How Capital, Interactions and Support make Social Open Innovations Successful

From founding to operation to expansion and growth, capital, interactions and support are critical success factors in any enterprise. They are even more important in social enterprises, that is, entrepreneurial organizations that solve societal problems through innovative products and services. Social enterprises seek to achieve a balance between profit and continually addressing the social challenge. Hence, their operations are hinged upon successful identification and deployment of innovations.

Innovation depicts changes in products and processes that define and drive improvement in organizations, communities and the world at large. Most social enterprises thrive on open innovation, or what we call social open innovation. Social open innovation essentially describes a situation whereby members of the society are actively involved with technology in the processes of developing, deploying and evaluating products and services that are aimed at solving social problems.

This article highlights how capital, interactions and support enhance successful social open innovation within two contexts: Burro Battery, a private social enterprise, and Grassroots Innovation Festival, a component of India’s government-driven social innovation system.

Burro Battery Company – Founded in 2008 by Whit Alexander, Burro started business by providing cheaper and lighter-weight rechargeable batteries that are suited for devices like transistor radios and flashlights to rural areas in Ghana. Burro has diversified extensively, with products like battery chargers, cooking stoves, manual irrigation pumps, home electronics, solar solutions and other innovative products now included in its portfolio. The company evolved its innovation approach from social innovation to open innovation.

The Grassroots Innovation Festival of India - Officially called Festival of Innovation (FOIN), it is an initiative of the office of the President of India to recognize, respect and reward grassroots innovation and facilitate a supportive ecosystem for innovations that are inclusive and responsive to the aspirations of the common people. The annual festival holds in March at India’s presidential palace and it features national grassroots innovation and outstanding traditional knowledge awards, several roundtables focussed on myriads of topics including medical science and biotechnology, sustainable agricultural inputs, financing of innovation-based start-ups, education, etc.

The two cases were critically examined based on i) the flow of capital, ii) the interactions they have with the society, and iii) the support they receive from government.

The Flow of Capital

How is capital raised for to facilitate social open innovation within these two contexts of successful examples?

The initial capital for Burro was from personal savings and finance from Whit’s social network. To cut costs, the company leveraged interns and volunteers to support its activities in its early days. The company has seized growth opportunities offered by the desire of its customers to participate in additional businesses. This growth was aided by capital from large businesses such as Microsoft (Whit’s former employer) and some Chinese firms. Burro relies on a network of direct sales representatives to serve their customers and has about twenty staff.

The FOIN facilitated capital flow through meetings of national innovation clubs, Gandhian Young Technological Innovation (GYTI) awards, and interaction with leaders of India’s banking and financial sectors. The Innovation Club serves as a platform where engineers develop innovation based on the experiences, investment and support of successful businesses as well as the business opportunities acquired from diverse critical minds within the society. The GYTI awards were set up to inspire i) cutting-edge innovations, ii) innovations with great social impact, and iii) frugal innovations (innovations that produce more from less resources, for many people).

Interaction with society

Burro’s primary approach to working with the society on technological improvements were collaborative product design and development (contributors from the society work in tandem with the company, leading to cheaper and faster product development); and formation of a strong innovation network (the company offers incentives to its network of contributors who are involved in developing business processes rather than products). The company relies on customer feedback on the usage of products and its distribution network functions as a strong and closely knit platform for continuous improvement of sales and distribution processes.

The grassroots innovation exhibition is the main channel for interaction among participants at FOIN. This festival highlights the potentials of economically poor people who are rich in knowledge. A social innovative private organization, the Honey Bee Network (HBN), facilitates interactions among various groups of participants beyond the festival. Examples of social open innovation contexts found in FOIN (and facilitated by HBN) include specific improvement requests from customers to producers; independent persons and organizations creating products to solve a social problem; and engineers working with partners to develop products, among others.

Support and Regulation

Burro has enjoyed support from several organizations across the world. Its battery design and performance were greatly enhanced by Greenlight Planet and the NGO, Engineers without Borders. It received a lot of visibility through the World Bank’s “Lighting Africa Meeting” and its nomination as an official partner in one of Stanford University’s flagship programmes. Its link with Microsoft enhanced its reputation while foreign-trained Ghanaian citizens helped bridge human capital shortages. The Ghanaian Government regulates the business ecosystem to ensure that profit-oriented social enterprises like Burro do not have to compete unfairly with fully profit-oriented businesses. Due to the bureaucracy and often-cumbersome nature of relating with governments, Burro keeps their relationships with government to a minimum.

By hosting FOIN in the presidential palace and personally participating in the events, it is evident that open innovation is a priority of the President of India. Several small roundtables are held as part of the events during the festival. Roundtables in India’s Grassroots Innovation Festival are platforms to bring together Indian grassroots innovators, Indian experts and professors, locals involved in respective fields and foreign social innovation experts to discuss potentials and problems in each field. Through these roundtables, lessons are gleaned on how several countries used educational, technological, institutional and cultural creativity to successfully mobilize innovative solutions for various social challenges. The outcomes from these interactions guide the government’s policy direction.

What makes social open innovation successful?

For social enterprises to be successful, they should embrace and seek the inputs of the people that they serve towards improving their products and services. Continuous social open innovation is critical to tackle social problems and yet, earning profits in sustainable ways. Social enterprises should access relevant new technologies and knowledge from across the world to improve their products and processes. In social innovation policies, the active involvement of top actors within the policy space buoys the confidence of the people and stimulates their zeal to find solutions to social problems and simultaneously drive sustainable economic growth. Furthermore, the prospect of earning national awards and recognition for social open innovation encourages a pursuit of excellence and innovation within the polity.


Jinhyo Joseph Yun, Abiodun A. Egbetoku and Xiaofei Zhao 2019. How Does a Social Open Innovation Succeed? Learning from Burro Battery and Grassroots Innovation Festival of India. Science, Technology & Society 24(1): 122–143 DOI: 10.1177/0971721818806101