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10 trends of social innovation in Kenya

Author: Jordan Junge
Published Date: 3 July 2015

Last month I went to Kenya to host the second event in our Africa series, and once again, I found myself standing with several innovators from across Africa and the world in a hot field. This time I wasn’t in Soweto, but in Dandora- a slum in Eastern Nairobi that takes it name after the rubbish dump in the area, one of the largest in Africa.

Here amidst the hustle and bustle of the slum with crowded muddy roads and informal settlements, we found an oasis of peace and calm- Dandora’s only garden, facilitated by a community organisation called Mustard Seeds. Mustard Seeds embodies the spirit of social innovation in Kenya- inspirational individuals who are willing to do whatever it takes to change the system in which they live.

In recent years, Nairobi has become the innovation hub in Africa- exploding with new social and technological innovations. We came here to work with Amani Institute and Hivos to learn from Nairobi and explore the conditions and components that are needed to create innovation ecosystems. Here are some of my personal reflections on social innovation in Kenya:

1. Tired of waiting

In Kenya, as in many emerging markets, the government is not meeting basic needs or services. Kenya is one of the most unequal countries in sub-saharan Africa with 46% of people living in poverty according to UNICEF. Lotta Lekvall, the Director of Nätverkstan, a Swedish cultural and civil society organisation recently reflected that ‘the Kenyan government shows low, if any, interest in putting sustainable programs and incentives in place. Corruption is still a problem. Where the state doesn’t take responsibility, civil society and international organizations will.’

 Many innovators are tired of waiting for the government to take action and are changing their own communities, like Mustard Seeds. Mustard Seeds began when Charles Gachanga and his neighbours decided that enough was enough and it was up to them to clean up their neighbourhood. They worked, without pay for 3 months, to replace the drainage system, plant the garden, and paint the houses and local school. They now take turns each day to look after the garden and provide security at night, relying on a donation from the neighbours who are delighted with the results. This has not only spurred on other courtyards that are looking to create their own gardens, but also sparked a conversation with not only the landlords of courtyards, but with the city council and UNHabitat, on how Dandora can change one garden at a time.

2. The role of the arts

We heard from the photographer Boniface Mwangi, the founder of the art hub, PAWA254. Boniface rose to fame following the post-election violence in 2007 when his photos captured the violence and fear that spread throughout the country, and made international headlines. Boniface told us that ‘a picture can say more than a thousand words ever could’. The arts in Nairobi are helping to push the dialogue on social justice and relationships in ways that traditional reports and documents struggle with.

On a visit to the PAWA254 arts hub, we talked with young women who are using film and photography to speak out against violence against women and patriarchy, and we saw puppets at GoDown Arts Centre that are being used in the only political satire show in Kenya.

Clarissa Maracci, who also came to the first event of the Africa series in Johannesburg, came back to share her experiences of running Sauti Ya Mtaa (Voices from the Streets) – an organization encouraging and empowering young people from the slums to have a say in their community on social issues by using graffiti, art, photos and writing. One of their projects is painting graffiti murals in the slums using open-source data about education, public spending and corruption, which empowers the community to make data-driven arguments to their elected officials.

3. The role of hubs 

From the multinational company Uber at the back of Nairobi Garage to tech start-ups like ELimu at the iHub who are working to address the high rates of teacher absenteeism and innovate the national school curriculum, it seems that all people involved in social innovation in Nairobi are connected to a hub.

Part of this is practical- in a city like Nairobi with sky-high rents and start up costs; hubs and innovation spaces are essential. Hubs not only provide physical infrastructure like reliable Wi-Fi and a backup generator that’s necessary with frequent blackouts, these spaces also provide a community, which is essential in providing peer support for new entrepreneurs and innovators. See the highlights report from the event for a more detailed analysis on the faces and spaces in Nairobi’s innovation ecosystem.

The impact of this community is very tangible from the iHub musical band to the nightly debates and workshops that are hosted at various hubs across the city.

4. Empowering women

Whilst we heard from lots of brilliant women at our event, hub membership and innovation is still skewed towards men. For example, only 16% of iHub members are women. Siasa Place, who attended the event, is creating Africa’s first political hub expressly dedicated to collaboratively creating an environment that enables the women and youth of Kenya to directly engage with the political mainstream in a meaningful way. They will not only provide a community and support network for female innovators- but they also hope to facilitate further dialogue about women in the country. 

5. Honest learning                                  

We opened the event with a FailFaire, the 3rd time that Amani have hosted the event. The event sold out within 24 hours and the popularity proved that there is a strong desire to find space for real and honest conversations. In a country with limited funding opportunities, there is a strong competitive element to the innovation scene that can prevent and inhibit collaboration. More opportunities are needed to openly share and learn from each other about what went not so well, as well as our successes.

6. Infrastructure is key

Whilst Nairobi is rising as a hub for innovation, the lack of key and basic infrastructure in the city provides daily challenges for innovators. Our schedule for the week was dictated not by people’s availability, but by traffic. At busy times during the day- you can spend up to 5 hours trying to travel 5km- something that has not helped by the giant potholes that suddenly became lakes with the rains. As Boniface told us- ‘During the rainy season- it’s better to buy a boat!’

Although Kenyans have done a remarkable job adapting to these challenges and accepting that traffic is just a part of life- one begins to question how much productivity is lost due to the traffic and potholes? Imagine a city where people didn’t waste half their day trying to get to work.

7. The challenge of sustainability

In recent years there has been an influx of initial seed or donor funding and incubator programmes in Kenya, however, many organisations are still struggling to be sustainable. Beyond the initial few years, many organisations including the innovation hubs are facing hard questions about their future. One of the most popular workshops during the event was on the Business Model Canvas by Gautam Shah- proving that there’s a real desire not just for initial funds but also for the skills and knowledge on how to better prepare for the future.

8. It’s about recycling

I spoke with Ugo who founded the Restart Project in the UK after living in Kenya for 3 years. Ugo told me that he was amazed at the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of Kenyans that saw electronic items having not just a first life- but in many cases a second, third, fourth and even fifth life. He saw people recycling old Nokia phones to be used in hospital equipment in Kenya. The Restart Project draws on this inspiration and encourages Europeans to not just buy the latest models but to find a new life for their electronics by holding restart projects in different countries.

This recycling isn’t limited to electronics, but to all aspects of life in Kenya. I spoke with Lee Razo from Rafikisoft who told me that he sees a lot of famers using old mosquito nets to help separate seedlings among other creative solutions to limited resources.

9.A desire to learn form across Africa

There was a real desire to learn from other African contexts and spread this learning. 

Despite the FIFA corruption scandal breaking headlines during the week, our event and the Failfaire was trending on twitter in Kenya. The dichotomy of innovation in Africa opposed to the corrupt officials in Switzerland gave us a glimpse of the desire to learn within the continent and a snapshot of how the world could potentially be shifting.

However, there are still barriers to encouraging collaboration across the continent. For example- there’s only one direct flight a day from Lagos to Nairobi- the two African powerhouses- contrasted with the fact that there’s over 30 flights a day from New York to LA. More needs to be done to facilitate this learning and exchange- whether its through events like this one or encouraging governments to adopt and facilitate more transnational cooperation and exchanges as part of their innovation policies.

10. Change can be quick in Africa

Many in the social innovation world still use MPesa as ‘the’ case study from Kenya and Africa. In Nairobi, however, in Africa, Mpesa is no longer regarded as an innovation, but rather just a part of life. It’s time to find the new Mpesa and shout about it to the world. That might be another mobile project like M-Kopa, which is helping spread affordable solar energy throughout the region, or MFarm, which directly links farmers to buyers and posts the latest market prices to empower farmers- or it might be something else entirely.

In just 3 days, we visited and heard from so many inspiring individuals and organisations who are working in new and creative ways to change and empower their communities. Some are very local, like Plastic Fantastic, others use digital tools and spread quickly, like Ushahidi. Change is quick in this country, and the West is definitely too slow at keeping up!