Innovation does not equate complex technology. Every day, communities across Africa find creative ways to contribute meaningfully to their lives with or without technology. Their challenges become a source of creativity that pushes them to try different approaches with common tools, limited resources and the will to live, and fashion opportunities to transform their lives. The world is a connection of value chains where one needs to carve out a niche.
In Agbobloshie, Ghana, for instance, a circular economy — a continuous process of creating value while limiting impact on the planet — is defying the critics. “The most toxic place on earth”, Agbobloshie, is an urban-scale open-air manufactory. Youthful creativity is turning scraps of metal found in rubbish piles into key components of a manufacturing hub. About 10,000-20,000 youth re-introduce copper wires and still-functional parts of discarded electronic equipment into the economy. From refurbished electronic goods to pots and pans, to name a few.
How might we re-imagine communities so they engage with a purpose to learn? Ultimately, the ability to re-imagine the “Africa we want” through our own culture and vision is a critical step in ensuring that socio-economic transformation does not leave more people behind.
To jumpstart this shift, we need to embark on a joint project; connecting doers and thinkers of our formal and informal economies to the benefit of the communities in which they and extend the value chain. Street traders have skills that students in marketing, logistics, entrepreneurship, and economics, to name a few, need to learn to design and implement policies for the Africa we have. I have always been fascinated by the ability of a group of people to offer different goods and services according to weather, location and events. We have a responsibility to harness their skills to educate, to transform and to thrive through a transformed education system that creates doers, solvers and active participants.
Through this project, doers, traders, manufacturers, and thinkers expand their knowledge of each other while creating a mechanism to design with the “Africa we have”. In a circular economy, we continue to embrace opportunities to transform communities along existing value chains while re-thinking a product’s end life. It is about expanding creative opportunities for youth and women with homegrown solutions.
Homegrown solutions to spark our socio-economic transformation are present on the continent. For instance, architect Diébédo Francis Kéré creating new opportunities to re-imagining African design and architecture with regional materials and Pierre Thiam’s revival of a five-thousand-year-old grain, fonio, to re-engineer life in the Sahara. Yet we have been lured to believe that imported technology and external constructs will resolve all our ills. We need to wake up to the smell of scrap metal turned into a pot, plastic bottles into containers for sobolo (bissap), Johnny Walker bottles for peanut containers, and so on.
Trash sifters in Argentina and South Africa play a critical role in the formal economy by connecting thier informal activities into the recycling value chain. Out of necessity, they create job opportunities for their communities thereby alleviating pressure on the formal economy. This is not unusual. The majority of Africans have participated in the informal economy and those jobs account for 93 per cent of new jobs created. It is big business with limited incentives to formalise. We have informal structures shaping our economies. This is the reality. The challenge is to capture the informality in its essence, then redefine formal economies for the purpose that we have at hand: transforming Africa’s 55 countries.
It is incumbent on many more of us to re-imagine our economies, designing participatory approaches that look beyond the “toxic” label. Innovators in communities are making a real difference in the everyday lives of millions striving to make do with the minimal resources of their communities. We should all be doing the same.
The Africa we have provides the basis for a full-scale implementation of a circular economy. Agbobloshie when fully harnessed will become the centre of the circular economy for electronics and manufacturing. It is possible beyond our current imagination. It is happening. Let’s pool our resources to make it happen for us. We can do it. Let’s make it happen now.