The program manager had taken initiative with The Africa Prize. She wanted to build favour with her senior management at The Royal Academy Of Engineering, but even though her program was a success, she was overworked and needed support.
By the time The Africa Prize was in it's third year, the she had barely been present for any of it.
Since the start, the program was running smoothly with us, the training company she hired, so she didn't feel the need to be there very much. She'd be present to introduce the start of the training weeks, and slip to the back of the room to catch up on email while we took over. Or she'd used the time allocated for our African training weeks to arrange other meetings in leisurely locations in the same country, that allowed her to take a few days off. She felt she deserved it, and we wanted to be supportive.
Even though our contract was technically only for educational content, we felt it had been worth over-investing our efforts to make something good for the world. This had a lot more potential, which we were keen to turn to reality. After all, when does one have the opportunity to support high-growth tech companies that save lives and get people out of poverty? So when the program manager explained: "I don't do vision. Just tell me what hotel and buses to book," we were happy to step up. She called us "co-founders" and so we took responsibility for the direction, planning, network-building, and logistics even if we weren't paid for that. We rolled up our sleeves and got to work. The Academy handled gala event for the final pitches, and asked it's partners to recruit applicants, we handled almost everything else in between.
The 6-month program still revolved around two separate residential training weeks, each followed by 3 months of remote mentoring. It culminated in a pitching event in an African city to decide who won the 3 grants. The judges were always reputable African technologists who freed time from their schedules to be inserted into the judging panel, but led by the main funder from the UK. They had almost no knowledge of the participant's progress, and made the decision on the basis of a single 5-minute pitch.
On the last hour of the last day of the last training week, a new junior from the Royal Academy joined us and asked to make an announcement. The rules of the program had been changed, and there would be an intermediary pitch event held by the Duke Of York in London. For some reason they couldn't explain, it was mandatory, and failure to appear in London would result in disqualification of the whole program. A last-minute rule change: get yourself a visa to the UK in a month, or you're disqualified. No London, no prize money. And The Royal Academy would not be responsible for helping.
We explained to the junior Academy staff that were on-site that this would derail the innovators we were here to support. These engineers had day jobs and other responsibilities. Many of them fed their entire extended families on their salaries. Even though they had limited time to work on their businesses, they were making headway. For an African to get a UK visa was time-consuming and expensive. Multiple in-person visits to embassies, waiting for hours, convincing officials, being rejecting and needing to return with other documents. For example, showing large sums in your bank accounts, and providing other convincing evidence that you have a reason to travel back home. Some of them didn't even live in countries with UK embassies so would have to fly to other countries just to apply, and cross their fingers they'd be accepted. (We had this problem every year, even for intra-Africa travel. Every year, 10-20% of the innovators couldn't make it to the Africa-based training weeks because they couldn't get visas.)
Now, whatever time they had for their businesses would have to be put towards jumping though all these administrative hoops. Their businesses and innovations would have to wait.
But these weren't just any startups looking to get rich, these were valid projects that would save thousands of lives if they succeeded. Now, instead of supporting them, we were derailing them. About half wouldn't survive if we eviscerated their schedules like this, and that meant potentially thousands of lives not saved in the future.
The program manager avoided discussing this issue. Calls and voicemails went unanswered for weeks, and the Pitch At Palace Africa Edition went forward.
To make up for the trouble caused to the African innovators, the Academy promised that pitching at the event would be followed by networking opportunities with British businesses and supporters, a unique opportunity to make UK business connections. Our previous year included a UK visit, but that was successful because it included a week of pre-planned introduction meetings, most of which were individually curated for each innovator and their unique businesses.
Anyway, after the pitches concluded, the networking portion seemed to have been cut short, to around 20 minutes. The next day, everyone was on a plane back home.
While the African innovators expressed disappointment to us privately, their parting words to The Academy where those of gratitude. As they had explained to me at the start of the program, nobody wanted to risk criticizing a big funder. So instead, they thanked the Academy for the great experience of seeing London and staying at a nice hotel.
This also aggravated the "grant tourism" problem which we'd seen in previous years. If your motive is to win free money easily, and not build a real business or deploy a life-saving innovation, all you need is a great story. You just need to make the judges happy they chose you, and the Academy happy you got them some good press. These pitch competitions have almost no fact-checking for the winners so it's easy to overstate your progress in pitches. As long as your story sounds good, everyone plays along.
So many paraded innovators just go from one grant program to another, knowing they can keep building their fame and winning prizes and grants like this, without needing to make real progress. In fact, trying to make your idea work might reveal that it won't, so better to stay where you are and keep selling the potential. With foreign grant money in hand, you're 10 to 100 times better funded than your competition, so it's easy to push them out without delivering something viable to customers. So this effect doesn't just fund and promote the inept, it squashes the viable.
While there's arguably some balance to be found here, it was eroding the culture of the Africa Prize, since it became obvious to new applicants why the previous years' winners were selected. Those with more altruistic motivations or real business results realized they couldn't win. Even if they actually succeeded with their innovations, the prize always goes to whoever gives The Academy the best chance of a BBC story.
Our mistake was underestimating the underlying agendas with the Academy. The program director had found a way to gain influence through The Duke Of York, which would help her build authority and hopefully lead to better job prospects. Their funder was interested in recognition in the UK, and UK press coverage. The Academy management was fearful of changing national politics following Brexit, and their future political favour as a policy-making organization. All these issues had nothing to do with the express goals of supporting engineering innovation or stimulating entrepreneurship, but yet trumped that purpose.
It was a hard decision for me, but I decided I couldn't be personally involved with The Africa Prize any more. I wanted to help, not be part of the problem. Even though we'd helped start the program, and the program director had even promised to treat us as "co-founders" with veto rights, the institutional agendas and internal politics prevailed.
Understanding colleagues ambitions and strategies, both outside of your program and beyond the educational goals, reveals internal factors that create risk to your program's execution. There are other examples: some university departments compete with others for lucrative students. Most NGOs are driven by fund-raising activities, just as many of them prioritise PR over impact.
These need to be understood, and included, to design a peer learning environment that works.