From shebeen to the spa: How grassroot South African innovators struggle for recognition

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Andile Sontlaba found himself in something of a predicament back in 2004.

Having worked as a miner for most of his adult life Sontlaba was retrenched and with no transferable skills, he returned to his home in Naledi municipality, Eastern Cape unsure of what he would be doing to earn money.

Upon his return home Sontlaba bought a few fruit trees from the Is’Baya rural development organisation and began farming on a small scale. Switching career tack from mining to farming is quite the leap and Sontlaba had to learn how to farm and add value to the fruit he harvested.

As part of his training Sontlaba learned how to extract juice and oils from fruit and plants but soon realised that the techniques being used were actually closely matched to the much simpler techniques used to brew traditional South African beer.

Having grown up in a township where brewing beer was a regular occurrence, Sontlaba started extracting essential oils from plants such as rosemary and lemon grass. The newly skilled farmer then decided to take these oils and add them to soap.

Today Sontlaba has a lucrative trade supplying a number of Eastern Cape spas with his handmade, luxury soap.

Sontlaba’s story is just one example of grass roots innovation, a topic that was recently brought to the fore and discussed in depth at an Innovation for Inclusive Development Policy Seminar held in Pretoria.

So what does innovation mean to South Africa?

For the most part, when we hear “innovation” our minds wander to tales of Tesla’s self driving cars or Facebook uniting the world shared relationships online. The unsung South African innovations, however, tend to be less focussed on technology and more about making lives easier for ourselves according to Nontumbi Marule at the Department of Trade and Industry.

“We must stop associating ‘innovation’ with technology, it is a misnomer that excludes those who are innovating outside of the technology sector,” Marule says.

This statement is mirrored by Dr Aunck Chabalala at the Department of Science and Technology (DST) who adds that this puts limits on how we define innovation and can push people away from innovating and making a better life for themselves.

“Knowledge is knowledge and it is not limited by a piece of paper, the lady weaving baskets to sell to tourists has knowledge just like an engineer has knowledge. Just because they are different types does not mean they are unequal” says Chabalala.

Dr. Chabalala talking attendants through possible solutions to problems related to grass roots innovators.
Dr Chabalala talking attendants through possible solutions to problems related to grass roots innovators.

An assumption often made is that innovators in rural townships are not educated and would not be able to sustain a business. While in some instances this may be factual as business skills are not shared around the village as often as where to find food may be, the idea that folks in a rural area are not educated is a terribly incorrect statement.

Perhaps Sontlaba doesn’t have business skills but to deny the fact that the man is educated enough to know how to start farming, learn how to make juice and realise that he has always known how to extract essential oils would be a disservice to him. And this is where the barriers to success for grass roots innovators become clear.

Funding troubles

For grass roots innovators to gain access to funding they usually have to follow a model known as a linear value chain. This is a process that is used around the world to drive innovation and help investors determine whether a business is at the right stage to invest in.

The chain is usually formalised like this (or in a similar way):

  1. Concept development
  2. Research and development
  3. Innovation and product development
  4. Technology transfer and incubation
  5. Business models and marketing
  6. Product sales and benefit sharing

The process follows an archaic business model where much research, development, planning and pivoting must be done before a product is even launched. This time consuming activity doesn’t match businesses

Should somebody like Sontlaba – whose business incidentally does not follow this process – approach a bank, an incubator, or any other professional lending institution they will more than likely be turned away, even though this linear model is not relative to South Africa.

Attendants listen intently to presentations made by the DTI and DST.
Attendants listen intently to presentations made by the DTI and DST.

Our basis for determining who grass roots innovators are and how business or government can assist these innovators is rooted in definitions that apply to countries like the US and UK, countries with vastly different socio-economic

This problem was brought up numerous times during the seminar. Solutions discussed included a re-look at how incubators help innovators and changing the identification of innovation to one which is based on Ubuntu, though at this point in time these suggestions are just that, suggestions and there is no clear plan of action.

With that said something is being done and by the looks of what was discussed the Department of Trade and Industry as well as the Department of Science and Technology are desperately trying to make sure that when somebody like Sontlaba approaches a body for help and funding, they get the help they require.

[Image CC by 2.0 – Unique Hotels/Quinn Dombrowski]

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz writes news, reviews, and opinion pieces for Hypertext. His interests include SMEs, innovation on the African continent, cybersecurity, blockchain, games, geek culture and YouTube.