Jonathan Hera

Jonathan Hera is Director, Investments, for the Transition To Scale program for Grand Challenges Canada, leading the overall funding cycle of impact investments to ensure sustainable and aligned social and financial outcomes.


Ammara Niyaz


On International Women’s Day, we celebrate the social, economic and political achievement of women, and pledge to take action to accelerate gender parity.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize that supporting gender equality and the rights of women and girls is an important objective of international development. Development innovation can accelerate the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5, which is focused on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls.

Grand Challenges Canada, funded by the Government of Canada, is dedicated to supporting bold ideas with big impact in global health. One way that we are working to reduce gender disparity is by enabling more women innovators and entrepreneurs to save and improve lives in the developing world.

Since our launch in 2010, Grand Challenges Canada has supported a pipeline of over 700 innovations in more than 80 countries. About 90% of these are seed investments at proof of concept and 10% are transitioning to scale; Grand Challenges Canada’s “Transition to Scale” program supports innovators from Canada and low- and middle-income countries who are ready to take their bold ideas to big impact in global health.

To be eligible for the Transition to Scale program, innovators must have met a number of key milestones, and must have solutions that are ready to sustainably go to scale. At this stage, operational, financial, and health impact due diligence is also conducted for all innovators and social enterprises.

With the help of Criterion Institute, over the past two years Grand Challenges Canada has introduced a gender lens strategy and approach (see also Criterion’s State of the Field report, released in the fall of 2015).

Grand Challenges Canada believes that a gender-lens approach is more likely to seed positive and sustainable socio-economic change. Using a gender lens to understand and address the power dynamics between men and women in different contexts can highlight gaps, and can create innovations that are more responsive to the specific needs and priorities of men and women (and boys and girls).

We analysed a total of 70 Transition to Scale investments in 78 projects totaling $64.2M CAD. We found that 52% of our Transition to Scale investments have been made in women-led enterprises. In comparison, a study found that in the United States, only 18% of venture-funded companies had at least one female founder.

We also examined the types of capital that we provide to women-led enterprises. What we found was interesting: 53.7% of grant funds at Transition to Scale were awarded to women-led enterprises, whereas male-led enterprises received 57.1% of non-grant financing.

In addition, we found that innovations led by women take a more holistic and systems-based approach to addressing health challenges. These can also be more service-based innovations which are more in-tune with grant financing than products that follow a commercial scaling path.

Some examples:

Led by Dr. Victoria Mutiso, the Africa Mental Health Foundation’s project is a service-based, woman-led innovation that is focused on expanding mental health care by enlisting traditional healers, faith healers and community health workers to help detect mental illness. With the support of Grand Challenges Canada, the project anticipates training 160 healers and workers, identifying more than 6,000 suspected cases of mental illness, and developing a community mental health care model that can be scaled up and implemented across Kenya.

Dr. Victoria Mutiso leads a community psycho-education session in a school.

Dr. Victoria Mutiso leads a community psycho-education session in a school.

Led by Dr. Etheldreda Nakimuli-Mpungu, Makerere University’s Group Support Psychotherapy project is another example of a service-based, woman-led project focused on closing the treatment gap that exists for mental health services in low- and middle-income countries. The evidence-based project trains community health workers engaged in HIV/AIDS care to reach and assist the highest number of mental health patients. When scaled up, 325,000 people could experience Group Support Psychotherapy care and over 65,000 could experience significant improvements in depression and functioning by 2030.

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Women attending a Group Psychotherapy Support session in Paibona village, Uganda.

Led by Audra Renyi, Hearing Access World’s innovative distribution model for hearing aids is an example of a woman-led social enterprise that is taking a more holistic approach to addressing a health challenge. Hearing Access World takes into account the whole value chain when implementing their solution to address hearing loss, which involves training local entrepreneurs to quickly screen and equip people in need with high-quality hearing aids at a fraction of the usual cost. Based on the success of their pilot project, Grand Challenges Canada is supporting the scale-up of their innovative approach across Latin America.

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Audra Renyi conducts a hearing screening in Guatemala.

Led by Megan White Mukuria, ZanaAfrica is a woman-led social enterprise which has received risk capital to expand access to safe, high-quality, and affordable sanitary pads in Kenya. ZanaAfrica uses a holistic approach to instill behavior change around sanitary pads and deliver critical and accurate reproductive and menstrual health information. The funding will enable ZanaAfrica to scale up production of their pads, drive sales growth, and integrate impact evaluation, reaching an anticipated 150,000 beneficiaries by the end of 2016.

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Dr. Peter A. Singer (far left) and Megan White Mukuria (far right) visiting ZanaAfrica’s offices in Nairobi, Kenya.

Diversity goes beyond simply adding women to senior management positions or boards of directors. An enterprise should assess their needs (such as gaps within senior management and current board) and the value that adding a new individual will bring. This can include educational or professional expertise, or ethnic or geographic diversity that will enable and drive the organization to have greater success and impact.

Grand Challenges Canada is working to reduce gender disparity by enabling more women innovators and entrepreneurs to save and improve lives. On International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate the achievements of women and reflect on the progress we’ve made in achieving gender equality, and pledge to help accelerate gender parity.


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