Innovation Challenge: The blueprint for a successful challenge


For the past two years, YBI has been running Innovation Challenges, supported by Accenture, to stimulate and foster innovation across our network. The quality of our members’ contributions has been a consistently high standard, as highlighted by the recent winners Qredits and ICCO Uganda.

YBI’s Head of Innovation, Dejan Markovic, shares his blueprint for running a successful Innovation Challenge. He explains why an Innovation Challenge can help spur real, effective and scalable innovations in our network and beyond, while also building an overall culture of innovation within an organisation.

In late 2019, we announced the two winners of our second Innovation Challenge. The prize was an Innovation Fund of US$80,000.

The challenge question we set was: How can we improve support services for young entrepreneurs in mentoring, training, access to finance and access to markets, creating ‘sector-leading’ products and services with potential to scale? 

Open to all YBI members, 11 expressions of interest were shortlisted and these members were supported to develop their business idea. At the end of an intense process where finalists worked hard to refine their applications, the judges selected the two deserving winners – Qredits and ICCO Uganda.

Why initiatives like the Innovation Challenge are important to YBI and our network

Primarily, because they engage and support members to develop new products and services, specifically adapted to the ever-changing world of work, which have the potential to scale up and leverage our network effect to achieve greater impact.  

Such initiatives also nurture and strengthen the culture of innovation. They provide a healthy reminder of what it takes to be a bold entrepreneur, how hard it often is to be one, and how rewarding success can be! 

Furthermore, against the current backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis and soaring levels of youth unemployment, entrepreneurship remains a key route for decent work. The need for continued and creative innovation to support youth entrepreneurs to unlock their potential and achieve success is now more pertinent than ever. 

Our blueprint for a successful Innovation Challenge 

YBI has now run successful Innovation Challenges for two consecutive years. Our blueprint or best practice guidelines consist of five simple steps: 

1. Setting the challenge around a specific theme

It’s important to frame the theme the entire challenge revolves around – not being too abstract but leaving enough room for creativity.  

The question we set was broad enough to allow for diversity and creativity. Challenge entrants ranged from Chatbot mentors, to online digital maps to help youth entrepreneurs easily locate business resources and mentors, to a business service providing access to physical places – small shops or kiosks – in major shopping malls, enabling entrepreneurs to sell and connect to the market.

2. Clarity on the type of challenge – problem or solution-centric

YBI set a solution-centric challenge because we had good insights on what the main problems and barriers were, along with what type of interventions generate the most impact.  
The definitions for the two challenges are: 

  • A problem-centric challenge first focuses on discovering and defining a problem and then finding solutions to it 
  • A solution-centric challenge focuses on finding solutions to an already identified and well-framed problem. This problem can either be something very specific or relatively broad. 

3. Clear goals and outcomes 

Have a clear sense of what entrepreneurs ultimately want to accomplish, and what the reason is for the challenge to exist in the first place. 

YBI’s goal and outcome was to create ‘sector-leading’ products and services with potential to scale-up and foster a culture of innovation. But other outcomes could include the following: 

  • Uncovering fresh ideas 
  • Getting input from outside the organisation/network 
  • Focusing on something that is of strategic value to the organization; and 
  • Establishing the goal as part of a long-term agenda, or a one-time deal 

4. Provide support and coaching to entrants 

The support we provided included expert coaching and mentoring. By providing this package of support we could better guide the contestants through the process. Experts can provide their perspectives, feedback, and expertise to help teams further hone their ideas, concepts and solutions.  

5. Provide appealing awards 

With their eyes on the prize, rewards and recognition encourage participants to put time and effort into coming up with innovative ideas. So it is important to have clarity on how many winners the challenge will have and how the pot of funding or award package will be given out.  

In our challenge, the prize money was divided between two winners and disbursed in three tranches. Winners also received coaching support from Bob Dorf, one of the most knowledgeable innovation and Customer Development experts in the world. This helped them both develop the concept and test a minimum viable product or service within the first six months. 

The success of our Innovation Challenge is achieving impact at scale 

Selecting winners through the initiative and supporting them to develop new and exciting ideas that can be replicated across the network helps us amplify the overall impact achieved.  

Hannah Mansour, Accenture Global Social Innovation Lead,  said:

“It was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of the innovation awards, especially with a series of such impressive and strong entries. Accenture has been working with YBI for more than a decade and the Innovation Challenge is an exciting initiative and fantastic opportunity to stimulate innovation and achieve long-term positive impact for young people creating businesses. It’s inspiring to see the projects come to life and see their potential to scale across the whole YBI network.” 

Qredits’ educational learning curriculum and programme BeYourOwnBoss has been developed further so that it can be rolled out in the Caribbean. The innovative curriculum includes e-learning, a mobile app and a textbook that teaches vocational students the different steps involved in starting a business. The programme offers blended learning and can be easily translated and customised for different target groups and countries. Through our network, we are also looking to expand and offer this program in Latin America. 

ICCO Uganda’s Digital A-CAT for Improved Lending to Young Agripreneurs links high-potential youth farmers with microfinance institutions and provides a newly developed agricultural loan that offers a low interest rate. It includes a credit assessment tool that tracks the costs of agricultural performance and revenue, minimising risks for both agripreneurs and microfinance institutes.  

Pilot testing of the A-CAT has just been launched in the three branches of RUFI (Rural Finance Initiative) and 15 agricultural loan clients have already been recruited with the average loan period being 6 months and the funding going towards cereal and horticultural crops. Testing will continue until December 2020.  

Refugees are a key group that is being targeted through this initiative. One client is a 32-year-old mother of 5 who is a refugee from South Sudan. She accessed a loan amount of UGX 700,000 to grow crops and she intends to use the money earned to pay the loan, pay school fees for her children and rent the land again next year. 

To read more go to our Innovation Challenge microsite.

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