To go far, go together!

Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), an area-based community development organisation, has used social innovation to co-produce strong neighbourhood economies while helping to fight COVID-19.

VPUU is successfully building strong and sustainable neighbourhoods with social innovation and integrative partnerships. The organisation is of the opinion that integrated and holistic co-production of safety needs to be adopted in as many neighbourhoods as possible in South Africa as well as across the world. VPUU believes safety is a public good, a human right, and that high levels of violence and crime are key factors stifling development. This is particularly true for under-resourced areas such as townships and informal settlements.

Co-creating safety is an adaptive challenge that requires innovative approaches and solutions to improve people’s quality of life.

Learning social innovation as an adaptive model

The concept of social innovation focuses attention on the ideas and solutions that create social value – as well as the processes through which they are generated, regardless of where they are coming from.

Social innovation is defined by California’s Stanford University professor Sarah Soule and her colleagues Bernadette Clavier and Neil Malhotra as “the process of developing and deploying effective solutions to challenging and often systemic social and environmental issues in support of social progress. Social innovation is not the prerogative or privilege of any organisational form or legal structure. Solutions often require the active collaboration of constituents across government, business, and the non-profit world”.

Fundamental to the success of social innovation are two principles: inclusive opportunities (i.e. supporting projects that will directly impact people in resource-poor communities), and inclusive participation (i.e. including people who are living and working in the community to be a part of the innovation that will impact them).

COVID-19 calls for new approaches and strategies

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“COVID-19 is an amplifier of the disparities in our society. It also shines a bright light on the existing income and wealth fault lines in our society and the destabilising impact this is having. We cannot simply carry on with business as usual. The ‘new normal’ must look and feel radically different,” says Michael Krause, CEO of VPUU.

He argues further: “Unprecedented times require unprecedented solutions. Innovation comes through integrating the best minds around one topic. Our mission is to improve the quality of life at a neighbourhood level, and with COVID-19 forcing a change in how we work, it has spotlighted South Africa’s frightening digital divide. Hence, we aspire to provide an innovative internet system that is agile, smart, owned by the people and doesn’t use your personal information and habits as commodity to make profit.”

For him, the way forward is clear: “Transparency, common ownership and collective efforts will change disparities and allow inclusive solutions for the common good.”

The VPUU team looked for responses that were rapid and effective, but different to the traditional disaster relief approach. This required a cultural mind shift, design thinking and deployment at scale. It meant more risk, as well as the potential for greater impact. VPUU understood that local problems required local solutions, local community buy-in, cooperation and active participation.

By partnering with at-risk communities, the organisation had an enabling and supportive role in those solutions. The successful solutions were then developed to scale into similar environments where communities have identified similar challenges. This inclusive approach to innovation protects communities from poor planning and misaligned development agendas.

Information technology plays a pivotal role in accelerating meaningful responses and scaling deployment. Below are some innovative projects VPUU are busy scaling and iterating.

Building a community circular economy

As part of VPUU’s response to COVID-19 it has delivered weekly food packages directly to children below six years and parents in some of the poorest areas. Parallel to the food packages, it prototyped digital food vouchers that could only be redeemed at local spaza shops. The vouchers reached about 750 people in four communities. This approach was more convenient, people can avoid undignified queues and it also allows them to choose what they need most. Supporting the local circular neighbourhood economies ensures that the local spaza shops survive in economically challenging times.

This Community Care (Co-Care) digital voucher platform was developed by a number of civil society organisations, including DG Murray Trust and the South African Council of Churches, in collaboration with fintech companies specialising in delivering services to informal settlements and townships (Flash and Kazang). The Co-Care voucher is one of the tools used by the Western Cape Food Forum, where civil society and government have a structured approach. It emerged from the Cape Town Together CAN network and many other organisations that have supported and partnered with VPUU.

The pilot was so successful that VPUU was able to enrol the City of Cape Town and the German Development Cooperation to scale the initial pilot from 750 households to over 20 000 households in eight neighbourhoods across Cape Town. These are areas where VPUU had been partnering with local communities and actively co-producing safety interventions over many years.

Food and nutrition

VPUU has also aided local food production in 74 gardens with infrastructure support and vouchers. About 200 food kitchens serving around 200 000 meals per week have been supported through vouchers for ingredients and the volunteers have also received vouchers.

The Early Childhood Development (ECD) and learning sector has been identified as the highest risk group. Stunting is an ongoing issue in South Africa and is exacerbated in times of crisis. Hence, about 3 500 pregnant women have received the digital vouchers with specific education around the 10 most nutritional foods to ensure the development of mother and child during pregnancy. VPUU and their partners Grow Great and Embrace are testing a scenario of extending the child support grant to pregnant women.

During the first wave of the pandemic, ECD attendance dropped to 13% of the normal level – an all-time low since South Africa entered the democratic era. This meant no education for 87% of the country’s children. Structured early learning is the most cost-efficient crime and violence prevention intervention, as it is those early years in which the foundation for adult life is cast. In addition, closed crèches mean no fees and no income for teachers, which means mainly women are unemployed.

VPUU has responded by providing about 13 500 parents of children aged six and below, and 1 156 ECD teachers with digital vouchers. The organisation has also provided COVID-19 compliance packs of sanitisers and PPE to the 264 formal and informal crèches in the eight neighbourhoods they have worked with.

In addition, VPUU has equipped ECDs with waterless environmentally friendly sanitation, play equipment and safety features for a better learning environment. However, given the reality that many crèches may not reopen again due to the economic impact of the pandemic, they have had to find new ways of learning. During the first wave, VPUU tested a few options of continued early learning via workbooks as part of weekly packs to households with children. This later changed to WhatsApp messages and notes and they continue to explore innovative ways to support learning and create platforms that are universally accessible.

Technology to bridge the digital divide

The explosion in demand for internet access caused by COVID-19 has highlighted the inequality of internet access and affordability in South Africa. VPUU uses technology, such as V-NET, as the cornerstone of its social innovation strategy. V-NET is a wireless network built by VPUU and local communities to unlock access to communication, online and offline educational content and services, technical capacity building, and local economic opportunities.

Since the organisation runs applications from its own servers on its own locally-hosted network, access to content does not require an internet service. This allows the community to access quality, curated content at no data cost, which holds the potential to move people from passive consumers of digital content to active creators, designers and developers.

V-NET offers stable, affordable internet and mesh network access to communities as a currently free-to-use resource, and to businesses at a much more affordable rate. It connects communities through infrastructure, which in turn has spin-offs for local entrepreneurs, educators and creators.

During the hard lockdown VPUU expanded the Wi-Fi service from a single hotspot to a network of access points to cover 80% of the Lotus Park neighbourhood in Gugulethu. This allowed much-needed access to critical learning resources for students, scholars and the ECD parents. By the end of 2020, V-NET had established 24 access points in Lotus Park, Monwabisi Park as well as Harare and it is adding 50 more. Since the initial lockdown in 2020 V-NET user numbers have soared from 2 000 to 18 000.

Technology for improved service delivery

Krause argues: “Information, communication and technology for development has the potential to enable learning and the exchange of knowledge, as well as the collection, storage and interpretation of information. Most importantly, it is changing the way we identify social issues and conceptualise, design and implement solutions. Thus, it could increase the speed, efficiency and efficacy of basic service delivery in informal settlements.”

The CheckIT system enables residents to easily report any issues with communal taps, toilets and other services in informal settlements. This mobile application with a cloud database has an intuitive interface that enables residents to help streamline the maintenance process of these facilities. This data flow can be seen as evidence-based conversation between the community and the state – a catalyst for development.

Trained community workers can attach photos of faults to their reports as well as capture the exact GPS coordinates of faulty services. These fault reports are uploaded to an online database and sent to the relevant repair centre in the City of Cape Town as structured service requests.

In areas where CheckIT was used the functional service level of communal taps rose quickly and conversely, once the reporting stopped the tap functionality dropped off over a few months.

CheckIT has been operating in three informal settlements over the past few years but was recently scaled to 25 settlements as part of a comprehensive COVID-19 response in the Western Cape. It has also spawned a sibling in Ethekwini through the Open Cities Lab.

Active boxes for an agile response

The pandemic has required a speedy response, especially in informal settlements. For VPUU this has been possible due to its deep-rooted pre-existing relationships in those neighbourhoods. VPUU’s Active Boxes are small community centres that, among other things, include community information offices (CIOs).

Residents can register their personal information for record keeping at these CIOs, and by doing so have the opportunity to access legitimate and incremental land tenure. Government departments access this information to optimise and improve service delivery. It also helps them locate residents for distribution of grants, chronic medication and many other services.

CIOs are driven by local engagement and local community members receive training to collect and capture data from households, manage the CIO and distribute information upon request to community members and other stakeholders.

Since 2015, VPUU has assisted with the set-up of two CIOs located in Gugulethu and Khayelitsha and has an almost 100% household registration rate. The Active Boxes are also the base for V-NET.

“So, while we all fight the virus collectively, we are simultaneously co-producing robust neighbourhood economies driven by inclusive innovation through partnerships with citizens, civil society, local businesses and the City of Cape Town,” Krause concludes.