Meet the caravan touring the Congo for innovative solutions

By Emma N’gouan-Anoh, Deputy Resident Representative, Republic of Congo

Meeting citizens across Republic of Congo. Photo: UNDP Congo

UNDP recently launched the global Accelerator Labs initiative, with a goal to help countries rethink development work and approaches. Here in the Republic of Congo, where we launched one of 60 Labs, we have been asking ourselves: Can we be more creative around the concerns of our country, and find solutions to help a country with a burgeoning young population and emerging industries?

From the get-go, we knew that any solution we designed would need to be more inclusive, involving young people and private entreprises. But in a country with limited communication channels, how do you go beyond simple brainstorming, to reach out to those with brightest ideas, and hear as many voices as possible?

That’s where the idea for Caravane de l’Innovation came in. In close collaboration with the government of Congo, and two youth advocacy organisation called Fongwama and PRATIC, we decided to go on the road with a caravan — including hard-to-reach rural areas and meet as many actors as possible.

After all, citizens live daily with the challenges we are trying to solve — so not only do they know these problems best, but they already have many of the solutions.

The Caravan of Innovation is traveling to remote regions of the country to learn from citizens. Photo: UNDP Congo

Here’s our theory of change: If we can tour the country with our special Caravan of Innovation, we can, for the first time in the Congo, create a database of local driven solutions developed by citizens to meet the needs of their communities. This database will help us not only draw attention to local innovators who are taking up the challenges of development. It can also help highlight solutions, currently disconnected from one another, be improved as needed and scaled up to help communities at large or inspire further solutions across the country and Africa at large.

Here are some innovations that attracted our attention:

1. Plant-based electricity

The city of Pointe-Noire, like all other major cities in the Congo, is growing at an exponential rate. But the energy infrastructure simply cannot catch up. Vital Vitium, an entrepreneur and self-taught resident from the outskirts of the city, found a solution for the ongoing electricity challenges. Frustrated by the lack of light, he created a portable electric light solution using the chlorophyll and Co2 produced by plant leaves. The portable solution is now helping him meet his own electricity and family’s needs.

2. From waste to wealth: Generating energy from household waste

Pointe-Noire is also suffering from huge waste challenges: the overflow of dumping sites and difficulty faced in collecting household waste have created an unhealthy environment for citizens at large. Destin Biblia, a young graduate from the University of Marien Ngouabi University, has found an unprecedented solution: converting household waste into bio-coal and generating income. He has a special recipe for this that includes organic waste collected from streets, markets and public dumps, crushed and mixed with water and coal ash or dust to produce coal briquettes for cooking meals and therefore creating a business opportunity.

3. Peanut shellers

A mechanic and farmer has created a machine that helps farmers increase productivity. Photo: UNDP Congo

Peanut vendors in south-western Congo face a major challenge with shelling peanuts. The process of shelling by hand is painful without yielding high outputs. Judicaël Mampouya, a mechanic and farmer, created a mobile peanut huller that cuts down on processing time for farmers, boosting their yields and incomes by enabling greater production of the crop to take to market.

These are only a few of the stories we uncovered during our caravan trips. We currently have a portfolio of more than 120 innovative local solutions that we have mapped across the country. With two more regions left to visit, we plan to see these ideas grow as part of our learning cycle.

Why? Because seeing these innovations, we are left with the question: Can we take these innovations, already being tested by citizens, confirm them and scale up across the country — especially in landlocked areas where the country faces insufficient infrastructure?

From the innovative local solutions we identified through the Caravane de l’innovation, we can see some initial strategic entry points. Validating these “micro solutions” on a larger scale will require unlocking access to credit and other investment opportunities by using new technologies which encourage growth, such as blockchain and/or cryptocurrency-enabled microfinance schemes.

This approach will require a new kind of collaboration which prioritizes developing the Congolese innovation ecosystem by bringing new skills matched to local Congolese expertise and investment opportunities. Working together, we can encourage the uptake of innovative ideas and technologies.

By building our Lab’s service lines alongside government partners and other stakeholders, we will collectively be better positioned to address complex challenges to unemployment by accelerating the speed of our learning.

Building the world’s largest learning network around development challenges. 91 Labs in 115 countries. http://acceleratorlabs.undp.org/