Accelerating justice innovation in South Africa: the case of Baobab Connect

Looking back over the last 12 months of justice innovation in South Africa, one of my major highlights has been the opportunity to work with the regional winner of the Innovating Justice Challenge 2018, Baobab Connect.

HiiLs Global Legal Hackathon in South Africa 

Baobab is a true product of HiiL’s processes to help entrepreneurs develop innovative answers to pressing justice needs. It was first created in February 2018, by a team at our Global Legal Hackathon in Johannesburg, South Africa. Led by co-founders Guy Stern and Khokela Daula, the Baobab team threw themselves into the challenge. Their vision was to put ‘self-help’ legal videos into the hands of ordinary South African citizens. This simple concept, they felt, could inform tens of thousands of South African’s struggling with common and confusing legal problems. At that time, they didn’t win although the judges were impressed with their prototype application. 

Baobab joins our cohort 

After the Global Legal Hackathon, Baobab continued to develop its multilingual product. They applied to the Innovating Justice Challenge in 2018, where they quickly progressed to the regional finals. Once again judges were so impressed by the team, their vision and ambition, that Baobab was declared the overall winners in Southern Africa. And so, Baobab was accepted into the HiiL Justice Accelerator

The successful Baobab team with Ellen Tacoma, Director of the HiiL Justice Accelerator at the Johanessburg Regional Finals

User-centred design iteration 

We want innovations like Baobab to reach their full potential as dependable justice services in society. With my colleagues who run the HiiL Justice Accelerator, both in South Africa and in The Hague, we provide entrepreneurs and innovators with access to seed funding and business support. We get innovators to refine their ideas. We especially emphasise and demonstrate incorporating user feedback quickly into product design. For Baobab, this methodology led to dramatic results.

Evidence-based justice innovation 

Today, Baobab is a very different proposition to the design that won the Innovating Justice Challenge. Using HiiL’s methodology, the Baobab team were looking beyond simple metrics such as video views, and asking tough questions about whether or not their materials were helping people to prevent or resolve their justice needs. After several months spent sitting down with people as they watched the video content and analysing their reactions, Baobab made a tough decision to change direction entirely. In early 2018 that the Baobab team established that the videos alone were not working. People needed more than a tutorial: they also needed personal advice to resolve their problems.

“Field testing the videos made us realise that most people wanted to be connected with someone,” explains Guy, “We had already built something to help clients communicate with lawyers with a company called Legal Connection but had found no real traction for it at the time. When we applied it to the people we were exposed to in the access to justice community, we found the product-market fit.” 

A Community Paralegal at work collecting files from parents to document undocumented children in Eastern Cape

Pivoting based on user feedback 

The core product is now Baobab Connect which is a case management platform for community paralegals that help them to work more efficiently than was previously possible. 

Baobab Connect uses an intuitive, user-friendly interface to connect paralegals with NGOs and pro-bono lawyers, capturing documents and court-admissible materials without adding to the paralegal’s workload.

The role of paralegals in South Africa

In South Africa, people in rural or township areas with justice problems are likely to enlist the help of those at the frontline of justice provision: a patchwork of informal and unregulated paralegals known as Community Advice Officers (CAOs). 

Much of the work CAO´s do is manual: filling out forms or writing letters to pro-bono lawyers or one of the civil society organisations which fund and support their offices. It’s widely understood that this is inefficient, and makes it very hard to collect good quality data about their work. For example, simple questions between CAOs and their legal advisors can take days or weeks to answer. A better understanding of where CAO’s time is spent could improve the quality of training and resources available to them.

Fieldwork with human rights org, SCAT to document undocumented children.

While there have been attempts to digitise CAOs’ work and capture more information about their cases, the challenge is to be “user-friendly”. A working solution that adds to CAO´s already stretched workload will not be readily adopted. This was the gap that Guy spotted, which he believed Legal Connection’s technology could fill.

Tech and data that is easy to use 

What made the technology compelling is that it featured a full case management system, but one that is built around a simple chat interface which is instantly familiar and easy-to-use. When documents and information are shared between parties, they are automatically collected and stored in a digital case file. Details of the types of cases and whether or not they get resolved are being recorded intuitively, providing rich data for future interventions in the sector.

Best of all, Baobab Connect is a true “platform”. It’s designed in such a way that other organisations can deliver complementary services into the same interface. For example, if CAOs or their legal contacts need to create a Protection Order using a service such as JusDraft, they can create it in the same interface.

Financial sustainability for startups

HiiL has worked closely with Guy to bring Baobab to the attention of key stakeholders who work with paralegals, and those who could offer services on the platform, and so far the pivot seems to be working. The platform has been well received by those who work with CAOs, and trials are ongoing with the CAOs themselves to make the interface easier and more intuitive to use. There are challenges – while many organisations can see how it would deliver a return on any investment, it takes time to complete procurements in the sector and to secure the funding required. Baobab is low cost, it can’t, unfortunately, be free and remain sustainable in the long term. My colleagues and I are determined to help the innovators in our program build business models that work and can scale.

Impact at scale 

One of the most mature relationships Guy has nurtured is with The Children’s Institute at the University of South Africa. As part of its work, The Children’s Institute addresses the problems that around 500,000 undocumented children in South Africa face every day. Without documents, it is difficult to access social grants, education services, health services or child support payments from absent parents. Baobab helps outreach workers to log cases, communicate with lawyers and, ultimately, resolve this pressing justice need.

It’s still early days for Guy, but what he’s built from nothing in just 18 months is beyond impressive. His journey reflects the benefits of an environment which supports experimentation and user validation, and is 100% focussed on positive impact for citizens in need. As he graduates from the Justice Accelerator, we are enormously proud of his work, and will continue to offer the support we can to help Baobab grow and improve. He will remain part of our global community of justice innovators for life.

Jacquelien Bunt, Deputy Director of Charities of NPL and the HiiL Justice Accelerator team fueling up after meetings on scaling the sustainable hub in Johanessburg.

HiiL’s work in Southern Africa is supported by the Nationale Postcode Loterij of The Netherlands.

The next chance to scout and support more talents like Guy and his team is coming up. On 7th November we are hosting the Regional Finals of 2019 in Johannesburg. We have invited 9 different justice innovations; some solve justice needs relating to domestic violence and gender-based violence, others to family justice, SME´s, employment disputes, and crime. More updates to come.

If you have any questions about this event, please contact

To connect with the founder of Baobab Connect, Guy Stern please contact him on LinkedIn.