Exploring research and education on frugal innovations in South Africa

Is there interest for research and education on frugal innovation in South Africa? That's one question CFIA delegates Cees van Beers and Andre Leliveld explored last month whilst meeting with researchers, policy makers and social entrepreneurs in Stellenbosch, Cape Town and Durban. The mission was prepared in close collaboration with Robert Tijssen, who is both professor at Leiden and Stellenbosch University and is affiliated to CFIA since its launch.

Frugal Innovation as an instrumental concept 

The visits and discussion among stakeholders made clear that the major discourses in South Africa when it comes to innovations for disadvantaged or low-income people and resource constrained contexts revolve around the concepts of inclusive and social innovation. In the meetings and workshops we met much interest though for the concept of frugal innovation, which was triggered on the one hand by the explicit role technology (also) plays in the frugal innovation concept and on the other hand by its clear focus on resource constrained environments which can also include areas in the Global North. In this respect also the notion of reverse innovation (What can Europe learn from Africa?) appealed to the people we spoke to. In addition, frugal innovation was considered as a concept that could be more instrumental and clearer than inclusive or social innovation when it comes to measuring innovation in the informal sector.

Three interests towards frugal innovation in the South African context


Cross-sectoral research and education

CFIA stands for interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral Research and Education

The CFIA stands for interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral research and education. We strive to involve many different actors in our projects in order to learn lessons and to look for effects of frugal innovations as broadly as possible.  This visit therefore explored entry points for new cross-sectoral research and education collaboration with South African stakeholders. This included workshops, visitings and seminars at CREST, the Institute for Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Industrial Engineering at Stellenbosch University, the Graduate Business School at University of Cape Town, the Sustainability Institute, Western Cape University and
the Urban Future Center at Durban Institute of Technology

HEWA Health Energy Water Agro-food

From the workshops, seminars and meetings became clear that thematically the CFIA research domains connect well to the South African context. CFIA's HEWA domains are addressed in various departments and institutes that were visited. More specific examples are for example the focus on M-health in resource constrained settings, overcoming challenges related to acute water shortage and the focus on solar energy. Furthermore, linking the Frugal Innovation discussion to South Africa based discussions on economic and social transformation, inequality, employment and entrepreneurship is thought essential.

When it comes to education there is a lot of interest from the South African side to know more about CFIA’s minor on frugal innovation and to explore further collaboration in this field. At the same time we got acquainted with interesting initiatives on online learning and education in the field of innovation (studies) that have stimulated us to further explore this route in CFIA education as well.

Some highlights and examples 

Technologies to combat water drought challenges
Thinus Booysen and two of his students from Electrical & Electronic Engineering at the department of Industrial Engineering, Stellenbosch Univeristy presented interesting cases within the water, energy and health domains. They develop (frugal) innovations for low-income people with help of 4th Industrial Revolution technologies and measure their impact directly by using control groups.  The researchers developed very interesting methods to apply to practical frugal innovation introductions.

An example of a design by Thinus Booysen is a water-saving device designed to help schools monitor water usage during the 2018 drought in the Western Cape.

Dropula helped local schools with their water-saving efforts, they reached 352 schools in the Western Cape and helped them save more than 500-million litres of water.

The iShack Project is a social enterprise that provides off-grid solar electricity to residents of informal settlements while they wait for grid-electrification. They are based at the Sustainability Institute just outside Stellenbosch, South Africa, and run energy utilities in Stellenbosch and Cape Town.
David Hees is a social entrepreneur who is installing solar power in townships. He is looking for the right business model. This was followed by a visit to Enkanini, one of the townships in Stellenbosch that is served by iShack.


At CREST, Stellenbosch University we participated in a half day seminar with a diverse group of people from Stellenboch, University of West Kaap and the University of cape Town as well as a social entrepreneurs and PhD students. A key challenge for researchers and policymakers in South Africa is to find suitable ways to capture and measure innovation activities, including in the informal sector. Nazeem Mustapha from the Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa gave an interesting presentation on how to measure innovations in the informal sector through combination of standardized questionnaires, digital storytelling and qualitative interviews. His research focuses on how innovation takes place rather than on measurement of levels of innovation. 

How to measure innovations in the formal sector?

Scientific and cultural learning community
Vannessa von der Heyde guided us at the Sustainability Institute and through the Lynedoch Eco Village, a small community about 12km outside Stellenbosch. The Institute offers primary, undergraduate and graduate education programmes on sustainability and its Eco Village is a site of scientific interest, where (frugal) innovations are implemented in housing, safety and security, and water, energy and food provisioning. As such, it could be seen as a blueprint for how future communities could look like in South Africa.  

                            Eco village

Urban Futures Centres
We had an interesting visit to the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology,  where we were joint by CFIA colleague Dianne Wankoyo who works for the CFIA Hub Kenya for the Creative Cities are Safer Cities initiative.  This initiative departs from the idea that besides good urban governance, management and planning, creativity is key to arrive at safer cities, in particular the creativity that is vested in and can be found among creative like designers, innovators, and entrepreneurs who in many cases work and live in the informal sector in unsafe and insecure neighbourhoods.

                                 Dandora Transformation League
                                                  - Dandora Transformation League

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