My Experience as an Innovator in Africa: Micro Modular Solutions

My name is Hasan Darwish, originally from Syria, I landed in South Africa 8 years ago. Back then I had no idea I would be participating in creating solutions for its rural communities. In fact I had no idea of how big the problem was!Awards

I have worked for many private sector companies and managed over 5 Corporate Social Investment projects and rural community initiatives in the past 6 years. However, the one that really started my passion was the Busy Box.

It started as a challenge from my lecturer as to what can be achieved for a final year project (for my engineering degree). I showed that with proper thinking, hard work and ethics anything is possible. I am a skilled and ethical manager who ensures that projects exceed all environmental, social and economic requirements. I have also lectured for part of my professional experience and understand the need for quality data/case studies for research worthy causes. My work has received recognition in the form of an award and media coverage for a unique approach.

These points outline my solution methodology:

  • Perpetual: I strive to develop lasting solutions that are sustainable from an environmental and industrial point of view, and to provide consistent social benefit. For this to be true the philosophies driving any design or innovation project have to be perpetually good by nature.
  • Bright: I strive to find the best and brightest system with the ability to make a difference to ensure that I can always offer cutting edge solutions ahead that are of the market. This means creating bright systems which react intelligently to problems as well creating systems which link the right philosophies with the right technologies.
  • Light: I strive to be a symbol for hope and leadership in under-developed and under-served communities by offering a guiding light that enables those communities to be actively involved in building a better future. Technologies I look at and hope to develop have to be light on power, light on cost and light in weight.

Although we live in the 21st century, starting a business is still very costly and initiative driven.

Growth for businesses into underserved markets has proven difficult and managing social, financial and environmental sustainability is complicated.

This has led to the development of a last mile opportunity gap.

This gap has formed in multiple sectors but can be solved with a simple customizable infrastructure solution. By carefully studying service delivery, it was found that in the 21st century service sector businesses and social initiatives can run if provided with power, payment and support infrastructure to the business owner. For product based businesses an additional supply chain and storage component is added. However, developing such a solution is not solely about providing the hardware infrastructure. A management platform needs to assist the owner in running his infrastructure optimally. Thus, the market needs an inexpensive customizable hardware/software combination which can service multiple product and service sectors for either business or social purposes.

modular designs

The Busy Box Project

Throughout  the past two  years,  there  was  massive  interest  in  the  Busy  Box  project, its operating model and its impact on low income communities. The reason for this is that the Busy Box Theatre was a uniquely designed shipping container which performed a dual functionality as a business and educational initiative. By day, the unit would be a virtual, solar powered, self-sustaining classroom providing learners with world class support and educational services that they would not have access to in current circumstances. By night, the unit would transform into a simple, cashless, secure and sustainable business managed by an owner-operator with the support and partnership of the Modular Creations headquarters. Thus, the vision is to provide revenue generation and social impact in the community through ensuring the sustainability and maintenance of the unit. This showed the potential for setting up a business which develops infrastructure enabling businesses and social initiatives to run in low income and rural communities.

So whats all the fuss about?

Well Modular Creations designs, manufactures and pilots modular businesses inside shipping containers (Modular Innoboxes) in rural and low income communities for a variety of clients.  Our models cater to a variety of social and business opportunities in the field of education, entertainment, transportation, retail (spaza and formal), health services, government services and e-commerce. Each unit produced create 2 jobs. Typically, our units are designed to provide dual social and business functions to encourage sustainability. Each unit is designed to generate R80-R120 thousand profit per year which means a repayment plan of 2-3 years.

Modular Innoboxes are solar powered, low cost, robust, secure, statistic collecting and internet connected.

The units come in 3M, 6M and 12M lengths. In essence they all contain backbone infrastructure (internet, power and payment) with modular interior hardware assets that are upgradable and customizable.  Thus, variation on business models can be catered for and are encouraged. Services are cashless and can be expanded upon by adding extra container modules or combined with other modules to provide more complete service offerings and packages.

Growing Interest

The interest support of large companies, media, the innovation hub, Universities and individuals has shown that the model is doing something right. The combination of bank fundability, cashlesseness, quality, uniqueness, franchising, solar power, internet and customizability play the biggest aspect. There are hundreds of designs to be explored and partnerships to be made. Successful models will yield tens of unit sales. To enable expansion of the Modular Innoboxes they have to make sense from a business point of view. Although the Busy Box aims to be both a social and business venture, it has to prove to be financially sustainable and the unit must be able to pay off its fixed and running costs with the revenue earned by the business. This is why there was a focus on reducing running costs and ensuring quality maintainable products.

Community Power  and Stakeholder Engagement

A dominant preconception is about the community members themselves and their use of services. Many companies have given up on attracting such a market because they believe that the community members are simply not interested or informed enough to decide. Besides being a negative way of looking at almost 80% of the world’s population, it shows that the problem was most likely not properly considered.  Low income communities need services, but the problem is that they truly cannot afford to waste money by trying out different services. The main problem is that products do not necessarily need to be cheap, which is often achieved by reducing quality, they need to be affordable and relevant. If the BoP community can see direct value in the offering given to them they will easily convert to and most likely become loyal to it.

There is a major misdirection in businesses approaching low income communities in the right way. This is currently done by donating money or computers to charities which usually come from Corporate Social Investment (CSI). This is largely incorrect because it is repeatedly found that such donations create liabilities rather than assets. Many NPO’s are starting to see that creating self-sustainable initiatives is the best way to create jobs and facilitate economic growth, and they need to create a vision and strategy to achieve those initiatives. Starting businesses, sustainable projects and skills development programmes are all assets which the community can benefit fro
m. However, donating expensive computers, giving money in the form of cash or grants creates liabilities for theft, corruption and plain laziness. Incentivized assets are the best way to gain community interest, buy-in and ensure a sustainable project in low income communities.

For more information you can contact Hasan at HDarwish@modular-innovations.com and visit his website here.

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