Africa's culture of sharing can help solve some of the continent's challenges

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Flickr photo by David Greene.

by April Rinne

South Africa faces a grand challenge when it comes to urban and socio-economic development, but it’s a problem that could be lessened by supporting the country's (and the continent's) prevalent culture of sharing.

On the one hand, urban centres in this country are under strain, like those in many other countries on the continent. A young and rapidly urbanising population is putting strain on social and economic infrastructure, while investment in new infrastructure has struggled to keep pace with the demand, propelled by population growth.

The country's main metros, for instance, have been growing twice as fast as other cities, largely driven by young people moving to cities in search of economic opportunities, which sadly often prove difficult to come by. Clearly greater levels of investment in the urban built environment and in providing people economic opportunities are needed, but funding and other financing options for them are limited or prohibitively priced. 

On the other hand, consciousness continues to grow about the adverse effects of human activities on the natural environment and on the well-being of lifeforms in these environments – including humans themselves.

In South Africa specifically, this has been accompanied by the need to undo historical urban spatial inequalities that continue to produce unfair social outcomes; for example, transport infrastructure networks that result in workers sacrificing as much as 40 percent of their income in their daily commute to work. The net result has been pressure to – simultaneously and with few resources – minimise the human ecological footprint, allow greater numbers of people equitable access to utilities such as efficient, affordable transport and accommodation and provide them opportunities to be economically productive.

The grand challenge this all poses for the country is: How do you find the most optimal path through these competing and at times contradictory demands?

I have located this scenario in South Africa, but the country isn't unique. All across the continent permutations of similar competing, contradictory urban and socio-economic development challenges are evident. The crux is how do you support the economic aspirations of a disproportionately young and urbanising population while facing resource constraints without, at the same time, irreparably harming the environment and the people, present and future, who live in it?

How do you make the most efficient, equitable and economically productive use of existing resources in the built environment in the meantime, as investments in new resources come online, over time?

How do you build an inclusive and ecologically sustainable urban economy?

In my over 15 years working on the continent, I have had the privilege of witnessing incarnations of similar puzzles solved in ways that were breathtakingly original and pioneering. More than that, the solutions were often hugely satisfying, because they demonstrated that the African continent does not have to follow the developmental path of Western countries.

People on the continent have shown that they possess the determination and insight to adopt, adapt or create innovations that allow their countries to do in a matter of decades, what European countries took centuries to do. Innovations in the financial services sector are a good example.The World Bank credits mobile money innovations such as M-Pesa, a uniquely African solution, for the massive drop in the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa without a bank account. 

Presently, at least one in every 10 adults in the region has a mobile money account, the highest worldwide, providing them a more efficient and cost effective means to perform the daily transactions that could help them chart a path out of poverty and towards economic prosperity. There are countless examples of other similarly transformative and uniquely African innovations in health, agriculture and telecommunications.

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One approach that seems a natural fit for the African continent to resolving multiple competing and contradictory demands while faced with limited resources is the sharing economy, where ownership of a resource does not preclude others from using it. This includes sharing transport, homes and working spaces, and the list is growing. I call this type of sharing a natural fit for Africa because many countries and people on the continent have a recent history of communal use of resources – some of which is inscribed into law in some states. In other words, sharing resources is already how many people on the African continent live, and the sharing economy model naturally fits into many African practices.

Tech innovations in the sharing economy can help reinforce this and thereby also help economies grow. The key now is for innovators to figure out how they can combine long-standing traditions of sharing with the technologies that will make it a more economically feasible and sustainable practice. And businesses and governments alike need to create an enabling environment for such innovations.

If this comes together, I expect the African continent will make tremendous strides forward when it comes to harnessing the sharing economy to positively and sustainably transform people's lives. This includes finding the answers to the difficult questions of urban and socio-economic development countries like South Africa face.

One of the solutions could look like Amsterdam's Airbnb-style platform for sharing under-used, city-owned buildings. Another could look like one of Seoul's more than 50 local sharing economy initiatives, ranging from clothes to meals, pets and tourist guides. Although these initiatives come from more developed markets, they are low-cost, common-sense solutions that could be equally effective in emerging markets.

For a South African example, look at Okazi which launched just weeks ago in Cape Town, which is a platform for temporarily placing salaried workers, who have extra availability, at other companies. I suspect, given the extraordinary social entrepreneurs on the continent that I've been privileged to meet, the innovations that will come from a well-supported sharing economy on the African continent have the potential to catapult the continent far into the 21st century.