From Trash to Tower Block: How a simple SoCC concept raises people’s aspirations

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During my recent visit to Kenya, I had the privilege to visit my friend Geeta Mehta’s brilliant Social Capital Credits (SoCCs) concept implementation site in Kisumu (Manyata). Geeta (of Asia Initiatives, http://www.asiainitiatives.org) has developed this ambitious and innovative model of social development to tackle poverty and promote community spirit. SoCCs is a bottom-up initiative, giving power and the freedom of choice to communities and thereby making them stakeholders in their success. It is a transformative community currency to incentivize community members for doing social good within their communities, and in return earn credit points for doing things that they would have otherwise not done.

SoCCs can be earned (individually or as a community) via waste management (collecting, recycling or disposal), keeping the environment clean, children’s education (sending kids to school, giving tuition), community projects (planting trees or growing vegetables), vaccination, attending training workshops, and so on. The earned credit points can be redeemed for school fees/uniforms/supplies, skill training, health care (including insurance), public amenities (with the community combining and using their credit points together), getting provisions, mobile phone talk time, home improvements (solar lamps, cooking stoves, etc.), and so on. The community as a whole has a big stake in deciding what areas they would like to earn credit points in and in what areas they would like to spend them (more details about SoCCs can be found on the Asia Initiatives website).

The Manyatta site in Kisumu is being used as one of the 4 pilot project sites to test out the SoCCs concept and has been active for the past 6 months. One can already see positive results coming out of this concept. A group of 20 members, mainly women, were selected from an already existing group (part of the Alice Visionary Foundation Project) that has been active for the past 2 years. All active members have other professions through which they also earn their livelihood but are actively finding time to participate in the SoCCs program which most find worth investing time in. 15 new members have recently joined the group and interest to join from others in the local community is growing day by day.

Although 6 different SoCCs activities (waste management, food hygiene, establishment of soccer team, homework assistance, Immunization, and kitchen gardens) had been identified in Manyatta as a way to earn credit points, only one of garbage collection is currently active for various reasons. Garbage is collected and sorted (plastic, glass, paper, etc.) from neighbourhood homes by the members twice a week at designated times. This is then weighed and recorded (including digital photograph of the collector and the weighing scale) in the collector’s individual logbooks. The logbooks show the time, date, weight of garbage, credit points given and signatures from collector and manager. This is a very time consuming task but helps avoid misunderstandings and cheating. Recyclables are then sold to dealers and a local garbage collector collects the rest of the garbage, for a sum of money. The local municipality does not provide such a service to most part of the town, let alone a place like Manyatta.

 

It was garbage-collection day when I visited and I could witness the whole process of weighing and recording the amount in logbooks. I was impressed by the discipline with which the whole exercise was conducted but surprised to see that the garbage wasn’t thoroughly sorted and that there were still bottles, papers, vegetable waste and all kinds of other things that could be recycled in the pile of rubbish waiting final collection. On the other hand I felt it is a great achievement that garbage is finally being collected and sent away for a sum of money, and is not littering the neighbourhood and clogging the drains. I saw pictures of the place before the project started and now; the place has been transformed from a large dumping site full of litter, to a place which looks clean and organised and where the members grow vegetables! The group has a common patch of land (which used to be a garbage dumping place and where one can still find layers and layers of plastic in the ground) where they grow vegetables to sell and earn money for the group. Few of the members also have their own small kitchen gardens where they grow vegetables like spinach. Surprising to me was that such farming “techniques” had to be taught, or brought to light, to the community and no one had so far thought about making compost out of kitchen waste; the latter was dumped with the rest of the garbage.

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There is an increased self-awareness of community members about their environment and they appear to be working hard to keep it this way. After initial scepticism and not believing that they will benefit from their social engagement (due to past experiences of being cheated and false promises made by other organisations), the enthusiasm for earning even more credit points has grown tremendously. There is positive competition and high motivation amongst the existing group members taking part in the study, with more new members wanting to join.

Most members have already redeemed their earned credits and it was interesting to see that even the (financially) poor get their priorities right when it comes to spending or investing in their or their children’s future. Credit points have been redeemed mainly for school fees for their children, health insurance for their families, solar lamps so that their children can study when dark, umbrellas to give shade to their wares (fruit, vegetables, meat, etc.) which they sell on the side walk, and on energy saving cooking stoves for instance. The community credit points have been redeemed for chairs, which they rent out for functions, thereby generating income for their group.

This group has managed to demonstrate that it is possible to build the community spirit and social capital that the SoCC concept is aiming at. However, this pilot study may be a “success” (so far) due to its implementation in an already existing active and disciplined group, with good leadership, and trust and cooperation from all involved. It would be interesting to see how the concept would work if 20 randomly selected neighbours were asked to be part of the exercise. Another aspect which one can has played a major role in the “success” is the availability of funds (from Women Strong International) to pay for redeemed credit points (for school fees, insurance, umbrellas, solar lamps, stoves, etc.). Without the availability of constant funding from somewhere to redeem the earned points, it may be difficult to sustain this brilliant concept on the long run unless the big development agencies with the necessary funds implement this concept into their work. Another major challenge to this wonderful concept is the difficulty of quantifying work done, the time consuming verification, and monitoring of the tasks undertaken. Without trustworthy and professional managers on the ground to carry out such tasks, and without the funds to pay and hire them, the SoCC idea could be jeopardised.

One other credit earning activity such as homework assistance is becoming difficult to monitor, assess or supervise and is therefore currently inactive. The other 4 activities have not been started to date, largely due to lack of staff to monitor the activity and lack of funds.

What impressed me most was the members’ enthusiasm for what they were doing and what they wanted to achieve. Their breaking words to me were that they would like to earn enough credit points to build jointly a tower block in the future, on land which is currently being used by kids to play football! This says something! At the end of the day (if funds happen to dry up), even if they continue collecting garbage and keeping their environment clean, it will have been an exercise worth it for their community spirit.

To see some of the photos from Kisumu take a look here.

Mayuri Odedra-Straub is on AI’s Board of Advisers.


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