An Atlas of Local Solutions in Democratic Republic of Congo

Amadou Sow, Marc Ngwanza, Serge Kusinza, Pascal Mulindwa and Jules Kabangu

Human Beings can be stubborn, and although that can at times be helpful, it can also mean that we often try to reinvent the wheel. We tend to plan and focus on finding solutions to development problems without checking if someone has already found the answer.

In our work, this means that we are wired to engage our government counterparts, civil society and relevant actors who advise when planning or executing a programme. However, rarely do we tap into the knowledge of people on the ground who are facing that specific problem, and we hardly ever check if they have found a solution to the very problem we are trying to solve.

The Accelerator Labs are trying to change this. If you haven’t heard, we’ve made looking for local innovations a core part of our strategy.

First stop, find the innovators

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), we started mapping out local innovators a few months ago. Our first step was to build a team — we needed allies who have curious minds and are close to the communities. We roped UNDP’s communication specialists because they have a journalist’s sense of what is going on, so we felt they were the perfect team to work with for our solutions mapping exercise. Turns out, we were right!

When we shared the solutions safari we had in mind, our communications colleagues were excited, especially because they had already identified a set of innovations and innovators in DRC through the Amani Festival. The festival included a local innovations exhibit and allowed them to connect with some of the people that were showcasing their work. We hit the jackpot! We decided to use the information collected during the festival and visit these local innovators to learn more about their work. Our objective? Creating an atlas of local innovators in DRC.

We are working on — for the first time in DRC — a comprehensive database of solutions developed by citizens to meet their needs or those of their communities. We believe this will help us recognize and call attention to local innovators who are addressing development challenges. The Atlas of Local Solutions will provide development investors with an array of solutions rooted in local contexts that could potentially be integrated into large scale development work.

First Round up: Portable fish freezers, Bamboo charcoal and Traffic Robots

To map out our atlas, we started with two trips: one to Goma and another to Kinshasa. On the road, we were not necessarily looking for solutions related to specific Sustainable Development Goals. Instead, we wanted to stumble across innovation with an open mind. Our premise was that if you look just for innovation on a specific subject, i.e. climate change, you miss others that might not fit into that frame. So, inspired by the innovation walks of the Honey Bee Network, we walked around exploring without a specific lense. Here’s what we found in our initial search:

  • Merchant mothers, Congo River: Fresh fish in Maluki, Kinshasais is always in high demand. One of the constraints that fishermen must overcome is keeping the fish fresh while carrying it up river. The canoes they use for transport don’t have freezers, so a group of merchant mothers figured out a solution: install portable freezers in the canoes using a generator. This simple innovation has allowed them to increase the amount of fish they take to market.
  • Murhula Zigabe and his ecological charcoal bricks: Deforestation is massive in the immediate vicinity of Bukavu and Kahuzi Biega Park is at risk. The disappearing forest inspired Murhula to find an alternative source of energy that his neighbors could use. The result was a recipe to use organic waste to produce charcoal bricks for cooking. Around 25 people work for him now in Makala Bio, his company. They collect cardboard waste from the streets, markets and households, dry it on the road and carbonize it in a local furnace. Once carbonized, they mix the waste with water, create a paste, press and dry it and then the brick can be used to cook meals on a stove. This way of making charcoal from waste has also expanded to Kinshasa, where his partner Ray Mawa has also started to produce these ecological charcoal bricks.
  • Brasero Oven: In the Central Kongo province, near Kasangulu, this organization has trained farmers to assemble ovens that use briquettes made from bamboo. In the region, farmers do not have access to electricity which is needed to run refrigerators to keep foods fresh. These bamboo ovens can cook food while also smoking meat or fish for later consumption.
  • Traffic robots: Thérèse Kirongozi, a congolese engineer is the brilliant mind behind the robots that regulate traffic in DRC. The first ones were placed in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. These humanoid bots can rotate their chest and raise their arms like human traffic officers. Some of them can even detect pedestrians and let them know when to cross the road. Their claimed advantage is that, unlike local traffic police, they are immune to bribery! Also, their human-like appearance encourages drivers to slow down more than an analog traffic sign.

These are early results among the innovations we found during our first solution safari. We have now found more than 30 local innovations and we expect to see them grow as part of our Atlas. To build on this momentum, we will soon be partnering with Youth Conneckt, a platform that connects young people for socio-economic transformation in Africa. With around 700 members operating in 25 provinces of the DRC, Youth Conneckt could be a part of a national solutions mapping network to help us learn about and build upon DRC’s homegrown innovations.

Building on local innovations in our development approach

We will need to research and test these innovations to see how and whether they could be scaled. For example, we are already thinking about how we can build on these DRC innovations within UNDP’s sustainable development work in the country. Makala Bio is a good example. We are working on reducing deforestation as part of UNDP’s work to avert the climate crisis. As a home grown solution, once scaled, this type of green charcoal can help promote the circular economy and address deforestation by reducing reliance on trees for fuel.

Stretching our thinking, maybe the cardboard-based charcoal could even reduce gender-based violence. From what we understand, when women walk alone into forests in DRC to collect firewood, it increases the likelihood that they could be subject to assault. Making Murhula’s charcoal solution more widely available could reduce the chances of gender-based violence while also recycling waste. Now that’s an integrated solution! We are now in the preparatory phases of making green charcoal a part of the programme to stop gender-based violence that UNDP has in DRC.

Interested in learning more? Check back in a few weeks to learn more about our Atlas of local innovations from DRC. You can also keep up with our solution mapping journey and our work on Twitter!