The Platform

JC McIlwaine

In addressing climate change and the myriad of other challenges, Africans have a lot to offer. But first, they must break free of cultural norms that are holding them back.

An insightful African proverb reminds us that “a flea can trouble a lion more than a lion can trouble a flea.” The proverb puts in context a stark reminder that what is considered of little importance may end up being what is most important.

This is what creativity and passion are to Africa. They hardly feature in grand developmental forums held across the continent that feature multi-billion-dollar projects. Even when they do, they are not the centerpiece of what needs to be given priority in creating climate action solutions.

A very relatable example expounds on this. A local man introduces zero-grazing of livestock in his village. He sketches and fabricates cattle stalls that had never been seen before. He comes up with new ways of irrigating his crops that had never been seen before. As he accomplishes all of this, the villagers sit back and gossip about how much he has changed, and over time, he becomes an outcast in his village.

This is just one example of how a person’s potential is never harnessed because his ways are considered strange and run counter to the status quo.

This is a microcosm of what happens daily where new, untested and creative ideas fail to garner the support and encouragement that is critical to nurturing a society of creative thinkers and solutions providers.

But why is creative and “out-the-box” thinking not given the priority it deserves? The impact of upbringing cannot be understated.

Typically, in Africa, a young person with a creative idea always requires a ‘nod of approval’ from an ‘elder.’ And where such approval is not obtained, then such creativity is not supported. This is the culture that most Africans have grown up in. It has bred a status quo that has killed passions and stifled creativity. In driving transformational solutions, we cannot ignore this crucial yet overlooked cultural aspect.

We must urgently turn the leaf and help educate young Africans to take the initiative and move forward without seeking a ‘nod of approval.’

First, we must embrace narratives of value addition. The agro-value chain is one of the most spectacular areas that can explain this. Across Africa, with over 257 million people going to bed hungry, the most popular solution is expanding production. But what we don’t hear about as much is that Africa is losing upwards of 50% of all the food produced as post-harvest losses. These losses have topped $48 billion yearly.

Reversing these losses means not only making available more food but also unlocking more income opportunities that would enable more people to afford food and feed themselves and their families. Decentralizing simple solar dryer solutions among informal food traders who supply up to 90% of Africa’s food to enable them to dehydrate perishables and increase shelf life has been proven capable of increasing earnings up to 30 times. Delivering these solutions stands to unlock enterprise opportunities that young Africans must urgently tap into through their enterprising actions.

The second is cultivating passion. Passion is the new currency. Give money to a passionless individual and watch them squander it. Give ideas to passionate individuals and watch them turn ideas into money. We must cultivate passion, which comes from an internally generated desire to offer value in turning community challenges into enterprise opportunities for the many, not looking to benefit alone. Remember, you will not always have money, but you can always have your passion for doing that, which generates value to keep you going.

Third, we must pursue excellence. We must always remember that to reach the top; we must move from ordinary to excellence. Excellence simply means a lifestyle of continuous improvement toward perfecting solutions. Every solution we ideate must be fueled by the constant hunger to improve on it. We must guard this inherent right to become excellent by calling out anyone who attempts to dissuade this pathway.

Fourth, do not make money your ultimate goal. Whenever we ideate and creatively think of solutions, the big picture in our minds must always be the lives that will be touched, not the personal rewards or material rewards that may accrue to us at an individual level. Anytime we do something, we must ask ourselves whether we will be passionate enough to continue even when there is no money. In this way, we insulate ourselves from the reality that money may not always be there, but if we focus long enough on perfecting solutions, these will competitively draw money.


It is said that life is not a competition. But this is not entirely true because even the choices we make in most cases are inherently a competition amongst alternatives, each competing for our attention. Africa is a continent in need of solutions, and the ones that will be most competitive are those that are deliberate in addressing contextual realities. To actualize such solutions, ideation and creativity in devising solutions are irreplaceable. Let us all embrace it.

Dr. Richard Munang is a multiple award-winning environment and development policy thought leader and climate change and sustainable development expert. Richard is also author of 'Making Africa Work Through the Power of Innovative Volunteerism' in 2018.

Robert Mgendi works with the Africa Climate Change Programme.