August 23, 2017
Unearthing Hidden Treasures in Africa’s Impoverished Communities
‘Necessity is the Mother of Invention’. If you really need to do something, you will think of a way to accomplish it. This is why, for the poorest of the poor, phrases such as ‘micro-credit’ or ‘social impact’ might not mean much because those living in the furthest reaches of society are merely fighting for survival. It is a sad irony that amongst the most impoverished in Africa holds enormous creativity, ingenuity and innovation. The crowded urban streets and shanty towns in Africa represent not only untapped human capital and potential on a vast scale, but a route out of poverty. In his opening remarks at a June 2017 World Bank conference on urbanization in Africa, Harvard University Professor of Economic Edward Glaesar said, “Cities are the best path we know out of poverty. They are the best transformers of civilizations.”
Clearly these districts have their problems: inadequate healthcare, lack of clean water, scant opportunities in education and government indifference all contribute to the taxing daily life of most of their inhabitants. But the lack of resources inspires social innovation, allowing many residents of these areas to progress while finding employment and, in the long run, hope. While these neighbourhoods are not necessarily models of sustainable development, what has unfolded in many African cities offer lessons for other cities around the world as they struggle with the influx of new migrants. Energy, water and health are just a few sectors in which necessity and creativity converge to improve lives and create new jobs.
The inventiveness that stems from poverty in Africa’s slums has a unique character. Those thriving on their innovations and enterprise are creating products and services that are needed by their local communities: ‘slum solutions for slum challenges’. The phrase may seem grotesque but these entrepreneurs reflect the importance and need of social innovation on the continent. Governments in Africa are increasingly recognising the intrinsic value of slum economic development and working proactively to support it.
In June 2017, the Ghanaian government announced its plans to launch the ‘Zongo Development Fund’, which seeks to support innovators in Zongo communities (Zongo itself is a word derived from the Hausa language, meaning ‘a settlement of Hausa-speaking traders’). These densely populated settlements have been a feature of Ghana’s society for well over a hundred years – the oldest appeared in 1836 in Nima. These societies are by definition teeming with enterprise, innovators and trade. The new Zongo Development Fund will support economic development in the Zongo communities, with a focus on establishing factories to support economic development, in addition to improving access to education and improving sanitation.
In Angola, I’ve transformed an old soap factory located in Luanda’s largest settlement into a place for creative exploration. An innovation hub with a difference: it is an incubator and accelerator, co-working space, makerspace and cultural connector all in one. Fábrica de Sabão sets out to support and help build innovation-led communities in Africa – including training, workshops, networking and on-site facilities for societies’ marginalized entrepreneurs and non-conventional innovations. And you know what? It's working! The hub is like a living organism, growing organically each day as more and more youth and women from the slums come together with forward-thinking Angolan mentors in ways they never would have before.
Helping small local entrepreneurs from the grassroots contributes to unleash potential and help people build a better future for themselves. This also lends itself to the ‘made in Africa’ factor, which has the power to change what people buy. In the case of impoverished urban environments, there is a huge need for goods and services that are affordable and produced locally. One of our Fábrica de Sabão success stories is a young housewife named Augusta – she saw an increasing demand for fresh local juice. Her solution, with limited resources, was to turn a disused silo into a juice bar which is now a highly successful commercial enterprise, serving fresh natural juice across her community. She now sees that it is possible to expand her small business across the city. There are at least ten other active projects underway in Fábrica de Sabão, from solar-powered mobile phone chargers and electronic door access systems to furniture, jewelry, and pottery. All from recycled materials from the surrounding areas.
Turning Africa’s slums into economic powerhouses is a challenging task – but with around a third of the world’s population living in them, it cannot be ignored. Given half the chance, ordinary hard-working people fighting to survive through sheer grit and creativity, will do everything in their power to succeed. They understand what poverty looks like and feels like – and they have nothing to lose by throwing everything in to it. This energy, optimism – and need – is the substance that entrepreneurs are made of. Where there is need, there is opportunity. It is through these segments of society that Africa can innovate, add value and diversify.