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Sustainable entrepeneurship in Africa: Africa might just be positioned to cope best in a resource-constrained world.

William Kamkwamba became an African entrepreneurship superstar when international media caught on to his exceptional engineering skills. In 2001, only 14 years old and with limited formal schooling, he managed to build a fully functioning windmill to provide his family with electricity, basing the construction on pictures found in books at the local library and using mainly scrap metal and wood. The Malawi native later drew international attention as a speaker at the inspiring online TED conferences, which led in turn to a coauthored best selling book on his life and achievements (The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind). And he's still not coasting: William continues inventing and fundraising for various projects in his home village.

William Kamkwamba's story is uniquely inspiring. He stakes out a path that hopefully many will follow, both in developing and in developed countries. Most importantly, he represents an image of Africa and Africans that rejects the pity and guilty commonly invoked by most news stories out of the continent. In fact, he represents the opposite--and may simultaneously be offering solutions to poverty, degradation, starvation, aid dependency, and corruption.

But exactly how many clever entrepreneurs like him might it take to address the development needs of Africa, and would it even be ecologically possible? This question of scaleability is so important that it is worth looking into. William's fame--his NGO, his blog, sales of his book, plus a documentary due later this year--has generated funds to provide his village with wind and solar power, irrigation equipment for agriculture, malaria nets, improved sanitation, and wells for drinking water, among other things. Indeed, many of the development needs of the village's 60 families have been addressed.

However, these fantastic achievements remain drops in a vast ocean when looking at the country as a whole, not to mention the entire continent. Malawi's development challenges are immense. Forty percent of the population of 13 million live in poverty; 20 percent of children under the age of five are undernourished; adult illiteracy is nearly 30 percent; and an estimated 1 million are HIV-positive, to name a few. If the country only had a brigade of, say, 10,000 innovators and entrepreneurs just like William Kamkwamba who were equally successful at fundraising, Malawi's problems might be solved.

A Third Industrial Revolution?

The phrase "sustainable entrepreneurship" evokes a lot and little at the same time. Sustainability has become such an overused term that it barely has any concrete meaning any more. Entrepreneurship is a bit clearer: We envision a successful businessman owning his or her own company and achieving economic success through sacrificing blood, sweat, and tears. The fact that the term entrepreneurship is so closely related to conventional economic measures of success hints at how difficult it might be to combine the idea with true social and environmental responsibility. Entrepreneurship in its current meaning is a product of our current cultural paradigm, which holds that economic growth (measured nationally by GDP) is a sign of success and consumerism equates with wellbeing.

Efforts to spread sustainable entrepreneurship in developing countries (such as the train-the-trainer workshop "Smart Start-up: Sustainable Entrepreneurship in Africa," co-organized by the Swedish Government and the UNEP/Wuppertal Institute Centre for Cleaner Production and Consumption in April) focus on "triple bottom line" thinking. For an entrepreneur to be successful, he or she must take into consideration social, environmental, and economic factors in equal measure. However, training materials on sustainable entrepreneurship still mainly stress the potential for making a fortune, rather than on helping to heal the planet or contributing to non-monetary wealth of communities.


In addition, social entrepreneurship organizations, net-works, and funders have accumulated lots of related experiences over the last few years, but they still need to incorporate a deeper ecological understanding of working within planetary limits. The main difference in these approaches is the emphasis environmental concerns are given. Michael Voll-man of the social entrepreneurship organization Ashoka explains that, in their terminology, environmental work is one of six areas within which social entrepreneurship projects are carried out, as opposed to an over-arching theme in sustainable entrepreneurship.

And that means, in turn, that another trail must be blazed--perhaps the trail marked by William Kamkwamba.

Eco-innovation in Africa

All over Africa, individual entrepreneurs and local businesses are making small but significant steps in a positive direction. Kissima Basse, for example, is an entrepreneur based in Mopti, Mali, who is enjoying considerable success importing energy-efficient vapor air coolers (brumisateurs) from France. Future project plans include cultivating organic fair-trade cotton and using it for garment production locally. This strategy will provide the locals with environmentally superior goods and obviate the current high-transport production model, in which the cheap raw material is exported and the more expensive ready-made garments are later imported, at a cost that is much higher both to the customer and the environment. "The people that own industries in Mali don't care about the environment," he laments. "I want to use my influence to change this, and make Mali green." Coming from a family of entrepreneurs which always has had a focus on the social benefits that a business should generate, Kissima is also running a program that provides schooling to street children and is in the planning stage of building a rural hospital (paid for out of the profits of his business). "It's thanks to my mother," he explains. "At my mother's small textile dye business in Bamako she's always provided literacy training for her female employees. She taught me how important it is to share wealth with those who have less, and to do my little bit to make life better for my fellow countrymen and-women." Those African entrepreneurs who share this thinking rarely do it for marketing purposes, nor to claim corporate social responsibility, but simply because doing good is good.


As the financial crisis in Europe and North America has led to a massive homecoming of emigrants, many are bringing with them bright ideas regarding innovation and sustainable entrepreneurship. The entrepreneurs Tunji Abdul and Kabir Audu returned to Nigeria after 10 years abroad, bursting with ideas on how to improve living standards and run more environmentally conscious businesses in their home country. Their start-up, the real estate group HCI, is now developing the first "sustainable" high-rise in Nigeria, a mixed-use waterfront development in the country's economic center, Lagos. These buildings will follow the principles of resource and energy efficiency, low-energy materials, ecologically and socially sensitive land use, and reduced greenhouse emissions.

A lot of eco-innovation entrepreneurship is also born out of aid-and development agencies and organizations and mainly deals with implementing eco-efficient technologies already developed elsewhere. An example is the World Bank-led project "Lighting Africa," which in collaboration with local and international industries supports the private sector to "develop, accelerate, and sustain the market for modern off-grid lighting technologies tailored to the needs of African consumers." Lighting Africa's main innovation is applying energy-efficient light-emitting diode (LED) lights along with related technologies such as solar street lights, aiming to help electrify rural areas and replace costly and polluting kerosene while making electric light available for more people. These projects are also executed in cooperation with civil society and NGOs. Cycling Out of Poverty, for instance, is a Dutch NGO that provides microcredit loans in a number of African countries for establishing bicycle-centered businesses. Along with the funding they also offer training in bicycle maintenance and repair and help in adapting traditional bicycles for commercial purposes. Among the successful businesses that have been born out of this project is a private ambulance service in Uganda, and tricycles for transport of small school children in Ghana.

Certain governments around Africa are also seeking innovation as they pursue development. Rwanda is a good example: Only 15 years ago, the country was ravaged by civil war and genocide, but today is emerging as a regional hub for information and communications technologies and is focusing the rebuilding of its economy on becoming a knowledge-based economy as it works simultaneously toward its development goals. "If we have to wait for every body, for every household in Rwanda to have good drinking water and sufficient food and shelter," says Albert Butare, the Rwandan minister for energy and communications, "we shall wait forever."

Some examples of technological innovation are really transformational. A well-known example is that of the extremely innovative Kenyan mobile banking system M-Pesa, which is a technological frog-leap so impressive that it overshadows most mobile banking efforts in the developed world. Nine million of the total Kenyan population of 16 million subscribe to the service, which allows people to pay bills with their mobile phones and use ATMs without having an ATM card or even a bank account. This system obviates the physical infrastructure of traditional banks; the energy needed to build, light, and cool the buildings and to run the banking hardware would far outweigh the environmental costs of the virtual banking network. Local entrepreneurs are even using this technology for rural development when, for instance, companies install water wells in rural villages at no initial cost and are later paid on an as-you-go basis through mobile banking.

Population and Peak Oil

If necessity is the mother of invention, then Africa is ripe for groundbreaking, mind-boggling inventions. Environmental issues include desertification, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and loss of agricultural productivity due to climate change, along with increasing waste-related challenges. Social problems are also plentiful if the Millennium Development Goals are taken as an index of the need. The approaching demographic explosion in Africa is expected to worsen those challenges: The current African population of around 1 billion is expected to reach around 1.7 billion by the year 2050. Growing populations have already hampered many countries in sub-Saharan Africa in improving child mortality and other wellbeing indices.

The coming decades will also see decreasing oil reserves globally, meaning that petroleum-based activities will become more expensive. According to data from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the average price for petroleum in 2000 was US$27.60 per barrel; 10 years later it had risen to $75.49. (In between the price fluctuated wildly, peaking at over $130 per barrel in the summer of 2008). This peak was indirectly one of the causes of the hike in the price of staple foods around the world that helped provoke riots and political instability in various African countries. The jury is still out on when exactly peak oil will happen, but one study for the U.S. Army warned that in a worst-case scenario there could be a massive oil shortage, 10 million barrels per day, by 2015.

Shortages of this severity will lead to huge differences in development possibilities, in the traditional understanding of the term, between countries with stronger or weaker economies. Rising oil prices will affect African economies in two main ways. First, they will mean that using petrol or diesel for running machinery and vehicles will become more costly and therefore less viable for cash-poor economies, and could further force governments to spend increasing parts of their budgets on fuel, rather than urgent development needs such as schools and health care. Second, global transport will also become more expensive, meaning that importing goods from faraway countries will in most cases make them significantly more expensive and put them out of reach of many Africans.

Peak oil and development challenges are therefore extremely important to take into consideration for entrepreneurs, since it is the sort of evolution that will determine whether their businesses are winners or losers in the marketplace. Innovation will have to focus on locally available raw materials to the greatest extent possible and involve as little transport as possible. Africa's low dependency on oil--the seven relatively populous countries of Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda have about the same population as the United States but consume less than one-sixtieth the oil--could thus be a blessing in disguise, although this comparative advantage could easily be lost if development and innovation patterns focus on "catching-up" strategies that emulate Western development.

Decoupling Innovation and Harm

One strategy for leapfrogging in a direction that decouples development and economic growth from environmental damage is what inventor Saul Griffith calls "heirloom design." Griffith describes an heirloom design as "something that will not only last through your lifetime and into the next genera tion, but that you also desire to keep that long, because it's beautiful, functional, and timeless"--products that have lives beyond fads and fashion and that respond to true human needs, not just desires.

A key feature of heirloom designs is that they are designed to be fixed, not thrown out, which in turn demands a lot more skilled labor during their lifetimes for maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. Again, Africa is in a position to show the developed world the way to go. When designing such products, entrepreneurs would have to take into consideration that repair manuals must be provided, electronic components should be replaced with mechanical ones when possible (less toxic, easier to repair), and spare parts must be easily available for decades, according to Griffith.

In Africa, where labor is abundant and cash less so, it makes even more sense to invent durable products that can be repaired and upgraded, rather than cheap goods that are discarded after use. Economic constraints mean that most consumer goods are already being used much more efficiently in developing countries through reuse and repairs. In developed countries labor is so costly that it is often cheaper to buy a new product than to repair an old one. (So limited have practical fixing skills become here in the West that many socio-envi-ronmental movements in developed countries, such as Transition Towns, have "re-skilling" as a main pillar.)

Heirloom design products can thus generate significant employment beyond the production phase. "In developing countries, all innovation must, by default, focus on generating employment," says Dr. Sherwat Elwan, an expert in innovation and technology management at the German University in Cairo, Egypt.

By definition, the sustainable innovations described here cannot be replicated everywhere, since no two places would have precisely the same resources. Inventions and ideas should instead aim at being adaptable to different contexts. Innovations that are connected to particular places will take advantage of local resources and thereby avoid unnecessary transport, and are therefore more likely to remain supported by the local resource base. A starting point for entrepreneurs wanting to think about innovating in this ecologically conscious way, wherever they are, might therefore be to look at global consumer goods and see whether it would be possible to produce them locally using local resources harvested sus-tainably. In the northern hemisphere, for instance, this could mean replacing cotton with locally produced linen fiber for clothing. In other places, hemp or wool might be more appropriate materials.

A business plan focused on a product that depends solely or mainly on local resources will be much more immune to variations in price and availability of globally traded raw materials, which should be recognized by seed capital funders and business "angels" as a sign of the soundness of the concept.

Social Cohesion as a Business Strategy

A final potential advantage for African eco-innovation is the continued existence of non-competitive societies and economies, where the greater communal good is still in many aspects more important than the individual accumulation of profits. One example of this is the West African gift economy, or dama. In these countries, this parallel economy has thrived for centuries in spite of the rapid commercialization of life there. At the center of the gift economy is the concept of "I give, therefore I am someone important," and the complementing notion that "I receive, therefore I let you be someone important." If you receive, you are also indirectly required to share with someone else when you are able. Further down the line, the original giver might be the one benefitting from the gift-giving again--or maybe not. We saw how the entrepreneur Kissima Basse shares his profits with the community; another example is seen when women in Mali give birth. Friends and family provide the mother and the baby with all they need for the first 40 days, so that they can rest and gather strength before facing hard work again. Those with extra food share that; those with extra money share that. Those with neither provide services such as babysitting or cleaning. In this symbiosis the giver and the receiver have equal importance in keeping society together, and making sure that everybody's needs are met.

These customs are based on the understanding that a wealthy community is one where people are interconnected and look after each other. At the other end of the spectrum are individualist cultures where competition replaces collaboration and winner-take-all sentiments rule. Perhaps not surprisingly, highly individualist cultures such as those in the United States and Western Europe also have larger ecological impacts. As countries develop economically, their populations often go through a cultural transformation and morph into western-style individualist consumers. It therefore seems that if a culture manages to stay true to its collectivist roots and maintain the focus on communal wellbeing, it can also keep unsustainable individualist consumption patterns, and the related ecological impacts, at arm's length.

As an added benefit, the cohesion of such cultures creates increased social stability, which again spills over to a better environment--in terms of ecology, business, and even governance. The challenge lies in finding ways that entrepre-neurship and innovation can nourish such collective wellbeing, while simultaneously taking into consideration the planetary limits. This is largely unexplored territory.

Entrepreneurship for a Sustainable Africa

Decoupling innovation from traditional production and consumption patterns may appear unrealistic, but it is a highly necessary move on a planet with finite resources. An important step is to get a better understanding of the difference between wants and needs. If "wants" are to dictate innovation, then it becomes difficult to use planetary resource limitations as guidelines, since wants are unlimited.

Entrepreneurship in twenty-first-century Africa must also be about creating sustainable alternatives that suit the kind of development and societies Africans want. "Poor people in Kenya--and by extension much of Africa--know exactly why they are poor, and what they need to do to escape poverty," says Fuchaka Waswa, a senior lecturer in environmental studies at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. "If you have a spine [thorn] in your shoe, you are the only one who knows about it and its real impact. It is you who must take action and free yourself from discomfort. As such, foreign NGOs and development agencies fit better as facilitators for these bottom-up strategies, rather than designers of solutions."


This has tremendous impacts on the kind of innovation that the continent should seek. While it is not for any outsider to prescribe a development path for Africa, it seems that the continent would do well in the twenty-first century if it strove to avoid the quagmire of the development history traced by the global North to date: resource-intensive, wasteful, self-delusional about planetary limits, and heedless of the damage done to the biosphere. If Africa is to make a place for itself in a resource-constrained world, it should focus on strategies that play to its strengths: creativity, social cohesion, experience with leapfrogging destructive phases of development, and keen comprehension of local needs and wants. The continent might even find itself better off, down the road, than its "richer" neighbors, who still seem to believe that "business as usual" can continue indefinitely. To the contrary, as Tellus Institute founder Paul Raskin has put it, "It is business as usual that is the Utopian fantasy; forging a new vision is the pragmatic necessity."

Helene Gallis is a freelance writer and a former intern at Worldwatch, where she was a member of the team behind State of the World 2010: From Consumerism to Sustainability.

Afrigadget is a website dedicated to showcasing African ingenuity. A team of bloggers and readers contribute their pictures, videos, and stories from around the continent. It is a testament to Africans bending the little they have to their will, using creativity to overcome life's challenges. See

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Author:Gallis, Helene
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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