In anticipation of the launch of the Accelerator Lab in South Sudan, the United Nations Development Programme underwent a search for “unusual talent” to add to our team. We wanted fresh thinkers, entrepreneurs, and a trio unintimidated by tackling “the impossible”. Through a competitive selection process, we found:
Tong Atak - Head of Solutions Mapping
I'm a brick making, block laying, bread baking, engineering, building constructing, logistics providing, market supplying, social entrepreneur. I have deep passion for development and have used business as a tool to spur growth and development across South Sudan. I have over five years of research and development experience with Nokia in Europe, as well as over eight years growing businesses across South Sudan, including a sustainable construction company and a local modern bakery. I hope that my previous experience in developing businesses can help me and the AccLab team identify ways to develop and grow grassroots solutions. I’m most excited to work from the bottom up to shine a light on the shaded areas of South Sudan’s vast innovation landscape.
QUESTION: In your opinion, how is the challenge of starting a business in South Sudan an “innovative” endeavor or, what about it requires innovative thinking?
Tong: Starting a business in South Sudan can be quite exciting and frightening at the same time. Due to our decades-long civil conflict our infrastructure systems are still in their infancy. Sometimes you end up taking on the extra load of things you would often take for granted in other parts of the world. Although the challenges may seem immense, on the flip side, it opens you up to a boundless sense of opportunity. Facing the hurdles daily you build a resilience that can help you pass through life tests.
If you look past the usual narrative in South Sudan you will see an innovative landscape where, through trials and tribulations, people have found ways of just getting things done. These novel ways of working, if zoomed out, can be the solution to some of our society’s greatest challenges. Through the Accelerator lab we hope to shine a light on these endeavours and help show the true beauty in the colour of South Sudan.
Jacqueline Poni - Head of Experimentation
I am joining the AccLab with a scientific background and with passion for quality assurance -- which is all about continual improvement of new and existing services or product. I have worked with both corporate companies and non-profit organizations, all of which focused on customer satisfaction. I have a keen understanding of experimental research. I believe in the bottom up approach because the people that experience the problem have innovative ways to deal with them. They may just lack specific expert knowledge to test and scale it up to the wider community. And hence, the paradigm of sense-making and collective intelligence. I also believe that we do not need to re-invent the wheel but share best practices and customize solutions to our local setting.
QUESTION: Part of the experimentation process involves making a hypothesis, testing, and potentially failing. Why do you think failing is an important part of innovation, and what can you learn from “failure”?
Jacqueline: We experiment in order to test out new ideas or hypotheses. These processes involves trying out and failing a couple of times in order to learn what concept works, and whether or not are assumptions are true and accurate. Failure is the beginning of innovation. Thomas Edison once said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave-up.”
I believe that failure builds resilience and in turn creates true confidence. Success then becomes a natural by-product and an inevitable part of building successful innovations. Failing is also important because it drives diverse thinking and teamwork; the collective ideas gained from seeking out “moonshots” adds to the innovation process. Failure then is truly the key to success.
Buay Tut - Head of Exploration
In my work, I champion grassroots, historical and data-informed ideation and decision making that challenges conventional thinking and mindsets. I'm energized by a new generation of African youth who are optimistic about African capability. A recent report by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation details this rise of youth-led Afro-Optimism stating: “There is a new generation of youth who are connected to the world and they are out there doing incredibly innovative things with nothing. They are not just optimistic about the African century, they are determined to shape it.” -African Youth Survey 2020, The Rise of Afro-Optimism
I’m excited to build back better during this pandemic, and beyond as we shape a new global normal. My work in my professional and personal life is often guided by these two mottos: “Anything about us, without us, isn’t for us” And “It is possible!”
Question: What is the role of education in innovation and sustainable development?
Buay Tut:Creating equitable, sustainable, and accessible educational and economic opportunities for all South Sudanese guides my work. I believe this is achievable by supporting and fostering entrepreneurship that builds pathways to quality education, jobs, and security for the economic lowest, and most underserved in our country. I believe when we empower and serve those most underserved in our society, our country and the world as a whole rises.
We can accomplish this by working together, building partnerships with local communities, and mission-aligned agencies. Also, by questioning and challenging norms, while valuing and honoring indigenous and local knowledge sources and different ways of problem-solving.
My background in educational planning and strategic policy advising demanded ingenuity and innovation. I was tasked with building out innovative diversity, equity, and belonging programming as well as building out equitable policies and guidelines for admissions evaluation. Using design thinking, equity, and socio-economic models I set out to reimagine access to higher education for the 21st century. All of my decisions were made with the lowest, most under-represented, and under-served communities in mind. In the end, we rolled out an admissions evaluation system where we coached students to admission instead of merely sorting talent. We emphasized socio-emotional learning, non-cognitive variables vs the traditional standardized testing, and extracurricular activities. This evaluation resulted in the identification, recruitment, and enrollment of the most diverse cohorts in the school's history.