The business unusual approach for Malawi’s 21st century challenges

Posted November 12, 2019

There are many local innovations that are used in communities to respond to changing development challenges

By the Accelerator Lab Team in Malawi

When you read stories on Malawi, most cover how tough it is to live here. Stories of poverty, hunger, corruption, poor public services and accumulating waste in cities and townships. Only occasionally do you get to read stories – and in this case, even watch a movie – of an innovator solving key challenges in their village. Yes, the story of William Kamkwamba, the boy who brought windmill-powered electricity to his village using a bicycle and materials from a dump yard.

Although it is very rare to see stories like Kamkwamba’s gain global visibility and recognition, it is not rare to hear of, or see, grassroot innovations in our communities. There are many local innovations that are used in communities to respond to changing development challenges, be it in adapting to climate change, diseases that spread quickly due to floods or accessing health services in rural areas. To tap into these grassroot innovations and ensure development is tackled with a bottom up approach, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) established the Accelerator Labs in 60 countries and territories including Malawi.

Accelerator Labs (AccLabs) are teams responsible for identifying and testing potential solutions to grow to accelerate progress towards sustainable development goals. Each lab has roles for solution mapping, exploration, and experimentation.

Earlier this year, UNDP Malawi announced the plans for the Accelerator Lab in Malawi. We are pleased to announce that we are now on board!

What we are working on

UNDP Malawi’s Innovation Team was pushing the AccLab agenda way before we arrived - and collected a list of challenges from the public in preparation for an open day session in February for recruiting AccLab team members. They then analysed the responses and selected public services, and specifically waste management, as an area for which we will identify solutions to test.

We have picked up this issue and have started engaging Lilongwe City Council as a partner since it is the council's mandate to provide quality public services including running an efficient waste management system.  In our initial meeting with the city council the Deputy Resident Representative, Claire Medina, introduced the lab concept and the lab team to the CEO and management. It was eye-opening for us to learn of the innovations that UNDP and the city council have already collaborated on. These innovations include Waste for Wealth, an initiative where organic waste is turned into manure and sold to generate income for women, and Waste Transfer Stations which promote recycling and composting of solid waste. However, effectiveness of these initiatives and the services by the city council are inhibited by the council’s reducing capacity to handle increasing demand from city residents and institutions, and linking all the various initiatives and stakeholders.

Since the city council is struggling to keep up with collection and reduction of amount of solid waste produced, the AccLab team is now looking for people and teams that are already working in the waste management space either by preventing, reducing or recycling waste. Do you know anyone creating innovative solutions out of waste? We are interested in success ideas or stories - unsuccessful ones too - around waste innovation. We will be holding a sense-making workshop in a few weeks to deeply understand and analyse the problem. We will work with stakeholders spanning private sector players, city council, waste transfer station teams and many more. The workshop will also be used to brainstorm solutions that will later be narrowed down to a few testable ones and then invite innovators to a hackathon. The AccLab team will run a portfolio of experiments to test proposed solutions and possibly work with partners, old and new in the innovation space, to scale up identified solutions.

Get involved

The team is meeting players in the innovation ecosystem who can introduce the AccLab to innovators and other individuals and institutions who will help us find solutions to emerging frontier challenges.

How is your work in Malawi addressing development challenges? Do you know anyone who is creating solutions to problems we face, like William’s windmill? Are you willing to collaborate with others to create such innovative solutions? We want to hear from you. Contact the Accelerator Lab team at and tell us how you can help Malawi accelerate progress towards the sustainable development goals by 2030. You can also visit us at Synergy in New Area 12, Lilongwe.