Grassroots Innovation for a Sustainable World
Innovation is at the core of sustainability – it helps us envision a better and brighter future for all. Innovation can express itself in many forms – from the most sophisticated technologies like AI, to ground level community created innovations that are able to solve the most pressing localized challenges such as access to clean water through rainwater harvesting. As a grassroots crusader, I have witnessed firsthand how effective both can be and can actually complement each other to create a sustainable world.
The word innovation is often just attributed to technology, something that is very expensive, intricate and complex that can only be produced by the rich communities of the Western world. When we talk about machine learning, big data and AI, this is often the case because how useful will the world’s most eco-friendly car be used in a rural community in one of the Least Developed Countries that have no roads and where the people don’t even have clean water, proper sanitation or food to eat? Or for that matter in regions where there is still no electricity or network grid for connection, let alone a place for high-end vehicles to move around? As the old saying goes “necessity is the mother of invention” and the same hypothesis is true for innovation (Merriam-Webster, 2021). Yes, technology plays a very big role, but at the end of the day, innovation has to contextually relevant and should be about first addressing the most pressing needs and wants of a person, community, region to ensure a life of dignity for all.
For nearly a decade, my organization, Green Hope Foundation (2021) has been working on innovative ways to create a more sustainable world that reaches out to the farthest first in order to address the deep inequalities that beset our societies. Our work centres around the world’s most vulnerable communities – in Syrian refugee camps, homes for children of prisoners in Nepal and Kenya, Rohingya refugee camps, homes for HIV+ children in Nepal, orphanages in Suriname, Indonesia, India, rural communities across Bangladesh, Liberia, India and Indonesia, and we have seen firsthand the power of grassroots innovation (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). As an organization that works across 25 countries, we also understand the importance of localizing innovation and solutions so that we can address the specific challenges that affect them (Green Hope Foundation, 2021).
I began my changemaking when I was 8 years old and over the next 4 years, I witnessed a huge gap in the inclusivity of children and youth, especially with regard to available opportunities in the sustainable development process. This prompted to embark upon my greatest innovation, the creation of my own social enterprise, Green Hope Foundation, when I was 12, so that I could provide a platform of engagement opportunities for children and youth to take sustainable actions.
The most effective innovation tool is education, in particular, quality and meaningful Education for Sustainable Development that enables people to become empathetic global citizens. Education is the first step towards even visualising about creating innovations. It is also a basic human right that opens up countless avenues and opportunities that lead to empowerment and success. The first innovation that we, as Green Hope Foundation (2021), created was an advocacy tool called Environment Academies. This is a peer-to-peer engagement platform where children could interact with one another for capacity building (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). Since most of the communities we work with have never been to school and/or don’t know English, we use unique creative methods of communication like music, art, dance, drama, sports, eco-fashion and writing to spread awareness as well as allow the children to express their ideas thus circumventing the language and cultural barriers (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). The success we have witnessed in these innovative Environment Academies and our creative modes of communication has been tremendous and it has resulted in the participants converting newly acquired knowledge at our academies into real life solutions in their communities, through ground level actions that mitigate their local challenges.
For example, in a Syrian Refugee Camp in Bekaa Valley on the Lebanon-Syria border, 6-year old Redha, after attending our academy, pledged to plant trees in her camp and conduct a cleanup within it, with her friends once the snow melted (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). Given the terrible constraints that she was in, innovation in this context, can be seen in her actions to make her camp a greener place to live in.
In an orphanage in Suriname where we conducted several academies and where our work continues, the children, most of them girls, have started a pilot project in their school as well in the orphanage where they live, to eradicate plastic (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). Each time our team goes back to monitor progress, we continue to be inspired by their innovativeness in taking simple steps to create a children-led grassroots action that benefits not only them, but adults too - their teachers and guardians, along with the environment.
The technology part of innovation of course plays a very important role, especially during times of COVID when digital literacy has become the only almost irreplaceable. However, it is important to understand with digital dividends there exists a vast digital divide.
For a majority of those living in developed countries, it is difficult to comprehend how stark the digital inequalities are in many nations and regions of the global south. At Green Hope Foundation (2021), it is these communities that we work with, since we believe that the process of rebuilding better must start with those who continue to be on the outer fringes of development. One of our projects is currently in progress in Liberia, a country categorised as an LDC (Least Developed Country) where large parts of their rural populace are still without electricity (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). How can any media or digital learning even reach there, when there are no networks, where electrical grids do not exist? Young people, especially girls in these communities are sucked into a vicious cycle of drugs and crime (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). To bring them out of this morass of exploitation, Green Hope Foundation (2021) uses education for sustainable development as a transformative tool to provide them with the necessary behaviors, skills and attitudes to think and act for a sustainable future. However, to provide distance learning in times of lockdown, we first had to bridge the digital divide. The initial step in our solution was to build a suitable infrastructure, through a network of solar panel installations in their homes, in the community centre and in their school as well as providing solar street lights (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). Our local team of youth facilitated and supervised the installations, literally bringing light into the lives of these villagers for the first time (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). Solar lighting now provides the additional benefit of safe spaces for girls and youth (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). Once we established digital connectivity, our project’s next step was to provide computer education to the girls in these rural areas, not only to improve their employment opportunities but also to open a window to the world of digital learning tools and widen their perspectives (Green Hope Foundation, 2021).
We are similarly empowering a rural, COVID-19 impacted community in Bangladesh through digital learning (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). The additional hurdle we face here is the ultra conservative nature of these societies that prevents girls and women access to these mediums (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). This requires us to work collaboratively with the village elders, first bringing them on board, using education for sustainable development to overcome their traditional biases, and thereafter engaging the women (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). This is a slow process and requires trust building and a deep understanding and empathy of local cultures and customs. The challenge lies in scaling up these solutions and also in ensuring their safety in the digital space, so that they do not become victims of online abuse, trafficking and scams. At the root of this particular community’s marginalised status is their economic fragility, that had deepened with COVID-19 (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). Our innovative approach this was to create a local circular bioeconomy that provided sustainable income generation sources to both the men and women of these villages (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). Our local youth teams imparted sustainable agriculture skills training, organic seeds and domestic waste composting techniques to the villagers, while at the same time the women were given ducks, roosters and hens and taught about sustainable poultry (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). As a result of this, each house now has dual sources of income, the women have financial independence and security, while their health has improved as they consume a part of their produce (Green Hope Foundation, 2021). This localised circular bioeconomy model breaks the inherent inequality of traditional linear supply chains that had benefited a few while pushing a large majority of its stakeholders into a state of permanent exploitation.
Innovation comes in many forms and it is essentially about doing things differently. Green Hope Foundation’s (2021) work is a demonstration of how innovation can look like, moving away from its archaic connotations. The intent must always be to try to address issues differently. This is how change happens. Innovation allows one to tackle problems that, at the outset, may seem insurmountable, but enables one to find solutions that ultimately turn out to be quite simple. Social innovation provides creative responses to perplexing social problems and needs, that would have remained unresolved through traditional approaches. Cynicism is often the Achilles heel of innovation and this is one the main reasons why young people, with their unbridled enthusiasm and positivity, are ideally placed to use innovation as the elixir to our world’s pressing problems and this will ultimately lead to the creation of an equitable, inclusive and tolerant social structure that is also at equilibrium with nature.
Green Hope Foundation. (2021). Green Hope Impact. GreenHopeFoundation. https://greenhopefoundation.com/.
Merriam-Webster. (2021). Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam