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9 September 2015

African innovators changing the world

Resourceful, clever, entrepreneurial – and patriotic. These are the African innovators shaking things up right now.

Africa is on the move – the headlines coming from the continent are stories of economic growth that outstrips developed countries, of rocketing foreign investment, and of innovation that leaves companies around the world scratching their heads, wondering ‘why didn’t we think of that?’

The growth can be put down to a variety of factors, including increased domestic and public spend, and improved value of exports as the global economy recovers. Infrastructure continues to improve, and in many cases, technology has actually leapfrogged developed countries. For example, rather than having to replace and reconfigure outdated technology, telecommunications providers are able to install the latest, most efficient tech into regions that haven’t had any telecoms infrastructure before. Africa is not playing catch-up – it is carving its own path.

Field work

Nowhere else can the thrilling possibilities of digital innovation be better seen than in Africa. Economic growth on the continent has been driven in part by a boom in the agricultural sector – and this in turn has been aided by tech that allows even small-scale farmers to become connected and exploit the possibilities of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The Connected Farmer platform, developed by Vodafone and Mezzanine, allows farmers to use their mobile phones to access vital information on pricing, weather and better agricultural practices. This increases profitability and productivity.

Kenyan farmer Su Kahumbu, meanwhile, saw the need for an app that works with basic feature phones and helps dairy farmers keep track of their business. Enter iCow, which enables farmers to track each cow’s milk output and immunisations, and access useful information.

Connected care

In the health sector, telemedicine enables healthcare workers to share patient and medical information over distance, and – critically – to consult with doctors remotely. IoT means equipping machines with sensors and networking ability to allow them to monitor and communicate. Sensors can be placed in vaccine fridges and transport vehicles to monitor cold storage, for example, or can be used to manage patient databases, collecting information from patient wearable devices. The power of IoT in the medical arena is immense, leading some to argue that the ‘Internet of Health’ is the next mega-trend.

In many communities, although clinics may possess x-ray machines, they do not have a staff member properly qualified to make diagnoses from them. Medisoft East Africa’s Teleradiology is a set of technologies that allows x-rays and medical images to be read remotely. The consulting radiologist in a hospital potentially hundreds of kilometres away can quickly provide a report to the local doctor, saving time – and lives.

Arthur Zang is a Cameroonian entrepreneur responsible for the CardioPad, a tablet that enables heart examinations such as ECGs to be conducted virtually anywhere. Patients are fitted with Bluetooth electrodes, which send a wireless signal to the tablet. This in turn sends the relevant information to a cardiologist in a city hospital.

Rethinking the obvious

Innovation, however, isn’t just the domain of digital technology. Creative product design can be equally fruitful, and produce examples of solutions-based innovating that can really change lives in a practical way.

The Hippo Roller

A perfect example of solutions-driven innovation in Africa is the Hippo Roller, a large drum barrel and handle system that allows people to roll water barrels rather than carrying them. According to The Guardian, as many as two in every five people in Africa ‘have no nearby water facilities’, and may have to carry water over long distances.

The Hippo Roller was developed by two South African engineers, Pettie Petzer and Johan Jonker. They used a water barrel’s own inherent design (roundness) and saw a means to better employ that. The result: an efficient, hardy solution that allows people to transport up to five times the volume of water – and makes us wonder we ever did it any other way.

Smart sparks

You don’t, however, need a degree in engineering to come up with clever solutions. Four Nigerian schoolgirls, Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola and Faleke Oluwatoyin (14) and 15-year-old Bello Eniola, had the idea to turn a free, naturally occurring resource into fuel for cooking. In 2012, they displayed their invention at a pan-African innovation fair: a generator powered by urine. A litre can run the small generator for up to six hours.

The good news 

Gervais Djondo, the Togolese co-founder of Ecobank, said: ‘The future of Africa depends on its youth. Courage and persistence are needed for entrepreneurs in Africa today.’ With the world’s youngest population, Africa is poised to show the world the way when it comes to innovation and growth. 

The future of Africa depends on its youth. Courage and persistence are needed for entrepreneurs in Africa today.