Through design thinking, Alimosho youth found treasure in a trash heap

This article is written by Generation Enterprise, which builds socially responsible youth-run businesses that transform communities.

When most people hear the word "design," they usually think of sleek Apple products and colorful Post-its stuck on the wall of a Silicon Valley-style startup. In Lagos they might think of the growing tech hub and open concept incubator spaces in Yaba.

They usually don’t think of Alimosho.

But through an innovative program by the Lagos State Government and a US/Nigeria NGO called Generation Enterprise, formerly unemployed youth in Alimosho are using the tools of "design thinking" to address community needs – and unearth promising business ideas.

The Alimosho area of northwest Lagos is the largest and most populous local government area in Lagos State. It is still developing, with a large low-income population. Igando-Ikotun is one of its four local council development areas, and home to a Job Opportunity Creation Center (JOCC) run by the Lagos State Ministry of Special Duties Department of Job Creation, charged with equipping youth with vocational skills that will increase their chances of earning sustainable livelihoods.

In 2011, the Igando JOCC launched a partnership with Generation Enterprise, an NGO run by young entrepreneurs in Nigeria and the USA. The organization is dedicated to transforming slum economies by equipping youth to get off the streets and become socially responsible business owners and community leaders.

The resulting incubator, housed in the Igando JOCC and run by Generation Enterprise-trained staff, surfaces local needs and tests business solutions that serve or source from the Bottom of the Pyramid.

Says Olabisi Onayemi, Director of Job Creation at the Ministry of Special Duties, "Generation Enterprise and JOCC partner to build lives and destinies, ensuring that the entrepreneurial spirit is brought out in our Nigerian youth."

Onayemi and the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Special Duties, Dr. Remi Desalu, brought the Generation Enterprise program to Igando to provide hands-on business education as well as income generation opportunities to unemployed and low-income graduates of the JOCC's vocational training programs.

But the most transformational aspect of the program thus far has been the skill of "design thinking."

Design thinking is a problem-solving process that generates, tests, and refines new ideas. The design thinking mindset of "seeing with new eyes" helps surface deep consumer insights that lead to game-changing innovation.

"I learned to stop seeing problems everywhere and start seeing opportunities," said Adejuwon Suyi, a young man who trained in electrician skills at the JOCC and launched a handyman business called Astech with Generation Enterprise.

Before pitching and launching a microenterprise, each incubator program participant took part in design thinking exercises, in which small teams of youth spent days "in the field," observing and interviewing people in their neighborhood and mapping out assets and needs in their own communities.

No problem was too big to reframe through the lens of design thinking – even the huge local trash dump.

The dump was a familiar site to most Alimosho residents. It sat next to the Igando JOCC and stretched as far as the eye could see. A Generation Enterprise volunteer wrote: "No description of the challenges really prepares you though for the sight of the enormous rubbish dump swarming all day with desperate homeless migrants fighting birds, bulldozers, and each other to scrape together the prime pieces of rubbish. This is the view from the classroom our 20 Fellows [program participants] have occupied every day and often weekends... When the power goes off—and it seems to be more off than on—the stench of the rubbish wafts through the windows."

The dump was the last place local youth expected to associate with hope and opportunity. That is, until a team of them walked in and launched a successful microenterprise to help dump workers stay clean and healthy.

Launching a business was a core part of the Generation Enterprise/JOCC incubator program. The youth-run microenterprises were where participants "learned by doing." Generation Enterprise seeded microenterprises that served as a "living business skills lab," where the youth applied lessons in value creation, customer service, record-keeping, and team- and self-management.

Encouraged to look beyond yet another undifferentiated mango stand or recharge card business, the youth walked around Igando, drawing on their own lives and those of their neighbors to find worthy community problems to tackle. They had learned that the best entrepreneurs act like anthropologists or social scientists. In a Harvard Business Review article, Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen wrote about how successful innovators and entrepreneurs tend to be careful observers.

In fact, observing – viewing customers and their behavior in the context of their lives – is the first of three steps taught at the Stanford Institute of Design, or 'D school' in California. By observing, engaging, and immersing, design thinkers arrive at empathy with the people they are designing for. They build an understanding of the needs, dreams, and behaviors of the people they want to affect. The Alimosho team "looked with new eyes" for unmet needs in their community – and realized the dump they walked by every day was a huge, desperate need, sitting right in front of them.

The aspiring youth entrepreneurs spoke to the dump workers about their lives and shadowed them as they worked. Conditions were noisy, hot, and dirty. There were no bathrooms, no places to wash their hands before eating a small midday meal.

The youth began to brainstorm. Several in the group had taken part in the JOCC’s vocational training in soap-making. The team members pooled their Generation Enterprise seed funding (a mere N2,000 per head) in order to start prototyping a sanitation solution for the dump workers. They eventually came up with an antiseptic solution in clean repurposed water bottles from a local recycling plant.

The first time they brought their offering to the dump, they sold out almost immediately and more than doubled their tiny startup capital.

Debriefing with the team, Generation Enterprise volunteer Fairlie Chappuis reflected:

"They met a huge need this way among the rubbish dump workers, who do such dangerous dirty work... They come from all over Africa, apparently attracted by the big lights, bright city reputation of Lagos, and quite literally end up as the human layer on the city's waste pile.

Our programme teaches Fellows that their business should meet not only customer needs, but the social and development needs of their community."

In a speech to government officials, soap-making trainee-turned-entrepreneur Timilehin Akinpelu said "Generation Enterprise has made me useful – to myself, to my community, to Nigeria."

Do you have ideas for community needs that Generation Enterprise can tackle with business solutions? Contact Generation Enterprise at joinus@generationenterprise.org.

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