Innovation Edge

Supporting bold ideas that aim to transform early life experiences for children, aged 0-6, living in poverty

Discovering new ways to expose every child to creative learning experiences in their first few years of life is a major opportunity to reshape educational outcomes in South Africa.

Innovation Edge

Innovation Edge


Innovation Edge is an innovation catalyst and social impact investor. They take a hands-on approach to supporting unconventional ideas that aim to transform early life experiences for children, aged 0 to 6, living in poverty.

Innovation Edge was founded in 2014 through a partnership between the Omidyar Network, the UBS Optimus Foundation, the DG Murray Trust, the FirstRand Foundation and the ELMA Foundation.

Innovation Edge investment, Sifunda, turns routine shopping trips into learning adventures with the use of colourful, playful in-store signage. The initiative was designed on the premise that everyday environments can be used to spark simple, loving, brain-building interactions between parents and young children.


Driving quality early childhood care and education (ECCE) services to all children presents an one-of-a-kind opportunity to significantly alter the course of South Africa, by influencing the current trajectories of our youngest citizens.

Read more about why early childhood development is a key aspect of driving social change in South Africa here.

Approximately 4 million young children in South Africa live in conditions of poverty, with limited access to early childhood care and education services. Despite the fact that the foundations for lifelong health, learning and self-control are formed during the first five years of life, South Africa currently invests less than 2% of its education budget in pre-school learning programmes.

There is, however, unprecedented political interest in early childhood development (ECD) and commitment to scale up ECD service delivery significantly in the next few years. But, there are major challenges that need to be overcome to make that happen: substantial support is required to ensure sufficient national and provincial capacitation; the design and development of service models that can operate at scale; overcoming major human resource limitations; and developing of financing models to meet goal of universal access to early learning services. 

What is more, the past two decades have rapidly expanded scientific understanding of how the human brain develops in a child’s early years, and the lifelong impact early brain development has on health, education and social outcomes. But the implications of new knowledge in neuroscience have been slow to translate into developments in policy or practice.  Positioned to start filling this gap, Innovation Edge exists to bring new ways of thinking and doing to all aspects of early learning: pedagogy, systems efficiency, delivery models, financing mechanisms, human resourcing, business processes, technology applications and entrepreneurial practices, amongst other yet-to-be-defined categories.

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A classroom being installed for the Earlybird Educare@Work, which is South Africa’s first high-quality, socially inclusive, employer-sponsored educare provider. Earlybird functions as a social enterprise: a fixed portion of revenue generated from their workplace-based educare sites is used to subsidise the provision of the same high-quality educare model at preschool centres in low-income communities.


Innovation Edge’s investment areas are focused on enabling early life experiences that build sturdy starting blocks for all children they need to begin school with equal advantage.

Specifically, they support innovative projects designed to:

  • Offer children daily brain-building interactions
  • Develop quality preschool programmes
  • Improve early health care and nutrition of children
  • Enhance the safety and security of children

As an innovation catalyst and investment platform, Innovation Edge:

1. Connect
Innovation Edge connects people with diverse interests and expertise as well as disparate concepts and across geographic and sectoral borders to stimulate innovation in the field of early childhood development. They believe that the combination of their understanding of social and systemic challenges combined with broad cross-sectoral engagement sparks innovation.

“Disruptive innovation requires different ways of thinking. IE therefore seeks diverse expertise to contribute to the development, implementation, evaluation and scale of innovation for early learning.” – Sonja Giese (Founding Director of Innovation Edge)

2. Enable
Innovation Edge source, co-create and pivot inventive solutions that are relevant and scalable. They provide strategic, financial and hands-on support from ideation to proof of concept (POC), and actively experiment with multiple pathways to scale.  Specifically, their support includes:

  • Funding of up to R1 million (±$70k), over a period of up to 24 months
  • Up to 15% of investment value for evaluation
  • Consultation on customer-centric project design, implementation and impact evaluation
  • Marketing and communications expertise
  • Workshops and in-person meetings
  • Access to our international early childhood innovation and investor networks
  • Discounted access to the 2.5 day Think Future event

3. Communicate
Innovation Edge share insights on innovation products and processes to contribute to a collective understanding of what has and has not worked. They also actively seek opportunities to communicate the importance of positive early life experiences to influence perspective and drive behaviour change.

How Innovation Edge generates ideas

Innovation Edge experiments with various techniques for generating ideas that have innovation potential. These techniques include ‘Potluck Sessions’, which bring together individuals who have demonstrated creative problem-solving skills within their particular sectors and encourage them to apply their minds to resolving early learning problems through facilitated brainstorming. The sessions are essentially a gathering of unlike minds and they stimulate new ways of thinking about challenges and opportunities. Another technique is ‘ECD Hackathons’, which bring together computer programmers and early childhood professionals to find innovative digital solutions to early learning challenges.

The Innovation Edge has a continually open call for applications; they host an innovation exchange; look at repurposing innovations; regularly post challenges; they look for ‘positive deviance’ that might highlight potential innovations; attend pitch sessions at other innovation events; present at academic institutions; and do purposive networking and connecting – this last approach being the most effective in the co-generation of great ideas according to Innovation Edge.

“We’ve seen at first hand that the best ideas happen in the spaces between diverse sectors, as different perspectives collide to spark new ways of thinking: 65% of our current projects involve collaboration across traditional sectoral boundaries. We have also found that the development and testing of innovation leads to further innovation as teams attempt to solve unanticipated challenges during the proof of concept stage”. – Sonja Giese

Planning for scale begins as early as the proof-of-concept stage, with the need to consider which key stakeholders would need to buy into the innovation and what information would be needed to persuade them; the things that may be important to them may not be the things that initially drive the idea.  Innovation Edge does not exit from an investment until it has graduated its investees to partner with a scaling funder or where a definite pathway to scale has been identified. This could be through the private sector, the public sector or a combination of both of them.

Getting innovations into the field as quickly as possible is also key to success according to Innovation Edge. They achieve this by providing a continuum of support that includes strategic, financial, technical and networking assistance to guide innovations from the ideation stage to proof of concept; its involvement in each innovation can range from light touch to very hands-on direct project management.

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Since its establishment, Innovation Edge has attracted more than 650 ideas and has invested in 36 of these. It has also seen a ten-fold increase in applications from outside of the traditional sector.

“We are well networked within the South African development and government sectors. We have, however, had to spend time strengthening our networks in innovation, accelerator and incubator communities; and in the startup, venture capital, angel and impact investing spaces. Our portfolio now provides important conversation starters, which open doors to interesting cross-sectoral collaboration.”From the Innovation Edge 1 000 Days Report

Other achievements include the development and testing of the Early Learning Outcome Measure (ELOM) – a South African population based child assessment tool that determines whether children are developmentally on track for their age and whether an Early Childhood Development (ECD) programme is effective in preparing children for entry into school, and identifies areas for programmatic improvement. It is the first of its kind to take into account the cultural and economic background of the population. The recent recognition of ELOM in a peer review journal is a significant step in establishing the credibility of the tool, raising awareness of its availability, and generating interest in the data being produced.

And following on from the success of its inaugural Think Future event in 2018, Innovation Edge is hosting Think Future 2 in 2019 – an unconventional event where change-makers from diverse industries and geographies are able to draw inspiration from global forces, collaborate and connect to catalyse strong early life foundations for children.


Think Future highlights 2017 (2018?)

In 2018, after being incubated by DGMT for four years, Innovation Edge registered with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission as a Not-for-Profit Company (NPC). Innovation Edge is now looking to expand its reach and share its expertise in other parts of Africa. Moving forward, through its growing portfolio, it also plans to develop deeper expertise and influence in certain areas of work, through aggregating lessons across investments. It will be doing a deep dive into three such areas:

  1. Understanding the drivers of behaviour change for effective parenting and workforce interventions: working with global leaders in this field, Innovation Edge is interested in understanding the factors that facilitate knowledge transfer and the conversion of knowledge into practice.
  2. Building, pivoting and leveraging a variety of platforms for scale: actively exploring the potential to build, leverage and pivot platforms for transformational impact at scale.
  3. Processing and presenting data as the backbone of improved efficiency and effectiveness across all levels of innovation: through applied systems innovation, Innovation Edge aims to demonstrate how data can be used to systematically identify and address key constraints to the delivery of high-quality services at scale in SA.
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