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July 26, 2016

Final United Entrepreneurship Coalition Event (MFSII)

SPARK’s five-year (2011-2015) programme to promote entrepreneurship and job creation, the United Entrepreneurship Coalition (UEC), has now come to an end.

What better way for SPARK than to invite its main partner BiD Network, along with MDF, Enclude, MSM, NABC and InfoDev – five other international organisations and major players in the programme’s execution – for a closing ceremony, touching on the programme’s main achievements and challenges. Michel Richter, co-director of SPARK, inspiringly shared that “When planning began in 2009, SPARK started with a lot of idealism while the idea to decrease aid dependency through job creation was slowly becoming relevant in development work. Today the programme has come close to meeting our expectations”, thus highlighting that although SPARK has accomplished a lot in terms of increasing the self-reliance of local youth through training and coaching and creating several finance opportunities, its journey was rarely left without obstacles.

Nevertheless, through the MFSII programme, SPARK has been able to grow its expertise and reputation of working in fragile states, namely in Kosovo; Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), Burundi, Liberia and Rwanda. Moreover, SPARK, together with its Northern and Southern Local Partners, has supported the creation of thousands of jobs in diverse areas, ranging from IT to theatre and agriculture. Now, it remains highly relevant to ask ourselves what are the lessons to be drawn from the programme’s efforts and outcomes?

Firstly, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and partner MDF have developed the five capabilities (5Cs) model which was used throughout the programme to monitor Capacity Building efforts of Local Partners. This model looks at their capability to commit and act, to deliver on development objectives, to relate and attract, to adapt and self-renew and finally to achieve coherence. Like any model, this one has its set of flaws, yet the important thing is how it is applied to the context in which it is used. As such, a research by partner MDF has found a positive correlation between improved 5C results and increased capacity efforts by the UEC thus emphasising the relevance of sustained outputs to beneficiaries of the programme.

SPARK consistently delivered activities which abide by the core goal and component of MFSII of Capacity Building, whereby entrepreneur coaching, training and workshop programmes have been carried out: almost 24 000 (potential) entrepreneurs have been trained. It was SPARK’s mission to develop regional markets, whilst also actively supporting vulnerable groups. Therefore to complement the above mentioned activities, online and offline business plan competitions were organized; matchmaking introductions for businesses with finance were made; access to online platforms for business information was delivered and various networking sessions successfully attracted a significant amount of attendees. Indeed, there where over 30 000 attendees and close to 14 000 attendees from vulnerable groups to the networking sessions made available.

On the other hand, in analysing aggregate outcome results, the number of SMEs started and grown is considerably bigger than what was targeted. However, the number of jobs created has been much lower than targeted, although still about 3700 jobs have been created. The number of jobs per supported business is therefore lower than expected. Several reasons can account for this. Indeed, in many countries SPARK had to cope with crisis situations such as the air strikes in Gaza, tensions in Burundi, and the Ebola outbreak in Liberia. These difficulties saw business incubation centres forced to scale down, although SPARK continued offering support to partners and showing its commitment to working in conflict states, when so many others left. Also, the latter result can be explained by the fact that existing businesses that receive support actually reduce their staff. Or again it can be explained by the fact that most individuals joining the programme are young graduates seeking to improve their resume in the meantime of finding a job elsewhere. Major take-away lessons were to focus more on existing businesses instead of creating new ones and to work more with people with an experience in the entrepreneurial world instead of “newbies” or at least future project should target young people looking to make a career with their own business.

In spite of the obstacles, some major outcomes have been accomplished. In Kosovo for instance, SPARK found that projects on ICT were most durable and most importantly, after years of lobbying, it was finally managed to get approval for a new fiscal law package which lowers VAT for ICT equipment which is very promising for the sector. In addition, SPARK’s partner events were some of the first to bring together opposing factions within the country at business fairs and networking events, demonstrating how enterprise can be a unifying factor.

In a survey on partnership satisfaction, overall, the local partners’ responses were positive, with close to 90% reporting their satisfaction with SPARK’s work. Over 60% of partners also felt that SPARK had successfully helped them find additional funding which they struggled to get independently. All in all, partners agreed they improved their contributions to the sustainable economic development of their fragile and/or conflict affected countries through the promotion of entrepreneurship and job creation.

In sum, in a dynamic and ever-changing environment which was difficult to navigate “SPARK has managed to bring across the relevance of private sector development in fragile states and has managed to decrease partners’ dependence on aid money; but there is still much to be done” as indicated by Mr. Richter. In the wake of this programme, SPARK has been able to start new projects such as the Branson Scholarship in Liberia or Agri-business in Burundi, thus showing how the programme has been a catalyst for more entrepreneurial work.