Basma Saeed, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Accelerator Lab Sudan

By Yun Xuan Poon Joy Lim

Women in UNDP Special Report 2021.

How do you use tech/data to tackle important issues? Tell us about your work.

Data, specifically qualitative research methods, is important to apply a systems lens of work as a means to connect the dots between the various solutions I've been mapping. Looking at a portfolio of solutions rather than stand-alone silver bullets creates evidence to better understand complex problems that are in nature wicked and interlinked. This method of starting with the solution and portfolio of solutions becomes a proxy indicator of a need and blind spot in a system or system of systems and/or a signal of change taking place.

I work with ordinary people who create extraordinary things to adapt to change quickly. My work is then to analyse that to share with the UNDP network and government counterparts for better decision making.

Solutions mapping is like pointillism. A series of dots may not make much sense but when it begins to connect and harmonise, you step back and see a picture. An example of that was during Covid-19 and how micro enterprises were forced to figure out ways to continue work under limitations of social and safe distancing. Observing a pattern of cashless solutions and connecting these with similar solutions both in Sudan, regionally and across the globe underlined the need but also an accelerated shift to a cashless economy as result of this new normal.

What was the most impactful project you worked on in the past year?

One of the ways to support a thriving local innovation ecosystem is one that facilitates this very ecosystem to see itself and its diverse and often unusual stakeholders.

If I were to liken the current ecosystem in Sudan, I would describe it as a map of islands with few bridges in between. When you start to ‘see’ solutions, as a mapper, you can see in all the ways they connect, align and interlink in this bigger and collective effort to create impact.

Everywhere I go, I cannot stop emphasising the ripple effect of the Solutions Fair held in early 2020. Whereby for the first time, stakeholders from different groups spanning academia, private and public sectors where in the same giant hall as Giulio Quaggiotto, Head the UNDP Strategic Innovations Unit has coined, the development mutants. A social experiment of sorts, of what takes place when the traditional development actors meet the unusual and unexpected.

The organic connections, knowledge sharing and diffusion that begin to form from which a community of solution holders emerged. With the first Covid-19 case reported in March and subsequent lockdown, it was this very community network that I was able to tap into to understand how they were responding, pivoting with Covid-19. The socio-economic impact but also the incredible resilience to reconfigure and do things differently under this immense and limiting challenge. How this network was connecting, working and collaborating with other networks. From university labs shifting to production of hand-sanitizers for students to distribute for free in the urban centres, to a social enterprise supporting highly affected street tailors into an organised collective to mass produce re-usable masks. The power of connections and compound impact that bridge the usual with the unusual.

What are some innovations from the pandemic that have caught your eye?

Indigenous Sound Bites. This completely grassroot effort was carried out by Dr. Hiba Abdelrahim of Sudan Unity Networking who first noticed the glaring gap in inclusive Covid-19 communication available in local and indigenous languages. She started to reach out to a network of Sudanese polyglots on Facebook to record sound bites of Covid-19 WHO guidelines and safety precautions. Through networks and network of networks on social media from Telegram, Whatsapp, Youtube, a collective distribution approach was used to share and reshare these sound bites to ensure this reaches volunteers on the ground in rural and hard to reach areas to share this vital and critical health information.

What is one unexpected learning from 2020?

2020 was a year of personal growth and learning forced by being cut off from the usual pace and external stimuli of everyday life and way of work. Facing a collective and shared challenge caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the uncertainty of this new reality and what that means at a personal and professional level created a space to pause for much needed reflection on what really matters. Family and well-being, particularly mental well-being, and health have always been important. But what was unexpected was how much that really is a priority at the core of the choices I make and should and ought to be making.

In a way, the great re-set of this year was a wider ripple effect for social solidarity which emphasised the need for better support for care work and care economies. An integral support system that was consistently undervalued but came to the forefront with the pandemic in the welfare of, for and by communities.

What are your priorities for 2021?

Balance. Solutions mapping, and I am biased for obvious reasons, is an important protocol that introduces mixed research methods and approaches to development practice. The importance of constant and consistent engagement with the systems outside the work of UNDP, and connecting to those closest to the problem in the context of development challenges, allows solutions mappers to be a bridge to share, diffuse and shine light on context responsive knowledge with decision makers at UNDP and government counterparts that may influence programming, policy or inform better partnerships and possibly open unexpected pipelines in the market.

All the while, it is imperative to embed the practice and protocols of solutions mapping within UNDP thereby creating movements and networks of UNDP mappers in the country office to re-learn to see, observe and engage with ecosystems through this new lens. This is akin to having one foot out with one foot in, a balancing act to ensure that I am not leaning heavily on one foot at the expense of the other.

What tool or technique particularly interests you for 2021?

Ethnographic cartography (EC) is a method I am particularly keen to explore its possible applications in the context of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) in Sudan. EC inspired by Everyday Geographies and Personal Geographies, is a multi-sensory approach combining two activities.

The first, MyWalks is an activity that is intended to reawaken the senses to look for the unexpected. A simple premise of walking through a familiar route, re-walked or a new route walked for the first time. The experience of the journey starting at A is more important by engaging the senses and observing rather than reaching the destination at B.

The second, MessyMaps is the technique to record this multi-sensory experience through images, sound and notes. The outcome of this supports better understanding and engagement of the ecosystem in which I am mapping solutions and how these solutions exist, interlink and engage with the environment it operates out of and with.

I first came across an application of this method through the amazing work “Other Maps” undertaken by a fellow Solution Mapper, Paulina Jimenez at UNDP Ecuador. In academia, this emerging method was used to produce qualitative GIS representations of resilience. In this use case, Dr Faith Evans incorporated emotion, social connections and experience to present an experimental map visualisation of informal settlements in Kenya.

Which other countries inspire you and why?

India. As I onboarded to the Accelerator Lab, the cohort of AccLab mappers had the unique opportunity to get first-hand knowledge and support from the Accelerator Lab Network knowledge partner, the Honey Bee Network and GIAN.
Virtual classes led by Prof Anil Gupta and Dr Animika Dey on mapping inclusive grassroots innovation was an eye opener to the work led by India over the last two decades to recognise, incorporate and support grassroots innovations in the National Innovation Policy. As one publication describes it, propositioning grassroots innovations in the S&T policies of India created a space for “the innovation agenda [to] shift from presenting grassroots innovation as a divider of the national innovation wealth to a provider of it”. (1)

The kind of effort India has spearheaded is one I would hope can be galvanised for Sudan to learn from and emulate.

Who do you admire? Who is your hero?

My grandfather. A food scientist, teacher, researcher, former FAO and fierce advocate for R&D turned entrepreneur and thought leader in the F&B industry of Sudan.

I remember once asking him why he did not invest in better advertising for his products or fancier packaging. His response was that his responsibility and priority is to ensure accessibility for the everyday Sudanese informed by the forefront of sustainable food production research. In which the everyday consumer not only benefits from the product itself but is able to re-use and repurpose the packaging for domestic needs.

The value system he has abided by until his retirement almost a decade ago is one I admire and have grown to appreciate even more as a development practitioner. The principles he went by still ring true and relevant in industrial innovation and sustainable consumption and production today.

(1) Jain, A., & Verloop, J. (2012). Repositioning grassroots innovation in India's S&T policy: From divider to provider. Current Science, 103(3), 282-285. Retrieved March 16, 2021, from