Victor Langenberg, expert at Dutch institute Deltares, has a long working experience in Africa. He is surprised about the way Western experts try to spread their water innovations across this continent. ‘Listen to local experts and adjust your perception of Africa.’

We meet Victor Langenberg at his office in Delft, which got recently renovated. The landscape outside is under renovation too. ‘It will become greener’, he says. Langenberg talks enthusiastically about the importance of sharing cultural insights to develop innovations that have more relevance in specific local contexts. According to Langenberg, stories can help to better understand the local context.

The African continent is feeling the heat of climate change. Its people are motivated to act now. Dutch governments, knowledge institutes and entrepreneurs are more and more willing to join with innovations in the fields of water, energy and food. However, if you want to implement new technologies, tweaking is crucial to adjust innovations to specific local contexts.

This interview is about the African culture and Dutch innovators that try to be effective in African countries.

Victor Langenberg with local experts. Photo: Victor Langenberg

You have over 25 years of experience in researching and advising on African lakes and river deltas. What triggers you to focus on this continent?
Africa is really booming. It’s the fastest growing continent on earth. The population has reached more than 1 billion people and it is expected to reach 3 billion by 2050. It’s a very inspiring continent, because the economic, sociocultural and political growth is mostly driven by a growing group of highly diverse and young Africans, who combine traditional practices with modern approaches.

Africa is in transition from traditional to modern societies. In their transition they are expected to move from a self-sustaining, low ecological impact society to a monetary system as a modifier of environment. This is interesting for us to understand, since the developed West shows tendencies to move the opposite way. In Africa, “situational experience” is more and more combined with a “problem-solving” attitude. When you do that, anything becomes possible.

Can you give us a quick insight into the misconceptions about Africa?
The most striking one is about size. The continent shows too small on maps. Our children often don’t know that Africa is almost four times the size of Europe. It’s a huge continent – not a country – with large river systems and deltas.

People think about Africa in terms of poverty, corruption, technology gaps and war. Though, in reality, the number of conflicts has decreased. More and more local experts stay in their African counties and undertake innovative enterprises. That’s very inspiring.

Child on a boat. Photo: Victor Langenberg

You are involved in the programme Valorisation and Innovation in Africa (VIA Water) financed by the Dutch government. Can you tell a bit more about the background of this programme?
VIA Water is unique in the sense that we focus on pressing urban water issues in several African countries. New innovations and knowledge are shared to help kick-starting companies that are in the beginning of their development.

We help them to bring their innovations to market readiness and to try and upscale from there. This results in solid innovations and applications, which help solving pressing water and climate issues.

Which countries do you focus on?
We focus on Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda and South Sudan. It’s not restricted to these seven countries though. We also have some projects in other African countries like Senegal. If you look at the entrepreneurial power at local level, then you see that organisations from Ghana and Kenya are sending in most of the ideas and innovations.

Why is that?
Ghana and Kenya have strong local markets. The economies of these countries are growing rapidly. On top of that, there is plenty of expertise available, as well as many entrepreneurs. These mostly young people have a strong drive to start new businesses around pressing water issues in their immediate urban surroundings.

Can you give us an example of a success story?
One of the success stories is the water hyacinth project in Benin. These invasive floating plants are blocking a lot of development around one of their biggest cities. The lake is basically dying. One of the major consequences is that people can’t fish anymore.

People got sick of it and started seeking solutions to address this issue. They are looking for new ways to use water hyacinth and turn it into products that can be marketed locally. Especially for women, who usually don’t have many alternatives, other than helping with fish processing in the delta or subsistence farming, this offers new business opportunities.

They harvest the water hyacinth, dry it, package it and then bring it to the factory, where they get a good price. The factory processes it into a kind of fibre that is used in the shipping and oil industry to absorb pollutants and oily substances.

This innovative local product has a vast social impact and it cleans the environment at the same time. Hence, an inclusive and green project, which is managed locally and of which the products are also marketed locally. This project inspires more people throughout Africa. I am convinced it will have major impact.

Fishing community in Kisimu. Photo: Victor Langenberg

What are your lessons learned in Africa?
In my work for VIA Water and in my role as a member of the Board of the Netherlands-African Business Council (NABC), I get a chance to meet entrepreneurs, investors, academics and NGOs from the Netherlands. They often are convinced that their innovations and technologies will work in Africa. That triggers me, and I then ask the question: How do you implement your idea locally?

Let me illustrate this with an example. I met an entrepreneur, who was convinced that Africa needs drinking water. He invented a great product, which is really durable, easy to build and which uses green technology to produce clean drinking water. He acquired funds, went left and right, but didn’t break through.

I offered him a place at our project location in Kenya to test his product for a while together with local experts. The technology worked, but eventually didn’t draw much attention locally, as the needs of local communities were completely different. Eventually, after quite some discussions and with the help of local people, he got convinced that drinking water was not the issue in Kenya. There is plenty of choice in bottled drinking water.

Thanks to the discussions with local communities, it became clear that the fishing communities were a better target group. There is a huge market for post-processed small fish in East African countries, so they asked him: Could your invention also help in fish post-processing?

Together with the African people, he tweaked his invention into a fish dryer. The local villagers started believing in it as they saw the potential of producing a variety of fish products, which they couldn’t produce without this fish dryer.

It didn’t stop there. Currently, he can dry cassava, bananas and tomatoes. A great opportunity as the market gets flooded with fruit and vegetables during the harvesting season. This results in dropping prices for agricultural produce. The dryer can help to preserve agricultural produce and to turn raw fruits and vegetables in processed products, which have a higher value.

This example illustrates the potential impact of exposing non-African experts to African knowledge and experience. International and African experts can achieve great things together, if they get the opportunity to jointly negotiate how products should be shaped for local markets. This process is challenging, and it requires time and flexibility to reset the agenda, listen to local experts and last but not least: it often requires you to adapt your perception of African development.

Do you have an advice for all other Dutch water experts, who are planning to go to African countries?
When I met one of the leading African experts, who is working on the ambitious Lamu port development plan in Kenya, I asked him: What do you think about the Dutch water experts? He closed the door and told me that we are one of the best in managing complex water issues, but he gave the Dutch one strong advice: please do not knock on my door every week.

Just like the Asians, Americans and Israelis do, the Dutch water should organise itself better. We should have coordination meetings with all public and private stakeholders once or twice a year, to deliver one strong product or inspiring water proposal.

There is quite a lot of cooperation going on between Dutch water parties in Kenya and other African countries. This cooperation is great in intent, but it remains too scattered and follow-up is often poor and therefore not much impact. This is confusing at local level. We could have more impact by working together in well-coordinated partnerships.