Green Means Grassroots

The green economy discourse needs to be brought much closer to the people.
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If we are going to achieve an inclusive green economy, we must first be inclusive in shaping its agenda.

Entrepreneurs who operate at the base of the pyramid have clearly seen the opportunities presented by a transition to a green economy.
In South Africa alone, the informal economy is estimated to be contributing up to US$18 billion per annum to GDP.

It’s good that the discourse on the green economy is starting to put more of an emphasis on inclusion, viewing the benefits of transition not just from an environmental perspective, but also for its social and economic outcomes. But if we are going to achieve an inclusive green economy, we must first be inclusive in shaping its agenda.

To develop long-term solutions with strong local buy-in, we must listen to those who face the brunt of the world’s environmental challenges. Until recently, the green economy discourse has focused at the macro-economic level and been characterized by high-level interventions; the effect on vulnerable populations has been negligible at best.

The current droughts in parts of Southern Africa and the Horn of Africa are good examples of the kind of challenges we will face if climate change and variability is not contained. It’s estimated that, in 2016, 14 million people in Southern Africa will suffer from severe hunger as a result of the current drought caused by El Niño. South Africa, which used to be a net exporter of maize, needs to import more than 5 million tons of the crop to meet its national needs.

Since agriculture is the backbone of most African countries, one would think that climate change adaptation would be mainstreamed so that droughts and other such incidents could be contained. This is not happening, partly because the messages are not trickling down effectively to those on the frontlines: smallholder farmers and local communities.

For the last four years, the African Centre for Green Economy (AfriCGE), has been working to build platforms to enable us to bring the green economy discourse closer to the people, and showcase the kinds of tools and approaches available for climate change adaptation.
We engage with communities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders on an almost daily basis in East and Southern Africa. It’s quite apparent that even though we talk of an inclusive green economy, it’s not inclusive at all; it is still perceived as an environmental issue, as opposed to an overarching framework for achieving sustainable development. Many people still don’t understand that all sectors of the economy need to act if we are to transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient development pathway. And when we talk about sectors to engage, the informal economy does not feature.

Yet the informal economy presents the best opportunity to achieve inclusivity through entrepreneurship. Africans are very entrepreneurial people, with a vibrant informal economy that has played a crucial role in lifting millions out of poverty. In 2015, Uganda was recognized as the most entrepreneurial country in the world. In South Africa alone, the informal economy is estimated to be contributing up to US$18 billion per annum to GDP, with an estimated density of 10 enterprises per 1.5km2 in informal settlements.

Entrepreneurs who operate at the base of the pyramid have clearly seen the opportunities presented by a transition to a green economy. This is evident in the exponential growth of start-ups, spanning a wide range of sectors including sustainable agriculture, waste management, transport and sustainable housing.

If we are to build an inclusive green economy, then we need to move away from the rhetoric that has characterized the discussions to date, and shift to radical experimentation on the ground. We can’t talk of an inclusive green economy if we don’t understand the kind of business models that can create mass jobs to cater to the 11 million African youths who will soon need them every year. Even though the informal economy is a significant contributor to economic development, these low-income areas are often underserved – with most lacking basic infrastructure – making them a difficult environment in which to do business.

This persists partly because the role of the informal sector in contributing to the mainstream economy has not been recognized. The same can be said about the lack of voices from the informal sector (and from Africa in general) in contributing to the discourse on green economy. The result is a lack of traction on some of the interventions that are designed to mainstream this agenda in many African countries.

Last year we launched the New Economy Accelerator, which aims to incubate green entrepreneurs at the base of the pyramid and enable them to scale up their enterprises for wider impact. The Accelerator also serves as a test of the kinds of business models required for building an inclusive green economy. This approach allows us to do radical experimentation with green entrepreneurs on the ground, while seeking to change the narrative on the green economy to make it contextually relevant, while pushing for local investments.

We build alliances and networks to infuse our voices at the global stage, and to close the gap between high-level global green policy processes and local initiatives and participation. Our partnerships with groups such as the Green Economy Coalition and the New Economics Foundation have played a critical role in amplifying our voices.

Adopting an inclusive green economy approach presents the best opportunity for addressing Africa’s systemic challenges of poverty, malnutrition and a general lack of access to basic services such as energy. To capitalize on this opportunity, however, we must radically rethink how the green economy discourse is framed, and by whom. If this concept is to have an impact and change lives on the ground, then it will need strong leadership from the grassroots level. That’s our key motivation.