10 trends of social innovation in South Africa

Jordan Junge reflects on SIX’s recent event in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Standing in a hot field in Soweto, we saw the vision for the future. There would be a juice bar in the corner, Bob Marley blasting out of the speakers, and people of all ages from the community hand picking their fruit and veg. There would be a lively atmosphere and a real desire to connect people with their food. This, unfortunately, is still only a vision- with the exception of Bob Marley.

In November, I travelled to South Africa for our first event in the region and I had the opportunity to explore and experience social innovation in action such as this urban farm in Soweto. 

Our event, ‘Reimagining Relationships: How citizens collaborate to change the systems in which they live’ brought together brought the social innovation and development communities in Johannesburg to explore how to empower citizens to change, adapt and improve the systems in which they live and share best practices and brilliant failures. 

Through different case studies and site visits at the event in Johannesburg and during our visit to Cape Town, I was able to witness some exciting trends of social innovation in South Africa: 

1.     It’s driven by determination

Walking around the urban farm in Soweto and standing amongst the lettuce, we heard from Sakhile and Pellay who run the farm. Despite the challenges of lack of funding and resources – they’re excited and determined to continue their vision and want to shift culture.

They want to change the way people view and consume their food and shift attitudes of farming away from something that’s done out of desperation to a sustainable and vital part of society. They’re working with designers from the DESIS lab at the University of Johannesburg to do just that. It’s early days, but exciting ones nonetheless.    

2.     It’s about innovating public services

We visited the Groot Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, home of the first successful human heart transfer, to visit the new Innovation Hub- the first inhouse healthcare innovation hub in Africa- supported by the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In a few months, this site will be radically transformed into a trendy and mobile lab, but at the moment- it’s just a shell with blue hospital walls and a few chairs.  However, this shell is quickly becoming one of the most popular rooms of the hospital- in the hour we were there- dozens of people filtered in and out of the room curious to learn more.

The Bertha Centre has engaged with all of the staff at the Groot Shuur Hospital- from surgeons, cleaners, nurses, to the management- to understand the challenges within the hospital and help people think of innovative strategies to solve them. By enabling people with the processes, methods and ability to design solutions- it’s real innovation in practice.

3.     It’s about improving access

Gustav Praekelt, of the Praekelt Foundation, spoke at our event about his work to increase mobile access across Africa. One of the most interesting ways they’re doing this is through Wikipedia Zero. Wikipedia Zero enables anyone with a basic mobile phone to access Wikipedia, free of charge. No longer do you need data access, a smart phone or a laptop to access the encyclopaedia- you just need to know the free code and the platform will enable you to access a basic, text-based version of Wikipedia. This has the power to transform the way people access information and knowledge.

4.  It’s about reaching people in new ways

We met with Fundza Literacy Trust, a charity who is sparking a reading revolution in young people across the country. As only 8% of schools in South Africa have libraries- they realised that they needed to think of new and exciting ways to engage children and get them reading.  

Fundza is a new platform that allows children and young people to access books- particularly fun to read fictional books- in new ways- on their phones, smartphones or laptops. They’ve started producing their own stories and encouraging their readers to publish theirs and enabling a whole new generation of readers and writers. 

5.     It’s about the community

In Philippi Village, one of the biggest townships in Cape Town, there is a bustling square with a large construction site that promises to change the way the community engages with the entrepreneurship and innovation community. This site, pioneered by the Bertha Centre & Bertha Foundation in partnership with the Business Place will be a new Sustainable Entrepreneurial Neighbourhood that will support local entrepreneurs and change the economy and culture of the impoverished township.

6.     It’s about human-centred, community based approaches

We also visited Khulisa’s site in Westbury township to visit their diversion programme.

Khulisa’s diversion programme is interesting as it uses a human-centred approach to justice and recognises that most perpetrators of violence have been victims themselves. Instead of placing individuals in prison, the court sends individuals to the diversion programme- which focuses on individuals and equips them with life skills and understanding the reasoning behind violence. They work with both the individuals and the community on these restorative justice programmes and have been tremendously successful with low numbers of participants reoffending in stark contrast with the national average.  

This is an interesting example of what happens when the state outsources public services to nongovernmental organisations and how new approaches can be more successful for the community.  

7.     It’s about the hidden voices

We gave each participant a copy of one of four photo books entitled ‘Wake up, This is Joburg’. This series created by Tanya Zach and Mark Lewis and tells the stories of ten ordinary, interesting, odd or outrageous individuals living within the city- whose voices are hidden.

These are personal stories- they are intended to uncover lessor know things about the city and its people. These are stories about entrepreneurship, diversity, hardship, reuse, globalisation, survival and above all, innovation.

8.     It’s about using resources more effectively

In the middle of Philippi Village there is an inconspicuous shipping container that contains a fish farm capable of producing 400 thousand tons of fish a year and irrigating a community garden. This tiny container has the capability to change the way the community accesses fresh food. 

Alan Flemming, creator of the Fish Farm, explains the farm- ‘My focus is not to grow fish. It is to grow people. The Fish Farm is simply a tool to achieve total community transformation – economic, moral and social. Of course, the wonderful by-products of The Fish Farm, beyond empowered people with a dignified occupation, is a profitable low-carbon footprint cash crop grown close to where the vast majority of people live- in the cities’.

9.     It’s about entrepreneurs

We heard from dozens of inspiring entrepreneurs who are trying to change and improve their lives and their communities. Whether it was a young man who was helping to expedite the long queues at the public clinic by collecting people’s prescriptions on his bicycle for a small fee to Camilla who now runs innovation tours around her local township in Cape Town to shed a better light on her community- there is no shortage of inspiration. But as Tony Elumelu, founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation, recently wrote in the Economist’s The World in 2015- ‘young entrepreneurs and those they inspire are the lifeblood of Africa’s rise’.

10.     It’s about learning from others

There was a real desire from participants at our event to learn from others- particularly in the global south. Although social problems are the same around the world- whether housing shortages, food insecurity, poor education, unemployment or governments not listening to their citizens- these problems manifest themselves in different ways. However, countries in Africa & Latin America share many of the same problems- and therefore, might share some of the same solutions.

Carla Cipolla from the DESIS network in Brazil shared the story of Regina, a maid living in a favela in Rio. Regina saw that despite the food insecurity in the community, there were a lot of leftovers that were being thrown away. She began to take this ‘food waste’ and turn into delicious & nutritious dishes that could be bought cheaply and feed the community. After visiting Soweto and learning of the high levels of obesity and dependence on junk food, Carla saw no reason why there couldn’t be a South African Regina.