Implementing Effective Innovation Challenges: Three Lessons from the Last Mile Distribution Sector

Last mile distributors (LMDs) are key to serving traditionally overlooked communities across emerging markets. Whether they’re distributing improved cookstoves, off-grid solar products or water filters, these companies bring life-changing products directly to the world’s hardest-to-reach consumers.

We believe that LMDs are proven innovators, and we see lots of innovation happening across the sector. However, these innovations have not been systematically sourced, supported and replicated – which is one reason LMDs have often found themselves reinventing the wheel. The Global Distributors Collective (GDC)’s Innovation Challenge is an effort to address this. We have run two Innovation Challenges since 2018, which were open exclusively to last mile distributors and their third party partners. These challenges have supported nine innovations, providing them with technical assistance and an average of US $41,000 in funding over an average period of 13 months.

We took a unique approach to these Innovation Challenges, by basing the eligibility criteria on the replicability of the innovation(s), and the willingness of pilot teams to open-source the insights, learnings and resources they developed through the challenges. We hoped to go beyond the traditional goal of sourcing and supporting individual solutions, and instead leverage this approach to drive change across the sector as a whole. This article explores the successes and difficulties we experienced in working toward this goal, and highlights key lessons learned. We hope these insights are valuable to intermediaries seeking to run impactful innovation challenges – and to other organisations working to support LMDs and other businesses working at the last mile.