3 Urban Innovator Stories from Informal Settlements

A young boy sits over an open sewer.

A young boy sits over an open sewer.

by Valentin Schipfer

Who can’t stand reading nor hearing nor watching something about the Eurozone crisis no more – except me? I don’t think that I am alone with that. Newspapers, TV, internet blogs and all other types of media can’t get enough of it here in Europe. That’s why I decided not to dedicate this entry to Europe but to cities from the southern hemisphere. Shaken by different types of crises, their inhabitants rather invent ideas for ways out than complain about their situation all day long. So here is a small selection of short but motivating stories about urban innovators fighting their own way out of their country’s crises.



The first one starts in a dusty car park in a shanty town on the outskirts of Namibia’s capital Windhoek. Mary owns a shop, a converted shipping container, where donated bicycles get renovated and sold. The outlet is one of two in Windhoek and more than 30 across the country that form the Bicycle Empowerment Network (BEN) , an expanding chain of bike shops-in-a-box. They get western donations to create local enterprises designed to be social projects and promote environmentally friendly and affordable transport. Each outlet is supervised by a local community organisation. In Soweto it is the King’s Daughters, a faith-based group of six former sex workers. After its launch, the group came to the attention of BEN, which offered it a role overseeing one of its shops.

King’s Daughters’ shop is expanding with a second container of donated bikes now almost all refurbished and sold. Surplus income after costs and salaries has allowed the group to fund support groups and nutrition programmes for families with HIV, pay school fees for children and underwrite workshops for women. The result is that the BEN outlets have created a growing range of spin-off businesses, from selling biomass “bush bricks” to Mary’s eggs or fresh meat from their bicycles. Further bikes simply provide affordable transport. Many Namibians live far in the outskirts but work in the city centre. Instead of paying every day for a shared taxi, investment in a typical refurbished bike can be recovered quickly. BEN’s work has even attracted the eye of the GIZ, the German development funder, as it supports efforts for a new urban plan in Namibia to incorporate cycle lanes.

Fresh life toilet

Fresh life toilet

The second story takes us to Nairobi’s Mukuru kwa Ruben settlement where inhabitants were used to so-called flying toilets like in many other African slums too. Plastic bags full of human waste. The inability to deal with human waste has long been one of the most distressing aspects of living in the slums. It is part of a much wider global problem. The World Health Organisation says 2.5.billion people lack adequate sanitation. This undermines development and spreads illness like diarrhoeal diseases. In Nairobi for those who choose not to use plastic bags, pit latrines offer little extra comfort. The social entrepreneur David Auerbach started to think about that problem. During his graduation at MIT he co-founded the enterprise Sanergy turning human waste into gold.

David Auerbach having a good time on his invention.

David Auerbach having a good time on his invention.

By creating a network of low-cost toilets, operated on a pay-per-use basis by resident micro-entrepreneurs throughout the settlement, the enterprise’s team can collect the waste and generate huge amounts of organic fertiliser with it, selling it to farmers at a profit. A simple design separates collected liquid and solid waste into two sealed plastic containers. Instead of flushing with water, residents pile on sawdust, saving 150.000 litres of water a year. Munyiva, who borrowed money from a local women’s microfinance organisation to buy one of those so-called Fresh life toilets last year says she has already repaid her debt in instalments. “I love this business…it has brought me somewhere”, says the 55-year-old mother of six. “You don’t have to sleep with hunger when you have this. I want to buy another one.” It also means a lot to be leaders in improving their community and additionally solve a massive social and ecological problem.

The special morning programme.

The special morning programme.

For the third and last story we’ll head to India where cars have displaced children and their games on most residential streets. Indian parks, especially smaller ones in residential areas, are often considered mainly as space for adults to walk, rather than for children to play. But on a recent Sunday, nearly 200 children were at Ahmedabad’s Parimal Garden for a special morning programme of children’s activities. Story-tellers played classic fables, a sports teacher led the kids in exercises and games. Finally, a magician performed. The event was organised by aProCh, a network that has set out to make Ahmedabad – a fast-growing urban agglomeration – into a “child-friendly” city through activities catering to kids from across India’s whole society.

It is one of the aims to bring children of different backgrounds – and adults from different walks of life – together. The whole idea is to integrate. The initiative, launched in 2007, began by persuading the Ahmedabad police and municipal authorities to shut down the city’s busiest shopping street to cars for a day, and turn it into a vast play area. Meanwhile, aProCh organises special activities for kids in city parks twice a month. With the support of local businesses and wealthy families, aProCh also stages special events each month for children from impoverished backgrounds so they can experiences recreational and leisure activities that would otherwise be beyond their families’ possibilities. The organisers’ next aim is to take it to a national level, in line with one aProCh co-ordinator’s statement: “The essence of this initiative – of opening urban spaces for children – should go to cities everywhere.”

Inspired by the current issue of Urban Ingenuity by the Financial Times I decided to publish three of its most innovative urban projects. In my eyes it is important to disseminate these achievements through as many channels as possible. By doing so, new ideas for social, socio-technological or other types of innovations could come up and might be even become reality sooner or later.

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One Response to 3 Urban Innovator Stories from Informal Settlements

  1. Pingback: 7 best-practices of places jolting people into action « Places.

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