Tag Archives: innovation

Can the iHub’s Success be Replicated?

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There is a lot of talk about whether or not M-Pesa’s success  in mobile money can be replicated in other African countries (the best answer thus far comes from this GSMA research, which basically says yes in East African, and not yet outside of the region.)  There is a similar conversation happening in the context of innovation hubs, where Kenya has yet again set the gold standard with the iHub.  The iHub “is part open community workspace (co-working), part vector for investors and VCs and part incubator.”  It is has spun off several new companies, registered thousands of members, and become the meeting place in East Africa for the international tech community. This wild success has inspired similar innovation hubs to sprout up across the continent, and many are struggling to live up to the high expectations set in Nairobi.

I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the Bongo Hive in Zambia twice now.  The Bongo Hive is a innovation hub in the spirit of the iHub, which aspires to support the tech community in Zambia. It was started about one year ago and is run under the inspiring,
volunteer leadership of Lukonga Lindunda.   During my visits, it was clear that the key difference between the Bongo Hive and the iHub is fairly simple: in Kenya, there already was a tech community before the iHub, and this community was craving a gathering space.  In Zambia, there is no existing tech community, and therefore the Bongo Hive has to build the community at the same time as creating a space – which results in an entirely different purpose and set of challenges than those that faced the creators of the iHub.

Kenya benefits from a relatively well-educated urban population and an entrepreneurial environment driven in no small part by M-Pesa.    In Zambia, on the other hand, many of the those who come to the tech hub are young, fresh out of university, and with few job prospects because of the high unemployment in the country. Therefore, the greatest success of the Bongo Hive, thus far, has been providing a space for these young graduates to join an informal learning environment where they can practice programming skills, and subsequently gain employable skills.  In fact, the Bongo Hive has thus far spent next to nothing, living off of in-kind donations of a few computers and a temporary space, and yet has had real impact on the lives of several young people  who are now gainfully employed, thanks to the experience gained by simply showing up and programming.  These results, in my opinion, show an extremely strong return on investment.  I can only imagine the impact that this space could have with a bit of funding for more computers and a permanent space.

The innovation hubs I’ve seen outside of Kenya, including the BongoHive, the iLab in Liberia (one I have yet to visit, but which I have followed closely through my dear friend Kate Cummings), and the Ayiti Living Lab in Haiti, realize that they there are operating in a different context than Nairobi and therefore have a different mandate.  Theirs is one of social change, of building a community that is not yet tangible, and equally, of building the confidence of young people who are so often deprived of learning critical skills during their formal education.  The Bongo Hive benefits greatly from the support of the iHub founders, and many big names in the African tech community have already made their way to Lusaka, to inspire and work with young Zambians who wouldn’t have had an opportunity to meet role models from companies such as Google and Ushahidi otherwise.  So while it may not be replication, it is impact, one step at a time.

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Mixing in patience & and a little sweat…Thoughts on Community Development part 2

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In my last post, I wrote about creating community ownership of projects, and focused on the need to ground truth innovation in the design phase.   Now, moving onto my second observation from Cite Soleil, I will discuss sweat equity in the implementation process.

What is sweat equity?  I chose this term to depict the fact that ownership does not necessary mean that communities have to pay for it.  It does, almost always, mean that the project will take more time than planned.  One example provided to me by my friend Sabina:  An NGO decided to build a school in the community.  They purchased the materials, but made it clear that the school must be built by the community themselves, and by members of multiple blocs to overcome trust issues (see previous post.)   The building of the school started, and stopped, started again, and stopped again.  Each time, the NGO did not step in to continue the building, and their consistency made it clear that the community alone was responsible for the completion of the school.  When it was finished, the community did not only use the school, but it became a full community center, voluntarily used for community events and social gatherings.  On the contrary, a child nutrition center right next door cannot seem to get anyone to come to the center.  Why?  They built the center without any community buy-in, and failed to recognize that it would have been much more sustainable to provide income-generating activities within the area (which offers very little formal employment) so that parents could afford to feed their children on their own.

Another example is this Eiffel Tower.  The picture was started by a young and humble graffiti artist, Snake, who will paint upon request for little to no commission, as long as the procurer provides the spray paint.  However, spray paint is relatively expensive, and this Eiffel Tower, unfortunately, is not yet finished because the community members who asked for it have run out of money for paint, for the time being.  And yet, they still find pride in the picture, which is for the community and by the community, and they are confident that it will be finished someday.  Sabina, who still has some American sensibilities despite being integrated with into the Haitain community, has been tempted to simply buy the paint and get it finished.  Hwoever, she knows very well that if she did, the picture would be ruined, and would no longer have any meaning for the community.  So she’ll just have to wait, too.

Working in the Red Zone…Thoughts on Community Development, part 1

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Community development takes time.  I think we all know this, to some degree, and yet the message often gets lost in the world of development aid with our funding cycles, program goals, and an understandable desire to scale quickly.  I recently had a chance to reflect on the necessity, and difficulty, of creating community ownership of development projects during a trip to Haiti. I had the privilege to spend time with a good friend, an American woman living in Cite Soleil.  Cite Soleil is an area made famous by the documentary film the Ghosts of Cite Soleil, which depicted a violent gang warzone.  The area, made of up possibly 400,000 residents and including both rural and urban areas, is still considered one monolithic neighborhood and a “red zone” by many organizations, (meaning that they consider it not safe for international staff.)  And yet, development organizations continue to work in the area, many realizing that these negative depictions do not reflect the reality of a community that may have systemic problems but that also has families, children, entrepreneurs, schools, and incredible amount of potential.

Helping Cite Soleil, however, is not easy.   It is not one community but an area made of up many blocs.  There is a lack of trust between blocs, and a general lack of trust of outsiders – paint an NGO logo on a school and you can almost guarantee that no one will enter.  This lack of trust stems, in part, from the history of politicians favoring certain groups at certain times, providing gifts and money to some in order to cause conflict with others (a text-book example of the classic divide and rule tactic often used by rent-seeking states seeking to control a population.)

I’m reminded of a blog post I wrote a while ago on the message of the movie Where the Wild Things Are, which is a story about the “risks of making promises you can’t keep and of trying to solve the problems of people you don’t understand.”  Outside projects, no matter how well-planned or funded, will easily fail when faced with the reality of community dynamics, since “relationships and human emotions are complex and messy,” in any society.

So how can well-intentioned outsiders help in such an environment of mistrust?  Although I won’t claim to have all of the answers, I will share two lessons that I observed clearly during my recent visits.  The first, ground truthing innovation in the design phase, is discussed here, and the second, sweat equity in the implementation process, will be discussed in the following post.

Ground truthing innovation in the design phase:   Brilliant people in the developed world can conceptualize and develop a seemingly infinite number of interesting products to help poor areas such as Cite Soleil, and our tendency is often to build, make sure it works, and then scale.  However, testing products within the community (much like the concept of rapid prototyping in product design) can avoid costly deployments of technologies that simply won’t be accepted by the community.  A good example of this idea being implemented is the work of Haiti Communitere, an organization that provides a space for international organizations to test new ideas with the community before they are deployed.   One idea, to improve shipping containers that have been used as UN offices since the earthquake, was rejected by the community members who tested it and simply stated, This is not a house.

On the other hand, a house being built out of recycled materials from around the area is being embraced by those Haitians who are participating in the building of the house.  This house is built out of the 1000s of styrofoam containers left in canals and roads all over Port-au-Prince, and yet through clever design and involvement of the community, it is becoming a real home.  Therefore, it is not only well-designed to be sustainable and earthquake-resistant, but it will also be an comfortable place for a family to choose to live in with dignity.

This process of ground truthing innovation serves multiple purposes: it involves the community in the design process which helps to create community buy-in & ownership; it helps to avoid costly deployments of technologies that will be rejected by the community that we are intending to help; and it stimulates further innovation by providing (in the case of Haiti Communtere) open-source ideas that can be modified and adapted to work in other communities.  This creates a low-cost scaling mechanism which can create a larger amount of impact, over time, by creating a ripple effect of innovation in communities across Haiti.  Of course, this may also prove to be difficult for organizations to accept since it will be harder to take credit for and to evaluate the impact of open-source development projects, especially if the real impact will come from other people implementing your idea without you even knowing about it.  Yet, if our goal is to create sustainable change with limited resources, then we may have to challenge some of ideas of how to evaluate impact.   I would love examples or thoughts on how your organization is handling these challenges.