As tech and innovation advance and grow, it is important that they do so in an inclusive and equitable manner so as to prevent certain segments of the population from being left behind, a situation that would further widen the persisting inequality gap. Having grown up in rural Botswana and realizing firsthand the creativity and intelligence of those populations being limited by lack of access to resources, Thabiso co-founded These Hands, a social enterprise startup supporting innovators in rural areas, to bridge the digital divide gap between rural and urban areas. In this interview, the Semolale native takes us through the early beginnings of These Hands, the challenges they have faced over the years, their amazing work and its impact as well as their vision for the coming years!
In your own words, please tell us who Thabiso Mashaba is?
Just an ordinary guy from Semolale village in the Bobirwa District of Botswana who believes in the power of the Cultural and Creative Industries in creating social cohesion and driving the economy. I grew up all over Botswana seeing lots of poverty gaps and I am keen to make a difference in the community and international development spaces by bridging the skills; technological; digital and information gaps that exist in rural communities; humanitarian communities and Indigenous people communities of the world.
Briefly take us through your career journey up to this point
I started my journey as an Entrepreneur in 2009 when I co-founded The Blak Audio Fire, a House Music Producer/DJ management agency after gaining organizational experience from organizing various local, regional, and international Debate Competitions/Events while I was still pursuing my BA in Economics and Accounting at the University of Botswana. The Blak Audio Fire was made a shelf company in 2012 when I started my MA in Sustainable Development Practice at the same institution.
In 2013, after attending the International Development Design Summit (IDDS) organized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) D-Lab in Zambia, and attaining my post-graduate certificate in Cultural Economics from an international summer school organized by the Center for Research in Arts and Economics (CREARE) Foundation from the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands; I co-founded These Hands GSSE with a small grant of 500 USD from the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) based at MIT D-Lab and mentorship from the Colorado State University’s Global, Social and Sustainable Enterprise (GSSE) MBA program.
In 2014, I was appointed as a member of the Botswana Human Resource Development Council’s Creative Industries Sector Committee.
In 2015, These Hands GSSE was officially registered in Botswana as a for-profit social enterprise. We launched our website and social media platform. We then organized the IDDS Dkar Summit in the Dkar Village of the Ghanzi District of Botswana through a 30000 USD grant from IDIN; upskilled and retooled 30 grassroots innovators; and co-created 6 working prototypes. In the same year, These Hands GSSE also won the Orange Africa Social Venture Prize in Botswana and made it as the Top 11 semi-finalist in Africa. I was also awarded the Ashoka Fellowship in Social Intrapreneurship for Innovation in Health and was made Lead Partinizer of the same fellowship for the Africa region. These Hands GSSE was also accepted into the Botswana Digital and Innovation Hub’s (BDIH formerly BIH) First Steps Venture Center incubation program.
In 2016, we hosted the IDDS Botswana Summit in Dkar Village again through a 50000 USD grant from IDIN; upskilled and retooled 30 new grassroots innovators; and co-created 6 new working prototypes. In the same year, we launched our first-ever rural innovation center in Dkar Village and MIT D-Lab trained 4 of our trainers at a training of trainers in Zambia.
In 2017, I was appointed to the IDIN Global Steering Committee based at MIT D-Lab. I helped organize IDDS Sisaket in Ban Han Wao, Thailand, and in the same year; when IDIN funding came to a close, These Hands GSSE in Botswana; Twende Social Innovation Center in Arusha,Tanzania; and Kafue Innovation Center in Kafue, Zambia came together to form the IDIN-SADC Consortium as a means to pool experiences and resources together plus expand the work we do within the 3 respective countries and the SADC region.
In 2018, These Hands GSSE hosted the IDDS Botswana Summit in the Villages of Dkar in the Ghanzi District, Dutlwe in the Kweneng District, Rakops in the Boteti District, and Kaputura in the Okavango District. We upskilled and retooled 30 more new grassroots innovators, co-created 6 more new working prototypes, and opened 3 more new rural innovation centers in Rakops, Dutlwe, and Kaputura with the support of MIT D-Lab and BIH. In the same year, These Hands became an implementation partner of the Injini Africa EdTech Incubation Programme for Botswana.
In 2019, I was appointed as a member of the Botswana International University of Science and Technology’s (BIUST) Center for Business, Management, Entrepreneurship, and General Education (CBMEGE) Advisory Board. These Hands GSSE ran a creative capacity building workshop through an 80000 BWP grant from BIH and set up our 5th rural innovation center in Lesoma Village in the Chobe District of Botswana. I also helped organize IDDS Uganda in Rhino Camp Refugee Settlement Camp in Arua, Uganda. In the same year, the IDIN-SADC Consortium was awarded an inclusive innovation grant of 138565 EUROS by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Finland through their Southern Africa Innovation Support Programme (SAIS 2) with These Hands GSSE as the project lead. By virtue of being a SAIS 2 grantee, These Hands GSSE joined the Connected Hubs Network of Southern Africa founded by SAIS 2 and the Africa Makerspace Network founded by Kumasi Hive in Ghana respectively.
In 2020, I was appointed as the Botswana Human Resource Development’s Creative Industries Sector Committee Chairperson; the UNESCO National Committee’s Communication and Information Programme Vice-Chairperson; and the YSAT Uganda Advisory Board Chairperson. These Hands GSSE launched a partnership with the Letshego Group in which we gained access to interest-free bridging finance to implement the pilot phase of the IDIN-SADC Consortium work within 4 countries of the SADC region being Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, and Namibia. I was also awarded the Edmund Hillary Fellowship (EHF) by the New Zealand Government.
In 2021, These Hands GSSE, Twende Social Innovation Center, and Kafue Innovation Center completed the pilot phase of the IDIN-SADC Consortium project in Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia, and Namibia; upskilling and retooling 1280 new grassroots innovators; co-creating 135 new working prototypes; opening 5 new rural innovation centers in Botswana; opening 1 new rural innovation center in Namibia, and opening 1 new rural innovation center in Tanzania. These Hands GSSE were appointed into the Southern Africa Innovation Collective founding management team, helped organize the Boost Up Competition, and accompanied a Southern Africa delegation to the Boost Up Finals and Slush 2021 hosted in Helsinki, Finland.
Please tell us more about your social-enterprise startup, These Hands GSSE
These Hands GSSE is a global for-profit social enterprise start-up based in Botswana and New Zealand, which trains and supports rural community innovators/entrepreneurs in developing countries. As an enabler for international development work, These Hands GSSE has also developed a social media platform that is dedicated to international development and co-creative design work and does not require the internet to use (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) Based). They recently graduated from incubation at the Botswana Innovation Hub’s First Steps Venture Centre (BIH FSVC) and are now members. These Hands GSSE is a lifelong implementation partner and rural innovation center partner of the International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) D-Lab for Botswana, Africa, Latin America, and southeast Asia. These Hands GSSE is an implementation partner of the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) through its first university chapter being the Via Maranyane Student Organization. These Hands are also implementation partners for Injini Africa Education Technology Incubation Programme for Botswana.
Our key offerings are:
- Build It Workshops - Ranging from a couple of hours to 7 days, Build It training sessions teach participants how to make specific low-cost, useful technologies through step-by-step directions. Afterward, participants use these technologies in their homes and share them with their communities. Some examples include a hand maize sheller, a charcoal press, and a PET plastic bottle cutter. Curriculum for Build It’s is sourced from around the world and adapted to local materials and conditions.
- Creative Capacity Building Training Workshops- 5 to 10 day co-creation training workshops amongst people who stay together; in the same village, school, or organization and face the same livelihood challenges. Participants are taught the co-creative design and business thinking processes and supported with materials and tools to co-create prototypes and ventures that address their own livelihood challenges.
- International Development Design Summits- 2-5 week hands-on design summits that bring a diverse group of participants from different countries and backgrounds to co-create appropriate technologies and ventures with local communities in Botswana and the SADC region.
- Innovation Centers- rural community-based co-working spaces that allow our summit participants or CCB participants to be able to continue working on their prototypes and ventures by accessing all the material, tools, and technical support necessary.
- Project Support Grants- competitive small grants to help in assisting our innovators to be able to buy material and tools to design or iterate their technology projects or pay for the essential steps in their business development.
- Small grants- 150 Euros
- Chapter Meetings- small meetings by our rural innovators to either train each other on new skills or give feedback on a new design.
- Cross Border Exchange Visits/Exposure Trips- members from Botswana and SADC members states will get an opportunity to travel to each other’s working spaces to either learn or impart new skills about a project; and to exhibit and trade their technologies or products of their technologies on calendar dates that members will agree upon that are strategic at the time.
- Exhibitions- innovators and entrepreneurs at innovation centers showcase their technologies to the general public for sales, feedback, and inspiration.
What was the motivation for starting These Hands?
Having grown up all over Botswana and witnessing the poverty gaps in rural Botswana and after attending the IDDS Zambia 2013, I also realized that rural Botswana and Africa have numerous creative, intelligent, and hard-working people residing there, but development in rural areas is significantly slower than in more urban areas of the same nation and other parts of the world. This is due to a lack of ability to communicate with other areas (exchange of information and ideas) and access to resources (free time, tools, guidance) that could help them make their own lives better through more efficient practices. My co-founder from India and I founded These Hands to bridge the information gap and digital divide through our USSD based social media platform; bridge the resources, tools, and skills gaps through our training sessions; and bridge the market access gap through our exhibitions and exchange visits.
As a social enterprise promoting innovation in rural areas which are largely neglected in technology and innovation developments, what challenges have you faced in executing your mandates?
The biggest challenge we have faced is the digital divide because it makes communication with our grassroots innovators difficult when we are not in their locality to make follow-ups on project continuity; and understand their training, technical, funding, and skills needs.
How have you been trying to surmount these challenges?
We have been using Facebook to disseminate our work and this has helped us get more requests for our training services and give our preparatory instructions to other individuals or organizations in villages or countries we have not trained yet.
We set up our trained participants into rural innovation chapters and rural innovation centers which are based under their village development committees. Each chapter and innovation center has a chapter leader and innovation center manager. We developed simple project progress reporting and small project grant application templates.
Through Whatsapp, we have been able to bridge the communication challenge as our chapter leaders and innovation center managers either have a smartphone or sporadic internet access and they can use Whatsapp to consistently update us using the templates we developed.
These Hands also has operations in New Zealand. Please compare and contrast the two operating environments being New Zealand and Botswana
The main difference is that New Zealand is a developed country and Botswana is a developing country so the digital divide has different contexts.
The other difference is the cultural context of the two countries.
The innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in New Zealand is more developed than in Botswana.
Both countries are however deliberate in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship as an engine of growth for their economies.
Both countries are working tirelessly to attract innovators, entrepreneurs, and impact investors to their countries to strengthen their innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems.
Both countries have rural communities, humanitarian communities, and indigenous people communities which are our target market.
If there are any lessons to be learned from the operating environment of social enterprises in countries such as New Zealand, please share them with our readers
In New Zealand, they have the Benefit Corporation Law which supports Social Enterprises and encourages global impact investors to invest in social impact work for credit scores. Certified B Corporations are businesses that meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. In Botswana and Southern Africa, we still do not have B-Corp laws or laws that support social enterprises and encourage global impact investors to invest in social impact projects.
The work that you do is vital in fostering inclusivity in tech and innovation. What support do you think enterprises like These Hands can use so as to continue this work?
In order to ensure the sustainability of social enterprises (both for-profit and not-for-profit), we need legislation like the B-Corp law. This will ease social entrepreneurs' dependency on Corporate Social Responsibility funds or grants or competitions in order to implement their work.
Patient capital is also a key area that the Botswana innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem investors need to explore in order to truly support the sustainable social impact of the work that social entrepreneurs are doing.
The Botswana Stock Exchange also needs to consider listing Social Enterprises so that they are able to raise funds for their impact work.
These Hands is also an implementation partner for research institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and BIUST. From a professional opinion, how important are these kinds of partnerships between academia and social enterprises in promoting the growth of innovation in largely neglected sections of the population like rural areas?
The key importance of such partnerships is that they give academia a chance to practically teach their students participatory design, engineering, and community development techniques; gives academia access to new appropriate technology and solutions to local problems which they can further research on or develop and disseminate for the benefit of others who may have a similar challenge in other parts of the country and world.
The benefits to the social enterprise are access to technical and funding support to move projects forward; knowledge transfer between the faculty members, students, and grassroots innovators; support with the dissemination of projects; and any IP assessment support.
What is your favorite part of the work that you do?
Seeing my participants (especially girls and women) smiling and growing in confidence to use tools and work with different materials to make things for themselves or their communities which they mostly depended on men to do for them. Given that most rural community households are led by women this gives me inner joy most of the time as although the impact of their confidence will not be seen in the immediate, they often also transfer their skills to the children.
What has been the proudest moment of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Setting up and piloting the IDIN-SADC Consortium to expand the work we do in-country and to other SADC member states.
What’s something you know now that you wish you knew earlier in your career?
Nothing :-) The practical learnings and failures along the journey have been some of the greatest lessons of my life. This is because in my line of work you always have to keep an open mind and not assume every community or stakeholder will be the same.
If any, what is the best advice you have received in your career?
“Slow slow always does the trick”
Where do you see These Hands in the next 5-10 years?
Operating from both Botswana and New Zealand with our work having a foot print in over 10 countries in the world.
Is there anything you would like to share with our readers regarding any exciting projects that These Hands is launching or partaking in in the near future?
In 2022, we will be setting up and launching the IDIN-SADC Consortium regional office in Botswana. IDIN-SADC (International Development Innovation Network – SADC) is a regional consortium led by an Executive Committee (EC) of these grassroots innovation ecosystem builders around SADC. The EC veers away from traditional top-down approaches to development and technology intervention and instead leads a bottom-up movement of grassroots communities who demonstrate interest in innovation. The EC partners with these communities to co-create appropriate technologies that address immediate livelihood challenges, to set up small ventures around these technologies, and to develop innovation centers to continue community-driven innovation work. I encourage all grassroots innovators and supporters of grassroots innovators in the SADC region to engage with our office to learn more about how they can join our network or benefit from it.
We will also be setting up the Southern Africa Innovation Collective with its regional secretariat office to be based at the Technology Innovation Agency in South Africa. The Southern Africa Innovation Collective (SAIC) which was originally founded as the Connected Hubs initiative by the Southern Africa Innovation Support (SAIS) Programme in 2017,is a unique, cohesive network of parastatal (Government) and private sector hubs that support innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem initiatives within the SADC Region and work together to give coordinated access to funding and training opportunities to hub members and the grassroots innovators, start-ups and SMME’s the hub members support.
We will be upgrading our digital strategy and adopting the Letshego digital transformation strategy as they roll out their LetsGo Digital Mall platform. The LetsGo digital mall is a platform that aims to have a whole suite of the solutions that Letshego offers. It currently has its lending solution known as Deduction at source or payroll loans. However, it will soon have other solutions such as; Insurance; MSE loans, and Non-payroll loans which enable one to apply even if Letshego has no agreement with their employer, etc. I encourage all to join the LetsGo Nation and activate their power to be and do.
What advice can you give to young people looking into founding a social enterprise startup in Botswana?
There are not enough jobs but there is a lot of work to do, find your purpose, hone it, develop lifelong stakeholder partnerships and start small and make a difference in your community, country, and the world.
Lastly, please share with our readers where you can be reached if they are interested in getting in touch.
Twitter: @BlakMashaba, @TheseHandsGSSE
Facebook: Thabiso Blak Mashaba, These Hands GSSE, IDIN-SADC Consortium, The Southern Africa Innovation Collective
Linkedin: Thabiso Mashaba
Tel and Whatsapp: +26774291007