Tackling Social Innovators’ Last Mile Challenge

The development of social innovations is often a complex on-going process of insight, trial and error, insight, trial and error, insight…until things felicitously fit into place and a smart approach reaches a new plateau.

An interesting example was Muhammad Yunus who had already developed his core microfinance idea when he concluded that women were better at re-paying their loans (making the system more sustainable) and that women ensure families benefited more. Today 97% of Grameen microloan clients are women.

This “end of process gap” is often referred to as the classic “last mile challenge,” borrowing a term describing the telcos’ struggle to get broadband cable and service into every last far flung residential community.

Esther Duflo, an economist at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-Lab) and a MacArthur Genius fellow, focuses her work using a randomized test to systematically discover how to conquer a remaining last hurdle to a social solution. Duflo’s groundbreaking work was recently profiled in a fascinating article “The Pragmatic Rebels” by Maureen Tkacit in Bloomberg Businessweek (July 5-11, 2010).

Sometimes unlocking the answer to last mile barriers takes years of methodical research. One example Duflo faced was Kenyan maize farmers’ failure to use proven harvest enhancing fertilizer. After running a 3-year field experiment with a Dutch NGO, the researchers finally discovered a barrier for the Kenyans: when farmers said they were too poor to buy fertilizer what they really meant was that they were temporarily broke at the time fertilizer purchasing was normally done. Duflo tested a hypothesis: why not get farmers to commit to fertilizer right after their harvest was sold when their income was in hand. An incentive was offered to close the deal: free delivery on fertilizer shipment.

Barriers to fertilizer use

Two other approaches were tested: a control group that was offered no incentive and a third group that was offered a later-in-the-season 50% discount on the price of the fertilizer.

The free delivery group took up fertilizer three times more than the control group or the same amount as the group offered the 50% discount. But the discount strategy cost three times as much as the subsidized shipment strategy to implement.

Both strategies were trying to tackle a “commonplace quirk of consumer behaviour: the failure to plan ahead.”

Often success in introducing positive changes tackling poverty requires building solutions cognizant of behaviour and psychology. That fact illustrates Professor Frances Westley’s definition of social innovation being so focused on changes to patterns and forms of behaviour:
“Social innovation is an initiative, product or process or program that profoundly changes the basic routines, resource and authority flows or beliefs of any social system.” The entire definition, and an excellent explanation unpacking it, is available in her 2008 paper: The Social Innovation Dynamic.

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Tim Draimin About Tim Draimin

Tim Draimin is the Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG)


  1. This post was mentioned on Twitter by Geraldine Cahill, Tackling social innovators’ last mile challenge. New blog post from Tim Draimin here http://sigeneration.ca/blog/?p=41

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