Map the System: Plastic Waste in Ghana

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The ‘African Transformers’ team from Ashesi University competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world at the event, reaching the live public final as one of six finalists in the competition. Team members Lloyd Teta, Denver Chikokonya, Munyaradzi Madzoma, Nadine Afkwah Tim and Marshal Ruzvidzo tell us how they mapped the system to understand the root causes of improper waste management in Ghana.

African Transformers is a team of five undergraduate Engineering students at Ashesi University in Ghana. We come from two countries: Zimbabwe and Cameroon. In our freshman year, we connected over a common problem of plastic waste management in our Foundation of Design and Entrepreneurship class. Despite completing the course, we decided to continue the project because we could attest to the fact that improper waste management is not only a problem in Ghana but also in our home countries of Cameroon and Zimbabwe. When we were introduced to Map the Systems, we saw it as an opportunity to learn about the systems thinking approach of problem-solving and to expand our research and work.

To understand the root causes of the problem and its effects beyond what we had seen in our communities, we conducted 22 interviews with students, itinerant plastic collectors, plastic waste buyers, market vendors and representatives from recycling companies. We also carried out secondary research by studying and analyzing research papers, academic literature, national policy publications, news articles, websites, and Governmental reports. Our study of existing solutions made us realize that the problem of improper plastic waste management would be almost impossible to solve if we cannot identify why the problem persists.

Visual map showing the plastic waste problem persisting in Accra. Recycling facilities, population growth, government policies, poverty, people's mindset, capital and plastic production leads to poor plastic waste management.
Visual Here is a map showing why the problem persists in Accra

Gaps in Existing Solutions

  • Waste Collection Companies fail to segregate plastic waste from other solid waste after collection
  • The Government: No proper regulation on the operation of waste management agencies. Poor implementation of plastic management policies.
  • Informal Waste Collectors: Lack of credibility, since high volumes of plastic waste are required as minimum selling quantity.
  • Recycling Companies: Only a small range of plastics is recycled
  • Sensitization by NGOs: These organizations are not consistent with campaigns for plastic waste management due to a lack of funding and sensitization strategies to draw the local people’s attention.

System Map

Based on our research, we came up with a map that shows the different stakeholders within our system and how they interact. Modelling these interactions helped us see that stakeholders such as Informal Waste Collectors are often neglected but they contribute largely to solving the issue of improper plastic waste management. They are said to collect, sort and recycle up to 18% of the total municipal waste generated in small communities within Accra and can reach rural communities that other stakeholders cannot reach. So, we hope to leverage this information to create a sustainable business model that will connect these waste collectors to recycling companies and allow them to deliver waste to the companies at a standard fee.

systems map

Key Insights and lessons learned

  1. We thought that turning to biodegradable plastic was the way forward to manage plastic waste, but we realized that drastic change would take many years before implementation, the reason being that biodegradable plastics are still expensive to produce.
  2. We also realized that sustainable solutions are the ones that come from within society. Solutions should blend with the typical lifestyle of the people.
  3. Solutions that work in other countries may not work in Ghana. So, there is a need for appropriate technologies built for the context of Accra.
  4. We believe that everyone has a part to play in saving our land, sea life and our communities from the effects of plastic waste. The governments alone cannot eliminate plastic waste from the environment, neither can an individual, but with collective action we can reduce improper plastic waste disposal.

Our journey to the top six finalists was interesting due to the transition online. We had to adjust to changes and meeting other teams virtually gave us the chance to connect on various platforms like Slack and share ideas. Moving forward, we will use what we learnt from the Map the System competition to continue our research and publish our findings as an open-source document for other researchers to build on our work.

Everywhere is Different and Everywhere is the Same

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System competition held its Global Final virtually. As a member of this year’s judging panel, Ed Straw shares his insights.

The more researchers are conscious of their ‘traditions of understanding’ in relation to the subject, the less biased will be the output. Through culture, education and experiences of many forms, everyone holds preconceptions about their field of study – their ‘positionality’. The tendency for many is for US-European norms in economics, democracy, science and so on to be the starting point. As a judge for the Map the System competition, surfacing my own inbuilt assumptions in relation to each of the 31 finalists is a tenet of systems thinking. This was not easy. The entries ranged from the Youth Suicide Crisis in India to Why Women-Owned Businesses in South African Townships Fail, from Consumer Food Waste in Navarre to Affordable Housing in Utah. Everywhere is different.

Yet, I came away with the sense of ‘Yes, and Everywhere is the Same.’ What struck me most was the commonalities in many of the entries. The most obvious example is menstruation. This is actually an issue that affects over 3.5bn people for long parts for their lives. Normalising periods, treating them as just another bodily function requiring proper facilities and materials to be readily available in every institution, being able to talk about them in an understanding and knowledgeable way, not stigmatizing and so on would benefit so many lives. It is a common global issue. ‘There will be blood’ as one entry put it so succinctly. At its root, it is about shifting social norms.

This theme extended to several other entries where appalling norms in the treatment of women are underlying high adolescent pregnancy in Peru, female genital mutilation in Somalia and modern slavery in Papua New Guinea. But where is the global learning in shifting social norms?

Youth homelessness in Vancouver brought out another commonality – the lack of coordination and integration by public and third sector agencies. Funding is not the issue: masses of it appear to be available. As so often, it is poor overall governance leaving lots of intermediate interventions with few aimed at the whole person and the purpose of the funding. How often have I seen that. At what point will the world of government know instinctively that sound governance is where any solution has to start?

Poor plastic waste disposal in Accra Ghana, fake news in Germany, systemic barriers to public transportation in Boston US, the flooding crisis in Canada, type 2 diabetes in Latino-American communities, and depression in China are all entries with universal insights. Yet few of them get transported around the world, as a matter of course.

This led me on to thinking about the sort of ‘global learning engine’ that has been so effective in developing world class manufacturing from Japanese practice in automotive and consumer electronics from the 80s onwards, which is now almost universal in its application. It is the reason we can buy products of such extraordinary complexity, use and reliability, and at such comparatively low cost. These learning engines consist of management gurus, consultants, trade and specialist journals and news media, design authorities, business schools, industry analytics, trade associations, professional institutes, software developers, state funded R&D institutions and more. All of them are intent on scouring the world for what works best, why, and how, and transferring this knowledge.  

Could world class governing and government be developed through a global learning engine? Bits and pieces of knowledge transfer do happen. The OECD’s Observatory of Public Sector Innovation is working hard in this direction. A few university departments are active (e.g. Arend Lijphart at the University of California). This competition is a fine example. But the total is tiny compared to the billions spent on knowledge acquisition and application in the commercial world. And typically governments are spending 40% of a country’s GDP, a vast sum that would be spent so much better stimulated by universal knowledge transfer and application.

The faster this learning platform can be activated and institutionalized, the faster governments will improve. None of the situations of concern analysed by the entrants would be solved through the application of today’s, often ramshackle political processes. Politics is more often an obstacle than an answer. Systems thinking works. In 2017 the UN, the WHO and OECD all called for the use of systems thinking to deal with highly complex problems. Which issue in government these days is not? Rise up systems thinkers – our time has come.


Ed Straw, Visiting Research Fellow at the Open University’s Applied Systems Thinking in Practice unit, headed by Professor Ray Ison, with whom he recently co-authored a book on The Hidden Power of Systems Thinking, and its application to governments and governance.

Map the System: Menstrual Inequity in the United States

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The team from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world at the event, coming in second place in the competition. Team members Angela, Ajaita and Jiho tell us their key learnings from taking part, and how they mapped the system to explore menstrual inequity in the United States.

Choosing Our Topic

We were originally nervous about this topic, unsure of how much information we’d find on menstrual inequity, especially for such an economically privileged country like the United States. Menstrual inequity is often focused in regions within the Global South, such as Kenya and India, but its debilitating consequences affect menstruators from nearly all nations and cultural backgrounds.

Our team is composed of menstruators from across the United States, from California to Illinois to New Jersey. However, we all shared something in common: we were menstruators and people of color who came to the table with stories. Ajaita was diagnosed with hormonal imbalance after four consecutive weeks of menstruating. Jiho’s sister thought she was dying when she got her first period, as she grew up as the oldest daughter in a family that didn’t talk about periods openly. On a happier note, Angela’s father was very supportive and helped with numerous stains around the house, but she soon realized her experience was unique.

We are lucky to say that we are among the more privileged menstruators in our country, but there are millions who face regular in access to clean menstrual products; stigma from peers, family members, and general society; as well as systemic power abuses that maintain sexist and harmful practices. Notably, we were shocked by the treatment of incarcerated individuals, trans and intersex menstruators, and the persistent ignorance by our government.

Learning Systems Thinking

The people we interviewed were especially receptive and eager in teaching us more about the menstrual justice space, and we can’t thank them enough for their help and passionate activism, even through this pandemic. A special shout out to our mentor, Valeri Werpetinski, who not only encouraged us to pursue this topic, but also consistently believed in our team (with several hour long sessions of constructive feedback and advice).

However, systems thinking was a completely new territory for us to explore, and our initial and final iterations looked vastly different from each other. Our campus presentation had strong storytelling components, but our focus on individual stakeholders and institutions caused a disconnect within the visual map. After researching systems-thinking tools, we realized that the information we compiled needed to be presented with more depth and complexity. Our final iteration for the global competition reflects this mind-set change, as we seeked to deliver a holistic view of menstrual inequity and its tangential systems.

Systems thinking has taught us to dig beyond the surface. Breaking down each entrenched aspect of this intimidatingly enormous issue became empowering as we learned that by dismantling one system, we could impact and help dismantle others. By deepening our understanding of the movement, we learned to stand with stakeholders and to view them as people who are stuck in cycles driven by an unjust system. Instead of researchers looking in from the outside, we became active members within the space.

What We’re Doing Now

This project has allowed us to access an incredibly welcoming space, with all of us joining the nonprofit Operation Period. While funding product donations and spreading awareness, OP has also taken a de-colonization and abolitionist approach to tackle menstrual injustice effectively. Ajaita, as Co-Art Director, is currently working on projects to spread awareness across the country. Jiho, as Podcast Producer, is lifting voices from different spaces in the movement. Angela, as Education Director, is updating the onboarding and shared curriculum to reflect their systemic approach. Through this, we aim to keep educating ourselves while transitioning our Map the System project onto our own independent website and resource to menstrual systems.

We’re thankful for all the support we’ve received, and for the opportunities given to us by Map the System. We hope you’ll join us in our fight against menstrual inequity.

There Will Be Blood Team

(Angela, Ajaita, and Jiho)

Four things I learned from taking part in Map the System

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The team from Mount Royal University competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world at the event. Team member Jillian Mah shares her learnings from the process of mapping the Canadian charity system for the competition.

Over the past 10 months, I joined a team at Mount Royal University to compete in the Map the System Competition alongside two wonderful people, Ashley Dion and Matthew Taburadaf for whom I am incredibly grateful to have worked with. 

I won’t speak for them, but here are a few of the many things I’ve learned over the course of the project.  

1. You don’t know complexity until you’re sucked into 100 holes, but it’s good learning!

When we started this project, we had no idea how big it would grow into. What began as a small curiosity about a trend quickly grew into a massive exploration of human psychology and behaviour, feedback loops, organizational dynamics, funding models, ideologies, statistics, data, policy, and philosophy. Being a beginner in most of these areas, it was a lot to take on, but in a way, it was an advantage to take a birds-eye view of these things and make connections between them. Because of the freedom we allowed ourselves to explore, Map the System was one of the best educational experiences I’ve had. 

2. Systems maps mean nothing unless they tell a story.

Speaking of complexity, making sense of the complexity is a challenge on its own. Language and representation are powerful, and the smallest details make such a difference. The implications of representation, narrative, language, visuals, hierarchy, centering, and production are many. Further, representation cannot be done without bias, and I’ll be the first to say my biases were challenged during this project. Turning complex research into a clear, simple story is an act that requires careful attention. 

3. Systems and human experiences cannot be separated. 

Systems are created and maintained by people. Our ideas, histories, and values inform every part of our systems. Systems also affect people, and understanding people needs to be at the centre of the conversation. Consequently, within Canada, there are many different ways of thinking about social good, and even ways more globally. Questions like whose job it is to create social good, how to go about it, and what our expectations are of each other and ourselves have no single answer.

4. Building on this, there is no single way of creating change

A question that we were asked multiple times throughout the course of the project was, unsurprisingly, “so what?” What should we do to make sure people are taken care of? What do we need to fix? 

Fair enough, that’s a good question. And our answer? Well, there is no simple answer, since there is no single definition of social good. What we do know is that meaningful, sustainable change comes from systemic change, and the part of the system that change comes from is our people and their mental models. The systems we design and our fundamental ways of knowing are closely intertwined.

Change is not a one-way street. Shifts in the system require a shift in mental models, just as shifts in mental models require a shift in the system. It’s not enough to just focus on local or systems levels; both are necessary.

Importantly, however, this leads me right back to my first point about complexity. The complexity of systems is what makes them so wicked, yet so intriguing to explore. Systems will always be hard to fully understand, and even harder to change. Systems mapping is nothing short of a challenge, but one of the most worthwhile challenges to take on. Awareness, intent, learning, and finding wonder are values I hold close to my heart, and the Map the System challenge offered me every opportunity to embrace these values.

If you are interested in learning more about our project or otherwise, please feel free to reach out to me.

Map the System: adolescent pregnancy in Peru

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The team from University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world, making it to the final six and presenting their work to a public audience. Sara Surani and Annie Kuster entered the Map the System competition as an excuse to dive deeper into a topic and a community they had been interested in working alongside for years, and here they share how they mapped the system to address adolescent pregnancy in Peru.

Sara and Annie met in November of 2018 in Lima, the capital city of Peru. They were both on a Fulbright fellowship studying similar topics in different regions of the country: Annie was researching the efficacy of storytelling methodology among teenage mothers in Cusco (mountain region); Sara was researching barriers to access health and education in Lima (urban region) and communities along the Amazon and Marañón Rivers in northern Peru (jungle region).

Over a combined nearly 30 months in Peru, Annie and Sara formed deep connections with the young women they were working with, and found themselves inspired by their stories of empathy, resilience, and strength. Structural issues in Peruvian society became more personal as challenges like “health care access” were explained through the eyes of Joanna, the 15-year-old mother who had experienced human trafficking while searching for an illegal abortion, and Maria, who had to travel a full day in canoe to reach the nearest clinic before dark, only to have the clinic refuse health services.

While listening to stories of girls and their communities, Sara and Annie realized that their journey supporting and amplifying the voices of these girls had just begun. After her grant finished, Sara stayed in Peru to continue working with youth in the northern Amazon, and Annie pursued a Master’s degree in International Development & Policy at the Harris School of Public Policy.

Through Harris, Annie was introduced to the Oxford “Map the System” competition and immediately reached out to Sara. They were still intent on finding the best way to support community development efforts targeting the health and well-being of these girls, and Annie saw the Oxford competition as an opportunity to leverage their existing contacts and dive deeper before attempting their ultimate goal: founding a community-based organization focused on promoting reproductive health and youth empowerment. They decided to name their organization “Nayaraq”, or “one with many dreams” in the Peruvian native language of Quechua.

To formulate their ideas, systems map, and final report, Annie and Sara read through secondary reports in English and Spanish, published by internal entities like the Peruvian government and local think tanks, as well as external organizations criticizing and comparing the Peruvian handling of the issue, including UNFPA and Oxfam. Annie and Sara also reached out to contacts across Peru, including healthcare workers and midwives, stakeholders in the Ministries of Health and Education, local NGOs, and thought leadership at women’s rights organizations like Promsex, Plan International, and APROPO.

Although they spoke to over 130 stakeholders in the public and private sectors, Sara and Annie prioritized understanding adolescent perspectives. In what ways is the current system failing them? How can we collaborate with and empower youth to address their needs in order to improve reproductive health agency? How can the Nayaraq team help support catalytic change?

Sara and Annie realized that existing solutions were not efficiently collaborating across sectors and geographies. There is currently a deep divide between resource access in rural and urban regions, and strong communication gaps between the public and private sector. Existing programming relies heavily on eliminating financial barriers to healthcare access and nominally promoting comprehensive sex education without adapting to the diverse cultural contexts of each region. Furthermore, the majority of existing solutions are targeted specifically and exclusively for adolescent girls without consideration of boys’ roles in the reproductive health of their communities.

Therefore, Annie and Sara identified the following critical gaps in existing programming, leading to what they believe to be important levers of change: 

Critical gaps in programming are limited access to healthcare, limited female labor market participation, Machista power dynamics, lack of comprehensive sex education and oversimplification and centralisation of programming.
Click to enlarge the image and explore the identified levers of change

Participating in Map the System not only deepened their understanding of a topic that they hope to devote their lives to, but also allowed them to share that understanding and passion with people from all over the world. It has opened opportunities to collaborate across countries and communities with others who are similarly excited about empowerment and community health. The opportunity and conversations that have come from these connections have reignited the spark that inspired them to begin this work in the first place. As they look ahead to what the future holds, they will strive to remember what participating in this competition has taught them: that focusing on amplifying voices and supporting community-lead efforts is the only way to truly achieve systemic change.

Authors: Annie Kuster and Sara Surani

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Map the System: Using Systems Science to Advance Health Equity in Tobacco Control

On 15-17 June 2020, the Skoll Centre’s Map the System Competition held its Global Final virtually. The team from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill competed against 30 other finalists from institutions around the world at the event, coming in third place in the competition. Team members Meghan O’Leary, Paige Logan, Sarah Mills, Shelley Golden and Kristen Hassmiller Lich tell us how they mapped the system to explore inequities in tobacco control.

Smoking rates have declined considerably over the last five decades in the United States. However, this progress has not been shared equally. Many lower-income and racial/ethnic minority populations are more likely to smoke than their counterparts and disproportionately shoulder the burden of tobacco-related disease.

We created a team focused on understanding socioeconomic and racial/ethnic disparities in smoking from a systems perspective. Members of our team represent the fields of health behavior, health policy, and systems science. Building on these backgrounds, we developed a model that captures the multilevel factors affecting smoking. Processes of marginalization and segregation, as well as employment and housing factors that may produce financial strain, are included as key contributors to smoking in our model. By documenting these structural reasons for smoking disparities and lived experiences of people of color and lower-income groups, we hope our model can help to effectively engage communities and relevant stakeholders and to design tobacco control policies and programs capable of reducing smoking in priority populations.

Developing our model

Our model of smoking is informed by tobacco control literature and interviews with key stakeholders. We consulted prior research to identify factors associated with smoking. This included a close review of 12 prior smoking models – none of which addressed the specific factors contributing to higher smoking rates in priority populations. We turned to fundamental cause and social stress theories to identify these root causes of smoking among racial/ethnic minorities and lower-income groups.

We shared a model draft with nine stakeholders, who provided insightful feedback about our model, allowing us to consider new factors that should be included and challenging us to carefully consider the relationships between variables. They provided the perspectives of smokers, mental health professionals, health equity advocates, and community-based organizations.

Our Smoking Model

  • Green = individual-level factors associated with smoking
  • Blue = environmental-level factors associated with smoking
  • Red = root causes of smoking among racial/ethnic minority and low-income populations
  • + indicates the variables move in the same direction (e.g., as stress increases, tobacco use increases)
  • – indicates the variables move in the opposite direction (e.g., as access to cessation services increases, tobacco use decreases)

Policy Implications

We applied our model to tobacco control policies designed to improve equity in tobacco control, revealing how the policies are intended to address disparities, as well as their potential unintended effects that may sustain or worsen disparities. For example, smoke-free public housing aims to lower smoking among public housing residents by creating more smoke-free homes and reducing pro-smoking norms. Yet, violation of this policy may result in financial strain and/or housing instability, increasing stress and reducing feelings of controls, which can lead to increased smoking. The figures below illustrate these intended and unintended effects.

Text Box: Smoke-free Air Policy
Figure 1. Expected Impacts of the Smoke-free Air Policy

Reinforcing loops in the model are indicated with an ‘R’ and represent relationships that will continue to grow, or reinforce, over time.

Figure 2. Unintended Impacts of the Smoke-free Air Policy

We identified two other disparities-focused policies with potential unintended consequences per our model:

  • A menthol ban intends to reduce smoking among those who prefer menthol cigarettes. However, targeted marketing of other tobacco products is still possible through segregation and discrimination.
  • Minimum price laws (MPLs) enact the largest price increases on the least expensive tobacco products. While expected to reduce smoking by raising prices, this policy may unintentionally increase financial strain and stress and reduce feelings of control.

Our Recommendations

1. Use a health equity lens

Tobacco control efforts often focus on reducing smoking at the population level, but to ensure equitable outcomes, attention to priority populations is needed. Being intentional and focusing on how systemic racism and other structural factors permeate the model pathways and contribute to smoking disparities is critical. Future tobacco control efforts must acknowledge and address these lived experiences of communities.

2. Consider the intended and unintended consequences of tobacco control policies and programs

Well-intentioned efforts to lower smoking in priority populations can have unintentional and even counteractive effects. Consideration of these adverse outcomes upfront, as well as ongoing evaluation of policies and programs, can help to identify, react to, and address these unwanted effects.

3. Engage diverse types of stakeholders in tobacco control efforts

Additional voices are needed to represent the needs and perspectives of priority populations. We recommend engaging smokers, retailers, housing officials, law enforcement, social service agencies, mental health practitioners, and community-based organizations. Partnering with local communities can help to identify other relevant stakeholders.

Next Steps

Map the System provided a platform to present our model of smoking and receive feedback from other systems thinkers working on similarly complex issues. We value the information learned and are committed to continuing this work. We are currently conducting additional stakeholder interviews. We hope to build confidence in our model by testing some of the relationships between variables through future studies, and use our model to facilitate collaborative discussions about tobacco control in diverse populations.