African Innovation

A couple of years ago you didn’t hear the words “Africa” and “innovation” paired up quite as much as you do today.

  • On Saturday I speak at TEDxAntananarivo in Madagascar, and my theme will be on the equal spread of innovation globally.
  • On Monday I get back to Nairobi, only to shoot off to Naivasha for 3 days of the Open Innovation Africa Summit.
  • The last year I’ve spent building out the Nairobi iHub (Innovation Hub).
  • The Maker Faire Africa events in Ghana and Kenya have been about invention, ingenuity and innovation.
  • AfriGadget is built on telling stories of African solving everyday problems with ingenuity and innovation.

By and large, these are events and stories of Africans coming up with innovative solutions and products, solving their own problems and building their own businesses. It would be easy to think that this is just a meme. This is especially true for myself as I’m involved in so much of it. It’s not.

The reality behind the meme

Sisal into rope machineLet’s take the example of Maker Faire Africa participant Alex Odundo from Kisumu in Western Kenya. Alex has spent 5 years coming up with cheaper and more efficient tools to process sisal and make rope. He did this with the mechanical use of a processing machine called Sisal Decorticator, that adds value to the sisal by turning it into rope that can be sold for 100 shillings. This nets him 95 Kenya shillings in profit per kilo.

He’s spent 5 long years refining his machines, selling them and building new ones. Going from sisal processing to rope making with the tools and engines he can fabricate and buy locally. He’s an example of the inventor-entrepreneur who won’t give up, and is trying to build a real business of his niche product. He’s akin to the Charles Goodyear of local rope manufacturing.

What Alex represents is the hardcore inventor, the industrial, non-sexy side of innovation that we don’t often hear about. What usually surfaces, and what I talk about a lot here (and what I’m sure we’ll talk about at all these other events) is the cool, sleek mobile and internet solutions and products.

We give all this airtime to the gadgets and bits, and there are great reasons to do so. Kenya’s advantage in the mobile space around payments and other items is exciting. South Africa’s social networks and global-level web apps are amazing. Ghana’s up-and-coming tech sector, Nigeria’s banks and even Somalia’s mobile networks are all compelling stories on where innovation in both African business and the African tech are taking us.

An equal spread

If there’s one thing that my years spent in this space traipsing around looking for AfriGadget stories, putting on Maker Faire Africa and starting the iHub has taught me, it’s this. That innovation is spread equally around the world. That you’ll find the same number of inventors and innovative solutions coming from people in any country around the globe. Why African innovation is trending to people internationally is because only now have people begun to notice that the same applies on this continent as their own.

African innovation might not look like the innovation you’re used to seeing if you come from another continent. You might miss it because you don’t know what you’re seeing or why a business’s strategy is different than you expect. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.

8 thoughts on “African Innovation

  1. Pingback: MFA2010 General Electric Mentorship Prize : Maker Faire Africa

  2. Inventors and Innovators Association of Kenya

    You have done us proud by highlighting what Alex has done. We have several other cases like Alex’s.
    Kindly let’s know when there is another local exhibition and give us an opportunity to attend.
    Thank you very much.

    Lawrence Matolo,
    Chairman-IIAK.

  3. Mickey

    Hi,nice work you guys have! Am currently a form four student at Dagoretti High School and i too have an invention of mine that i would highly appreciate if you highlighted it too. It’s a wind powered rotor that generates cheap and efficient electricity by multiplying small wind currents to high volts of D.C current. It’s an easy to make system because it’s made from locally available raw materials. If you would like to communicate with me you can use my e-mail address; michaelmtuks315@yahoo.com or via my Facebook account @ Michael Mtuks. I’d very much appreciate it if you consider my request. Thanks and GOD Bless.

  4. absolom mabachi toili

    i like this above. i’m also an innovator but now am located in remote part of bungoma county in kenya, with only a laptop and modem to enable me make online contacts. i wish to know how best i could get supported to promote my innovations. the institutions i’ve so far tried to contact by email have not responded. i can show anyone interested by email, a little video presentation of a water pump i innovated.

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