What is Business’ USP in International Development?
Every entrepreneur – from Silicon Valley to the iHub in Kenya – knows that a powerful USP (unique selling point) is critical to success. In a world of scarce financing and five-minute pitches, an individual’s ability to articulate what differentiates their idea from thousands of other ideas will make or break a startup. Entrepreneurs will therefore spend hours agonising over their USP – brainstorming, workshopping, testing, refining – until it perfectly captures their distinctive value-add.
In the development sector, we rarely pause to consider the USP of a particular project, organisation or sector. We talk about impact and outcomes, or ‘additionality’, but the concept of a USP – with its sales and marketing connotations – can make us feel uncomfortable. After all, we’re not trying to profit from the misfortunes of the poor, are we? What could a piece of marketing jargon possibly have to teach us?
Plenty, it turns out. The process of defining and articulating a USP forces us to consider what is already out there and what we can do that is different. It encourages organisations – NGOs, companies, bilaterals, multilaterals – to think specifically about their unique assets, experience and approach. In a sector which has tried to address the challenges of fragmentation and duplication for decades, articulating our own USPs could be the most effective way to understand how we best fit and work together.
And what better place to start than with the sector that is most familiar with the concept of a USP – the private sector. Much has been written about the challenges and mechanisms of engaging the private sector in development. But what are the distinctive benefits of the private sector overall? What can business offer international development that others can’t?
Our experience in brokering and supporting partnerships between business and development actors – including through DFID’s innovative Girls’ Education Challenge – suggests that there are direct and distinct benefits to working with business. These include:
Scale – companies are naturally interested in supporting large-scale initiatives that cover a wide range of communities, including reaching rural populations through technology;
‘Skin in the game’ – companies can share risk (both financial and reputational) with traditional donors, and are motivated by the need to ‘make this work’ within their own businesses;
New business models and approaches to sustainability – companies are driven to try new ways of generating income and revenue streams, which can reduce dependence on governments for sustainability;
Potential for transformational impact – because of their focus on scale and the wider economic ecosystem, company-led initiatives can often result in transformational changes to infrastructure, energy availability and the labour market;
New approaches to success and measurement – companies have a broader understanding of value (beyond development impact), often driven by their internal business cases;
Willingness to invest upfront and to take a long-term view – companies can provide substantial amounts of capital and infrastructure investment upfront, which NGOs may be reluctant or unable to do; and
Focus on innovation, technology and media – companies, more than other entities, recognise the need to ‘innovate or die’. Their specific expertise and assets in technology, media and innovation support the testing of new ideas with the potential to ‘leapfrog’ or fast-track specific development solutions.
Successful engagement between business and development actors depends on all of us acknowledging these benefits. In applications and propositions, businesses should be upfront about where they can add value as a business (their USP), rather than trying to fit into an NGO or traditional development ‘mould’. Similarly, donors and other development partners will need to adapt financing and cooperation mechanisms to recognise these distinctive areas of value-add, whilst supporting business to fill other gaps (e.g. in technical capacity). This is just one way in which the concept of a USP can allow us to expand our thinking in the development sector.
In short, if we all challenged ourselves to think more in terms of USPs – and in particular, recognised the USP of the private sector – we may all be better at channelling our resources to where they can make the greatest impact. To borrow another startup concept, we may have a greater chance of finding that elusive ‘unicorn’ – which in development terms, may mean a successful, scalable initiative that hits the ‘sweet spot’ between development and business objectives. Some examples of these 'development unicorns' are indeed emerging (including the Avahan programme for HIV prevention in India, and the Injaz programme for youth employability in Jordan) but we need many more – and we can all start by being upfront about our USPs.
Applications for Leave No Girls Behind Concept Notes are Now Open!
The Leave No Girl Behind (LNGB) window is a new funding window announced in July 2016 under DFID’s Girls’ Education Challenge (GEC). The LNGB window aims to support interventions for highly marginalised, adolescent girls who are out of school (either because they have never attended school or have dropped out without gaining a basic education).
In applying for funding from the LNGB window, projects must clearly demonstrate the impact their projects are able to have on supporting girls to transition to education, employment, training and/or improve the quality of their family lives.
The deadline for receipt of all concept notes forms is 5.00 PM (GMT) on Tuesday 20 December 2016.
Are you a company that has an innovative idea for supporting marginalised girls to reach their potential? DFID is keen to engage private sector companies - from large to small, and located globally - as part of this challenge.