension as a for-profit company.”

– Social entrepreneur working in the technology sector, Zambia


Another driver of systems change is capacity. An organisation has to be structured to achieve systems change and cannot achieve this if it decides to create systems change partway through fragmented approaches and interventions due to the factors listed above.


Our contributors also shared some common principles between system change and social entrepreneurship. These include:

  • Experimentation: While vision and mission setting are extremely important to know what change an organisation wants to achieve, the process is also constantly evolving as approaches and market segments are tested and flexed. As you engage in both activities, you often encounter roadblocks that you did not expect, and you create new ways to navigate around them.
  • Building on your Expertise: While trying to shift the system in multiple ways, entrepreneurs identify approaches that are well outside of their capacity. Instead, they develop a theory of change and target the problem indirectly with an approach that fits their expertise.
  • Complexity: The complexity of the system at play can be different for different businesses and target problems. Some cases require policy change and collaboration with the public sector, while some are more focused on changing how information is shared in the system. For each of these cases, you have to create the right tools fit for the purpose.

As we can see, there are several distinctions and overlaps in the principles defining social entrepreneurship and systems change. For-profit social entrepreneurship traditionally focuses on an organisation and its impact, while a venture that intends to create systems change follows a more collaborative approach to change and holds a different power dynamic with actors in the system.

Author(s): Nikhil Dugal is a systems change consultant with the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. He is a Skoll Scholar, having completed his MBA at Saïd Business School in 2018.