Can Africa’s Innovators Solve Africa’s Problems?

What can save Africa from its many problems; grinding poverty, corrupt bureaucrats, incompetent governments, civil conflicts and dire infrastructure? The best hope might lie with the innovations of its home grown entrepreneurs. Many solutions that work in the developed world do not translate well to Africa so indigenous innovations are often a better answer. In some cases they leap-frog current Western offerings.

Mobile phones are commonplace throughout Africa even in remote settlements. Because investment in fixed line telephony was poor and ineffective, mobiles have become ubiquitous. It is estimated that by 2019 almost every African will own one and with it internet access. Mobile technology has led to many low-cost ingenious services.

M-Pesa (M for mobile, pesa is Swahili for money) is a mobile-phone based money transfer and micro financing service, launched by Vodafone (through Safaricom) in Kenya and Tanzania. It became a popular service for people who did not trust or use banks. It enabled people to make payments and small money transfers. It has since been adopted in many other countries including Afghanistan and India. The use of M-Pesa as mobile money has unleashed a host of apps and services that work through small mobile payments. Africans in remote villages which never had a school or newspaper now use mobile applications that deliver education services and local news.

The Cardiopad is a touch screen medical tablet invented by Arthur Zang, a 26 year-old in Cameroon. It facilitates heart examinations such as electrocardiograms (ECGs) to be performed at remote places. The results of the tests can be transferred wirelessly to specialists for diagnosis. It can save lives especially for Africans who cannot take a long and difficult journey to reach a distant city hospital.

Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Cisco are some of the big players who are investing in African innovations to help local communities but also with an eye on the potential for bringing some of the new models back to the West. For example IBM is experimenting with small cargo drones, known as ‘flying donkeys’ which can deliver loads of up to 10 kg (22 lbs) up to 120 km (75 miles). In places where roads are unreliable or dangerous this service can provide vital foods or medicines.

Africans are developing sophisticated high-tech innovations but they are also delivering pragmatic low-cost solutions to local issues. SavvyLoo is a pedal-operated, self-contained, waterless toilet invented and developed in South Africa. It is designed to be easy to assemble in rural communities. The device drains liquids into a soak-away sump while solid waste is dried using solar heat. The design enables the toilet to quickly eradicate odors and bacteria.

Africa has African problems. Fortunately it has plenty of African initiative and innovation to solve them. They need a little help from big corporations who recognize entrepreneurial talent and they need freedom to operate from their own governments and officials.

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