How to help people in disadvantaged communities? Interview with GG Alcock

How to help people in disadvantaged communities? Interview with GG Alcock

Known to many South Africans as the author of KasiNomics, Third World Child and KasiNomic Revolution, you could say that GG Alcocks’ life started off the tracks. “My parents were political activists who believed that to really change people’s life and to work with them you have to live like them”, GG explains. Raised in a mud hut in Msinga, Kwazulu-Natal, GG grew up “like the other Zulu kids. We had no running water, no electricity. We herded goats and cattle.” Growing up in such a community, and being considered as entirely part of it, had huge benefits, according to GG. First of all was the language. Fluent in Zulu, GG is also conversant in most South African ethnic languages. The second, and probably most important benefit, was to experience such a culture truly and to understand it. Generally, people get the wrong idea of how things are in more impoverished areas. They assume that there is very little activity in those places and that people only sleep or live there. “Yet, corrects GG, the economy within these informal settlements is massive. All the opportunities in the formal sector have been taken to an extent. When you look at informal areas, the opportunities are bigger in many ways.

Understand the community

As a start-up aiming to reduce disparities and to help people in disadvantaged communities, we asked GG Alcock how we could impact those lives. His advice was simple: “Look in the mirror, don’t look out the window.” Entrepreneurs are often inspired by big names such as Elon Musk or Bill Gates, who work on large scale projects. However, says GG, “what is around us is more valuable than looking away.” Taking the example of a company that launched instant noodles ten years ago in Nigeria, GG explains that at first, people thought that it was a crazy idea. Ten years later, Nigeria became the fifth-biggest consumer of instant noodles on the planet. Now, how did that happen? “The company understood the biggest pain points in Nigeria.” First, people struggled to get fuel for cooking, whether it was charcoal, wood or electricity. Also, Nigerians generally look for filling, high protein food. Cooking the usual maize meals takes forty minutes to an hour. To make sure that people would trust their new product, the company partnered with the gatekeepers of the community. In this case, they were women selling food in the streets. By launching those easy, nutritious and fast cooking noodles through those trusted women, “the company checked all the right boxes. They understood all the needs and the culture of those communities. When we understand intimately the issues in a community around us, we’re able to create adequate solutions.

We need to support small businesses

As citizens, we also wondered how we could individually help disadvantaged people. According to GG Alcock, the future of economic activity is “very much about the informal sector”, and there are two ways in which everyone can help its growth. First, support local and small businesses by becoming one of their clients. The issue is that “we would often rather buy fried chicken from KFC than from a small business selling the same product.” Obviously, we cannot forbid people to buy from big international companies their “finger-licking good” products. But if once in a while you change your habit and go to the local restaurant on the corner of your street, KFC -and similar businesses- will not see the difference. On the other hand, it might make a significant change for this local entrepreneur. “The second thing is that people struggle with regulations. We need to find a way to recognize small businesses and protect them.” As an example, GG tells us about this man who was selling sandwiches in the streets of Joburg. The police came and confiscated everything. “This guy was bringing money to support his family. People should recognize and lobby for those small businesses. This way, the authorities will be more likely to consider those. Small businesses are still businesses, and they need recognition, they need protection, and they need support.

Kyle Ueckermann