The first time I heard about the Accelerator Lab was prior to my joining of UNDP. I had been selected for UNLEASH, a global initiative that brings together top talent from all over the world to work on real, scalable solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
During the UNLEASH Innovation Lab, there was a presentation on the UNDP Accelerator Labs. It was then that I heard that Zambia was one of the 60 countries that would lead in the first phase of implementing the Accelerator Labs. I was intrigued and decided to learn more about the lab which was meant to be for designing, implementing, and accelerating solutions towards the SDGs.
My interest was because I was going to commence my 16-month leadership journey with UNDP Zambia in the next few days’ time. My curiosity was ignited and before arriving in the country, I was already looking forward to seeing the Accelerator Lab in action. As a successful candidate of the African Young Women Leaders Programme, a joint fellowship between the African Union and UNDP to employ, power, and equip female young leaders with professional and personal skills , the news of such an initiative and investment on the African continent made me realize the potential of African youth to innovate for development.
I did not imagine at that time that during my fellowship I would be fortunate enough to work with the Accelerator Lab team, through the Country Office Gender Unit to coordinate, co-design, and co-implement the piloting of COVID Compliant Market Models in response to the disruptive COVID-19 outbreak. Dubbed as Safe Communities, Safe Markets Project, the pilot was implemented in three markets in the city of Lusaka.
Through working with the Accelerator Lab as part of my fellowship I was able to rethink “the way to do development’’ through designing and implementing sustainable home-grown solutions to complex development problems.
In a bid to mitigate long term impact on the small informal business sector and provide for business continuity during the COVID-19 outbreak, the UNDP Accelerator Lab and UNDP Gender teams in partnership with the Lusaka City Council (LCC), Ministry of Health (MoH) and working closely with market committees from the three residential areas of Nyumba Yanga, Chilenje and Lilanda designed and developed a model market that promises to help businesses in the community markets to continue operating while minimising the risk of contracting the virus.
‘’ We cannot allow precious lives to be lost when we have the power to do something to stop the scourge’’- Mr.Roland Seri, UNDP DRR.
While the closure of the crowded markets would have been justifiable to limit the contagion of COVID-19, however such a measure would have dangerously impacted food security and economic livelihoods. The closure of the markets would have resulted in negative consequences on the Zambia’s.
My role as the fellow on the project was to ensure coordination. With multiple partners involved and multiple arms of the project happening silmuntaenosuly (trainings, procurement of items, managing the production of communications, planning of the launch, and distribution) coordination was key for successful project outcomes.
Through working on ‘bringing different elements of the project seamlessly together’’, I was able to better understand UNDP’s integrator role that reflects a multidimensional approach to development. I further was able to conclude that on a larger scale this integration and coordination between various partners and sectors is essential for the achievement of the SDGs.
How were the Safe Markets implemented?
UNDP tirelessly worked with the key departments of public health from LCC and MoH; and through established community structures namely Community Based Volunteers and Safety Market Officers, to ensure targeted interventions will have community ownership therefore sustainability.
As an entry point, 75 community-based volunteers and markets safety officers were trained using existing MoH community training modules with the aim to reach households at community levels on the importance of complying to health guidelines.
During the trainings, which I attended, marketeers came up with their own rules on how to keep the markets safe. Each market committee decided who would be responsible for filling the water tanks? Who would be responsible for maintaining the thermometers? Who would be ensuring that the buyers mask up when visiting the market? How crowds can be controlled in the market to comply by social distancing? And how fumigation material could be used?
To translate the trainings into action, UNDP equipped these markets with the required facilities to support compliance among traders and customers. Items to make the three targeted markets safe included: Pedal tanks, soaps, masks, fumigation equipment, and thermometers.
For awareness programmes, communication materials on how to wear a mask and how to make a mask using local material (chitenge) were provided.
In my role coordinating the project, I learned and understood the importance of project communications. Focusing on communications enhanced project outcomes. This was through verifying that the correct information that could be potentially lifesaving (or livelihood saving) regarding COVID-19 was reaching the right people in the right places at the right time.
Through working closely with the communications team and the media consultant, I further enhanced my coordination and my communication experiences.
Who was targeted to make markets safe?
One of the project objectives is to ensure gender equality and empowerment of women by implementing affirmative action for sustaining women’s economic activities in the selected markets.
For small-scale businesses, most of whom are led by women, the call to stay home results in customers retreating into their homes thereby reducing demand on goods and services that they provide. The reduced interaction with their customers has seen some businesses either completely shutting down or substantially scaling down their operations.
Many of the marketeers are single women and most of them use their income for the everyday running of their households. The pandemic has increased the debt burden on these women and pushed their families to the brink of poverty.
‘’The launch of the safe markets project is an example of efforts to reduce vulnerability to reduce Gender Based Violence (GBV) by addressing the economic disempowerment of women resulting from restrictions around COVID-19. The safe markets will enable women, which are the majority of traders in the market, to continue trading in a way that minimizes or at least the limits the risk of COVID-19.’’ - Her Excellency Ms Anna Maj Hultgard (Ambassador of Sweden to Zambia).
The project targeted 1900 traders 950 of which are women. This targeting is expected to increase participation of women in decision making at local/community level.
Additionally, ensuring gender equality in project targeting contributes to the overarching project outcome of economically empowering those marketeers without formal contracts who may lack social protection, to ensure that their vulnerability is not increased and that their livelihoods are safeguarded.
“Women are hit harder by economic impacts such as those COVID-19 is driving, especially as women disproportionately work in insecure labour,” Mohammad Naciri, the head of UN Women in Asia.
As a young women leader, through my fellowship I was determined to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a chance to challenge harmful gender roles and norms as the crisis disrupts and highlights many of the systemic and structural barriers that have held back the advancement of gender equality.
Through working on the Safe Markets, I am proud of the gender lens applied to this project and of seizing the opportunity to address gender inequalities in hopes of creating a fairer, more equitable society as we move towards the recovery from COVID-19.
Concluding reflections on my experience as a fellow with the Accelerator Lab
As the African Young Women’s Leadership Programme soon comes to an end, I was honoured to have gone through the full journey of design, experimentation, and implementation with the Accelerator Lab.
From being intrigued by the Accelerator Lab’s methodologies to being at the heart of the work, this experience has made me feel like I have come full circle.
Through working with the Accelerator Lab, I learned that home-grown solutions are essential for sustainably mitigating local problems.
I learned that the most innovative, game-changing, scalable, applicable, safe, impactful, and long-term solutions are often the simplest and the cheapest.
I learned that the best solutions for communities come from communities.
Most of all, I learned that we are the innovators we have been waiting for.