Bringing together earth-friendly products and South Africa's poor

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Forget about flying cars and wristwatch phones—innovators Will green innovations such as solar cookers be embraced? And by whom? (Credit: infoDev)today are more likely to be tackling solar lamps, cleaner cookstoves, energy-efficient housing and water filters. Such products promise the tantalizing combination of steady jobs, better lifestyles, and a cleaner planet…but for whom, exactly?

The big challenge is making sure that those opportunities reach the more than a billion people living in poverty. Recently infoDev teamed up with the Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship global practice, the World Bank Country Office in Pretoria, and the Gauteng government’s The Innovation Hub to run four workshops on low-income communities’ needs, attitudes and perceptions about climate technology products.

We gathered close to 400 participants in four South African communities—three urban townships and one rural village. Our goal was to determine how the upcoming Climate Innovation Center (CIC) in South Africa can help such communities drive and embrace green innovation. Our approach will involve providing direct assistance–financing, business advisory services –as well as working with governments, academia and industry to foster climate innovation in the country.

The workshop participants painted a vivid picture of why they need affordable climate innovations. One resident shared that in Alexandra, she and her family must burn tires to stay warm and that she is eagerly looking for alternatives. Some explained why they have not embraced what is on the market, such as the farmer who said of a USD 180 solar stove, “For you it looks affordable; for us it is expensive and risky”.

Prospective  local  entrepreneurs are enthusiastic about providing appropriate, affordable solutions – and making profits in the meantime – but face numerous challenges. Dozens of people shared their experiences and difficulties in trying to launch a small business, such as the women in Ivory Park who lamented, “We don’t know where to go and who to talk to, so nothing happens”.  As a result, local enterprises  struggle to meet market needs and achieve commercial scale.

The CIC was well received, and our team received many suggestions on how it can better serve these marginalized communities. Robert Mtshali, for example, needs ZAR 15,000 (less than USD 2,000) to launch his water-saving car wash business and provide part-time employment to township youth. He resides in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township, where travel to and from the CIC in Pretoria is simply not realistic. Can the CIC be as relevant to him as it is to a solar energy startup seeking USD 300,000 in venture financing? Stories like Robert’s emphasize the need for reducing inequality while simultaneously growing economies and addressing climate change. It is a welcome challenge that infoDev hopes to tackle through its Climate Technology Program, starting with the South African CIC.

infoDev’s Climate Technology Program is designing and implementing seven Climate Innovation Centers around the world. The ones in Kenya, South Africa, Ethiopia and India will be launching in FY 2013, to be followed by others in Vietnam, Morocco and the Caribbean. Each CIC will provide financing, advisory and other services targeted towards enabling local climate technology SMEs to participate in the global green economy.


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