In the process of building an entrepreneurial community flowing with an abundance of opportunities, there are key partners who contribute tremendously in realizing this dream.
In 2019, while building the foundational pillars of Tukole, a platform linking blue-collar workers to job opportunities, The Innovation Village crossed paths with an entity that would later become significant in its vision towards building a befitting ecosystem for Ugandan entrepreneurs.
The partner, Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), provides development assistance to governments and supports private sector growth. JICA has a broad yet strategic agenda that supports the growth of infrastructure, economy, agriculture, health and education and refugees.
In 2019, a team from JICA visited The Innovation Village with the intention to understand how the ecosystem is creating linkages and jobs for Ugandan entrepreneurs. With the prototype of the budding Tukole as an example, JICA endorsed the relationship between Nakawa Vocational Technical Institute and The Innovation Village. This has since provided a direct linkage for vocational school graduates to jobs through the platform. To date, Tukole has trained and provided over 200 job connections to persons in the blue-collar industry.
This, however, is only the tip of the iceberg in relation to the work and the impact that JICA has had in its collaboration with The Innovation Village.
The 2020 global pandemic crippled the economy. With the blow particularly felt by small and medium enterprises, the two partners found another opportunity to work together.
In the course of the pandemic, as small businesses struggled to stay afloat and others closed shop, JICA stepped in with an intervention called the Next Innovation with Japan (NINJA) challenge. The challenge known as, “NINJA COVID-19 Response and Recovery Business Challenge” was part of JICA’s global start-up initiative. Launched in 19 African countries, it aimed at supporting businesses responding to challenges caused by the pandemic.
In Uganda, JICA teamed up with The Innovation Village as a partner, owing to the large reach the organization had among entrepreneurs.
Yamamoto Koichiro, the representative in charge of Infrastructure development and private sector development at JICA, has been on the ground on behalf of JICA in executing the NINJA challenge. “The enthusiasm to support the startup ecosystem and quality work always inspires us to work together with The Innovation Village,” Koichiro says.
The NINJA challenge attracted 456 applications in Uganda and 23 businesses with outstanding solutions addressing challenges that arose as a result of Covid-19 in sectors like health, logistics, business, education, disaster management and finance emerged.
After an accelerator program for the participating startups, the NINJA challenge came to a climax at an award ceremony that saw three solutions including M-Scan Solutions, Ecoplastile and Zetu Africa walk away with $30,000. The startups have undergone business training through the NINJA challenge and pitched their brilliant solutions to investors in Japan.
“Winning the NINJA Business Innovation Challenge grant was a game-changer for Ecoplastile as a business. The national recognition and funding is supporting Ecoplastile to expand across Uganda, create about 150 direct and indirect green jobs across the value chain, diversify our range of services and products to save humanity and the planet. NINJA is a fantastic opportunity and I am grateful to have participated. Thank you to JICA Uganda, The Innovation Village, other nominees and partners,” Ecoplastile’s Chief Executive Officer Frank Kamugisha says.
20 of the startups also got an elaborative display of their businesses in the JICA catalogue featuring the top 20 startups in Uganda to further increase their exposure to investors and potential partners.
Samantha Niyonsaba Karama, Future Lab Lead at The Innovation Village has worked closely with JICA. “One thing about JICA is that they do not shy away from being involved in the process,” she says.
From prompting JICA headquarters in Japan to do a campaign for entrepreneurs and setting up platforms for them to showcase their solutions, JICA has done well in flying the entrepreneurship flag.
As a result of this partnership with NINJA, The Innovation Village has been able to tap into 400 businesses across the country and draw them into the entrepreneurship database. As the maxim goes, it takes a village to build a startup. While the work of supporting social development through entrepreneurship goes on, the need for these kinds of collaborations becomes even more crucial.
On JICA’s end, Koichiro has expressed hope for future collaborations with The Innovation Village to grow the startup ecosystem and eventually, Uganda’s economy. With the existence of humanity and the need for solutions to overcome them, we believe that there will always be room to do great things together.