What is a Sustainable Innovation? Cultural and Contextual Discoveries in the Social Ecology of Cooking in an African Slum

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This paper investigates how a close understanding of human activity can inform the design of culturally and contextually sustainable innovations for subsistence markets. Building on existing literature related to poverty alleviation initiatives and an ethnographic field study, this project attempted to understand the cultural and contextual challenges to the substitution of unhealthy and unsustainable biomass as cooking fuels by cleaner and competitive cooking alternatives in Kitintale, an urban slum in Kampala, Uganda. We share new research findings and experience from a recent ethnographic study that reveals the incompatibility of modern innovation theory with the realities of the deeply knitted everyday practices in the social ecology of slum life. As the findings of this project suggest, broad claims that disruptive innovation can shift existing practices, change demand and displace market leaders through the creation of new value networks might not fully apply in a context where the existence of cultural patterns have shaped the evolution of indigenous solutions over generations, and reactivity to daily circumstances is high.

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