Green IT

Innovation in waiting

Read time 10min 40sec

When Dr Andrew Venter picked up the slip of paper on his desk, he didn't expect to read 'The premier wants to speak to you'. But Dr Zweli Mkhize, premier of KwaZulu-Natal, wanted very much to know what the CEO of Wildlands Conservation Trust had done to his community.

This followed the transformation Mkhize had seen in Willowfontein, near Pietermaritzburg, where community members had eagerly taken to the tree-planting and recycling initiatives run by Wildlands. These 'green-preneurs', 'tree-preneurs' and 'waste-preneurs' grow trees and food, and collect recycling, which they exchange for groceries, clothes, water tanks, solar water heaters, bicycles and even school fees.

Many of the participants have used the initiative to develop their own small businesses or find ways of funding everything from university education to driving lessons.

While sustainable community initiatives that bring environmental, social and economic benefits aren't easy to come by, it's becoming a reality in areas across SA, as residents partner with companies, NGOs and other groups to build solutions from the inside out.

Wildlands, for example, organised a tree-planting initiative in KwaJobe, northern KZN, as one of its volunteer day activities back in 2004. Facilitators taught community members to grow indigenous trees and the event eventually grew into a project that has spread across SA, initially known as 'Indigenous Trees for Life', and now 'Sustainable Communities'.

The programme runs in over 30 communities, and recently saw the addition of MTN Business as a partner, along with Qhubeka, a project that distributes bicycles to rural areas to cut down on the long distances travelled on foot.

According to Serame Taukobong, chief marketing officer of MTN SA, the initiative will use MTN communication packages to provide bicycles to schoolchildren and community members that have either grown 100 trees or collected over 1 500kg of recycling.

MTN Business enterprise voice, data and ISP solutions are offered at a customised rate based on the total spend of the individual or company, and a portion of the discounted fee is then contributed towards the Qhubeka initiative.

“Of the 16 million schoolchildren in SA, approximately 12 million walk to school. Of these, 500 000 walk more than two hours each way, spending four hours getting to school and back each day,” notes Taukobong.

On the ground, however, there's constant innovation in the way the programme actually works.

Andrew Venter, CEO, Wildlands Conservation Trust

Providing bicycles can help cut the time it takes for children to walk to school by up to 75%, allowing them to get there on time and with more energy, so they can concentrate better, he explains.

Venter says they'd like to eventually distribute 20 000 to 30 000 bikes a year, and with enough participation from business, this might just be possible.

It could also lead to the kind of dynamic innovation Wildlands has seen with its Sustainable Communities programme, which many have used as a springboard to better their circumstances.

One example is successful tree grower Thulisile Mohale, a lead facilitator for the tree-preneur programme, who spotted the potential to start a small business.

As a facilitator, Mohale spent time at the special stores set up by Wildlands where tree-preneurs trade their tree credits for goods. She noticed that bedspreads and school uniforms were particularly popular, and so began making them to sell as part of the programme.

According to Wildlands, Mohale bought her own material, borrowed a friend's sewing machine, and began teaching a group of the tree-preneurs how to sew. Wildlands committed to purchasing the bedspreads from Mohale and selling them in the trading marketplaces.

Another innovator is Jabulani Ntuli, whose family went from living on a child grant to getting involved in the tree-preneur programme. Wildlands explains on its Web site that planting out the growing seedlings into potting bags or plastic containers limits tree-preneurs from growing large amounts of trees, as these aren't easy to find in great quantities. Ntuli decided to help the family grow more trees by designing and making a potting bag machine.

While Ntuli died in March last year, he managed to show his family how to use the machine, and they continue to make the bags for the thousands of trees they are growing.

Other community members have used trees to pay for driving lessons or laptops. One father of seven living in Waterloo Township in Durban asked that instead of trading his trees for the usual goods, it be used to pay his daughter's registration fees for a BComm Accounting degree.

Bag of tricks

Projects that combine poverty alleviation, skills development and social and environmental sustainability are growing in scope and diversity across the continent. In the case of an initiative that reduces the electricity, time and cost spent on cooking, understanding community needs was pivotal.

The Wonderbag project is a collaborative effort by Microsoft, innovation firm Frog, and municipalities in Newcastle, Umzunduzi (Pietermaritzburg), and Riebeek-Wes and Riebeek Kasteel in the Western Cape, to encourage community members to adopt more energy-efficient cooking methods.

The bags work by insulating heat, so after bringing food to the boil, users can turn off the stove, place the pot in the bag, and leave the Wonderbag to complete the cooking process. This saves money that would've been spent on electricity, and frees up time usually spent keeping an eye on the stove.

Community members receive fully-subsidised Wonderbags which, if used everyday, can save them up to 50% of what they would've spent on fuel, whether electricity, coal, gas or paraffin. It also reduces by half the carbon dioxide emissions produced, and isn't a fire hazard as is often the case with paraffin stoves.

The project will trade on the European Carbon Exchange, generating revenue from carbon credits gained through the saving of electricity and reduced emissions, which can then be used to buy more Wonderbags. Trained field agents from within the community distribute the bags, and keep track of their use on mobile phones.

According to Emile Rossouw, senior business development manager at Frog, which developed the mobile application for the initiative, field agents use a USSD application to record data on their own phones. They capture the details of Wonderbag users and monitor how much energy they save, and the information is loaded onto a database hosted by Microsoft on its cloud Azure platform.

“From there, data is available via a Web interface to authorised Wonderbag representatives, sponsors and partners,” adds Rossouw. “It's used to generate reports that can help to calculate the CO2 emissions being saved, and findings are sent to the UN to receive carbon rebates,” he explains.

The field agents, who receive additional income from capturing the Wonderbag information, also collect recipients' cellphone numbers and other details. This allows the organisers to send users information like recipes and food products that can be used with the bag.

Rossouw says Frog decided to use USSD technology because these messages can run on any GSM phone in SA. “Technology-wise we applied our minds to what would work for the field agents. Before choosing the technology, we found out what kind of devices they have, and the common denominator was low-end GSM phones.”

He adds that ease of use was also a major factor. “You want to register the Wonderbag information at the point of distribution and do it quickly. We've come up with a way of validating and getting additional information from the numbers people give you, such as an ID number, which tells you gender and age.”

Frog brought the registration process down to less than 90 seconds, says Rossouw.

Open dialogue

Robert Fabricant, VP of creative at Frog, says it's critical to work with systems and groups that are already familiar to the community, such as NGOs or organisations that have built up a presence there.

He adds that Frog focuses on helping bring about small changes that are within people's control, which don't require a lot of outside change.

“We never go into a situation where we're designing a solution from scratch. We always build on existing systems and behaviours.”

Frog's goal is for residents to not only bring the Wonderbag into their homes, but to adopt certain behaviours they can sustain over time, says Fabricant. “The goal is to get someone to the point where they build on small changes to create a scale effect, and to link together behaviour across multiple participants.”

Fabricant points to what he calls a “behaviour chain”, with technology playing a role in the behaviour change of the agents, and those who work with and distribute the Wonderbags, so everyone sees the value being created in real-time.

“All the way up through that behaviour chain we think how we can make the experience as useful as possible at every level, and improve value.”

He explains that Frog generally starts off by working with partner organisations that are deeply embedded in the community and have already established trust. They then consider how to improve a solution's design to support and sustain behaviour change.

“We want to go into places where there's not just a good idea that has reasonable traction; but where we can engage a community.

“We bring certain tools to the table to catalyse the process and begin a conversation. We lean on these skills to move towards open-ended design questions, and away from very specific, regimented ones.”

Fabricant notes that designers often put too much belief in one idea or technology, or celebrate a new idea before it's really resonated with the group involved.

“Because of these challenges we rely on the community, and try to see through their eyes to understand what's meaningful. The best way to stay on course is to keep an open mind and not be scared of scrapping a whole idea.”

We never go into a situation where we're designing a solution from scratch.

Robert Fabricant, head of creative, Frog

According to Venter, while it's important to get people's buy-in, it isn't always that simple in practice. “The first thing we do when we have a concept is to get the community's blessing to roll it out. But the communities we work in are often so poor, hungry and desperate that they'll say yes to just about anything you bring to them.

“On the ground, however, there's constant innovation in the way the programme actually works - how the trees are grown, where they're grown...it's very different from one community to the next.”

Venter adds that once projects are in place, people begin to show initiative. “What I'm seeing as we get into more mature communities is self-driven innovation, where individuals take the process and adapt it. We can then take what we learn from that concept and embed it into the operation, and take it to others.”

He gives the example of the tree-preneurs bartering food they grow for food which is purchased and transported to the trading stores, which is an inefficient process. “We began to look at ways of introducing food vouchers, which people could take and redeem at stores.

“At first we thought of using the local spazas, as they're easy to get to. But once we began talking to people who would use the vouchers, they were against the idea. They said the spazas overcharged them, and that they would rather go to regular cash-and-carry stores, and find a way to get there.

“This was interesting because it's not what we would have done while designing the concept.”

Venter puts an emphasis on training people whenever resources are available, as it provides skills they can use to uplift themselves.

“The general perception of poor communities is that they're poor because they're lazy, and that they should find a job. But the reality is that in SA, people are in those circumstances because they're trapped in those circumstances, either by their level of education and training, or by the opportunities they've had.

“What we have found is that if you give people an opportunity, 99% of the time they'll grasp it.”

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