This week I was honoured to present at Sahara Sparks to share lessons from grassroots innovation. We spend a lot of time working with young people starting out in business and also more mature SMEs in different regions of Tanzania. We often feel that their voices are not heard and their reality not understood. So it truly is an honour as RLabs to be able to bring grassroots voices to this national forum.
This is (more or less!) what I shared.
This is Neema, she’s 15 and she lives in Mbeya. Her parents kicked her out of home when she got pregnant and now she’s renting a room in town. How would you advise her?
It’s quite hard right? This is not an academic question. We are reaching thousands of girls like Neema. If she turns up at your hub, what would you tell her?
We have another girl – Upendo. She’s also a single mum living alone. She gets on well with her grandma, because she used to be the most enthusiastic helper on her grandma’s farm when she was younger.
We gave these stories to a donor group a while back. For Upendo they could see that she has a passion for farming, as well as social support from her grandma, and resources – her grandma’s farm. They suggested that she go back and farm at her grandma’s. For Neema, they said she should find an institution to support her to go back to school, or work as a housegirl. Ziko wapi lakini?! Basically she has to win the lottery to get an organisation to sponsor her, or embark on what the ILO has listed as one of the worst forms of child labour because of the high risk of exploitation. This all highlights how susceptible we all are to the single story.
What they don’t know is that in fact Neema Upendo is one person.
We use this exercise to shock people into realising that they could give bad advice if they see someone as helpless, if they only see the ‘single story’. Ultimately it means you haven’t got much to offer them as an organisation – you’re saying someone else can solve it. Or you can help them in the short term by giving them a handout, but compound their feeling of dependency in the long term. If you take time to look for the person’s assets and resources, it’s easy to see things they could do for themself.
What we do at RLabs is help the young people themselves see the resources and decide what THEY want to do. And literally no one in the world has nothing at all – everyone has something…. Even if like Neema, it’s true that she doesn’t have much. But she has her passions, her relationships and her drive to create a better future for her child. This tool is inspired by Chimamanda Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story, and if you’re interested in reading more about this and other tools we use, do follow us on social media.
So I like to ask the question – what’s the opposite of innovation? I think it’s ‘Mazoea’. Doing things the same way, even if that way is not working very well.
We see it regularly in businesses, and we help our trainees to map it out – what are they doing from mazoea, just assuming it has to be done that way, like a fixed mindset? And what could they do in a more innovative and a more commercial way?
We also see it in development programming.
I put these lemons up (pic is for the Tz context where lemons are green) because they’re a reminder that you can’t assume anything, you have to get out there and find out what people are really thinking. This is what girls in Songwe are called, if they are not married by the age of 19. Yes really – malimau – sour like lemons. We were surprised! And it’s a reminder of how very diverse Tanzania’s local context is. It’s not something we’ve heard even a few hours down the road in Mbeya where girls were very enthusiastic about delaying pregnancy to achieve their life goals.
Imagine that you have designed a programme to reduce teenage pregnancies in Songwe that assumes that girls want to delay pregnancy. But girls themselves do not want to be malimau and are making sure they have found a partner by the age of 19. They may well resist your efforts.
If you want to do grassroots innovation, get out there in the grassroots. Try something small. Don’t invite the media just yet, get it right first, get some impact. I kid you not – it’s amazing the number of Dar-based organisations that pop up regionally once a year, for a one day activity with full media in tow.
Be very clear what you hope to achieve. See if it works. If it doesn’t, rethink and keep listening.
Last year we had a conflict we couldn’t resolve. Our wonderful founder of RLabs, Yusuf Ssessanga told us to listen as hard as we could. We kept listening but still couldn’t resolve it. We went back to Yusuf and he advised us to ‘listen harder’!
Keep listening harder to what young people are telling you. Trying to get Neema to create a startup doesn’t work, because it’s not what Neema really wants or needs. We’ve had young women telling us that they were trembling when they saw pieces of paper handed out in the training because they might have to read or write. Wishing things were different doesn’t make them so. We have to work from reality and from what young people themselves want.
If giving out capital isn’t working then don’t do it. If innovation competitions are not getting sustainable startups then don’t do it. My colleague Kelvin Andrew Mveyange named them – “suffering moments”. For example, when things didn’t work out as you expected, because you misjudged the context or you over-estimated people’s capacity. Or when you’re not sure how to move forward with your programme and the answers just aren’t forthcoming.
Being grounded in reality, get excited about what Neema can achieve on her own terms and build up from there. That’s grassroots innovation.
So here are my five take-aways:
- ‘Listen then listen harder’. REALLY know the context. Have realistic expectations. Understand the complex social forces and superstitions that are holding young people back.
- Abundance mindset: believe that the people you are serving have assets and resources, and then help them to see them for themselves. Avoid the ‘Danger of a Single Story’, which sees a poor person as incapable.
- Embrace the ‘suffering moments’. Be comfortable with the discomfort of not really knowing how to solve the problem of poverty. When you feel those suffering moments that’s a sign some exciting learning or innovating could be happening, don’t let the discomfort push you back to copy and paste solutions.
- Innovation not ‘mazoea’ – both among young entrepreneurs but also in your own programming. Recognise those fixed mindsets when something is just being done that way because that’s the way it’s always been done.
- Get out there and do it better and better. The only way to develop really good grassroots innovation programmes is to get out there, try something, take time to learn and then make it better and better.