“This is the first time I’ve seen this in my 20-year career with the ICRC,” says Yann Bonzon, ICRC Head of Delegation in Nigeria. “A partnership with the private sector at the local level is something new.”
The ICRC has plenty of experience building global partnerships with governments, research institutes, universities, and other international non-governmental organizations, but less so when it comes to the private sector in field operations.
In 2018, the ICRC began working with the Tony Elumelu Foundation (TEF) to sponsor hundreds of entrepreneurs in Nigeria’s conflict-hit north-eastern region and its southern Niger Delta in order to increase economic opportunities.
The partnership builds on Elumelu’s existing entrepreneurship program in which he pledged to invest USD 100 million of his personal fortune to identify, train and support 10,000 young entrepreneurs across 54 African countries over 10 years in the belief that investment and commerce—not charity—will secure the continent’s future.
The Multiplier Effect
The ICRC’s Economic Security program routinely supports people caught up in conflict and crisis with microfinance grants worth up to USD 1,000 to help build economic independence through the establishment of an income stream.
The partnership with TEF provides support on a different scale: USD 5,000 per entrepreneur.
“It is the multiplier effect we are looking for,” says Awais Kahn, the ICRC’s Economic Security Coordinator in Nigeria. “It’s the belief that the benefits of such financial security can be felt across the community through commerce, employment and services.”
The Right Support to the Right People
While TEF provides the training, mentoring, and access to new networks through the TEFConnect digital platform, the ICRC provides the administrative and project support to ensure the selected entrepreneurs work in one of the ICRC’s priority regions. The TEF/ICRC entrepreneurs must also have the explicit objective to do more than simply make a profit; they must also work to make a difference in their communities and contribute to local markets.
Examples of such practices include establishing an affordable diagnostics center in Port Harcourt or producing sanitary pads for displaced women and girls in north-eastern Nigeria.
“Since the partnership began, the ICRC has facilitated 361 entrepreneurs,” says Monitoring Officer Ekimini Francis, “and the ICRC is also working to closely measure their impact in order to tweak and improve how the program works.”
Partnering with the private sector is a way to extend the ICRC’s reach, but it may have reputational benefits too. “With this partnership, we’re perceived as innovative and open, ready to work with the Nigerian people,” says Francis.
Adds Khan, “We are still looking at lessons learned, but it is fascinating to see how such an investment can reach a community, how it circulates and how it can boost local markets.”
Coming from different places on the spectrum, the ICRC and TEF have their own ways of doing things, their own viewpoints on what works, and different ideas of how best to leverage private sector involvement in humanitarian work.
“There were questions and a bit of resistance towards this new model,” admits Marie-Servane Desjonqueres, the ICRC’s Humanitarian Partnerships Advisor. Like Bonzon, she advocates a cautious embracing of the approach; while partnerships necessitate a ceding and sharing of control, the potential upsides include new skills, greater reach, and more impact.
It’s a view shared by TEF. “Partnerships like the one we have with the ICRC are so important because they make the work more transformative. Our reach is wider, our impact is stronger and deeper,” says Keside Anosike, Communications Manager at TEF. “It is about making significant, sustainable, transformative change.”
In just five years, the TEF program has already backed over 9,000 entrepreneurs across Africa, allowing it to expand its ambition beyond the original plan.
Whether triggered by the Boko Haram insurgency in north-eastern Nigeria, oil-related insecurity in the south or the COVID pandemic, “where local economies are suffering, it is small businesses that can really sustain and drive economic recovery,” says Anosike.
Process of Discovery
The partnership between the ICRC and TEF is a prominent example of innovation in the Nigeria delegation, but it is one of many.
In other areas, the Algorithm for the Management of Childhood Illnesses (ALMANACH) app is being used to diagnose and treat children, a rehabilitation center in the northern city of Maiduguri has been financed by the sale of a Humanitarian Impact Bond, and environmentally friendly stabilized soil bricks are being used to rebuild homes destroyed by conflict.
“Finding the new does not mean abandoning the old,” says Bonzon. “If we want to reach more people, we need to find new ways of working, but that doesn’t mean we leave aside everything we used to do. It means we reinforce what we know with something different.”
As Bonzon says: “All of us, naturally, go for what we know, so rather than simply respond in the usual ways, our objective is to go through a process of discovery.” Which is all part of the understanding that innovative practice should be built into the core of the ICRC’s work, in Nigeria and elsewhere.