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.

Hardware Hacking Garages: hardware and accessories innovation

As many of you know, I’m the founder of the AfriGadget blog, and one of the organizers for Maker Faire Africa, which happened in Ghana last year and Kenya this year. Though I pretty much only build software apps and services, I’ve got a soft spot for hardware hacking. Last week I put an idea into the website for this month’s Open Innovation Africa Summit taking place upcountry in Kenya, put on by Nokia, infoDev and Capgemini. This is that idea.

I’m enthralled by software, apps and platforms. It’s the low hanging fruit with very few barriers to entry, it’s the place where a great deal of innovation is happening and where money is being made. However, when we look at innovation in Africa, we often overlook the hardware – yes, the handsets, but also the other devices and accessories that local engineers (trained/untrained) can get their hands dirty with. Sometimes this is pure fabrication, other times it’s hacking existing products, many times it’s a mixture of both.

We’re already seeing stories of the way guys are doing everything from creating their own vehicle security systems, home security systems, distance-triggered food preparation and even fish catching alerts. That’s with no support at all. What happens when you provide a space to make it faster, better and possibly an avenue to manufacturers and funders?


[Image above: a porridge making machine by a Malawian inventor, triggered by an SMS.]

Maker: Simon Kimani from Butterfly Works on Vimeo.

[Video above: Kenyan inventor creates an “SMS House Automation System” where you can give a command via the phone to  perform tasks, including turning on/off the TV, Lights.]

Hardware Hacking Garage
Ever since we put up the iHub (Nairobi’s Innovation Hub) this year, I’ve been thinking a lot more about a physical space as its own platform. We deal with the software side of the web and mobile innovation. We don’t have a parallel space for doing the same with hardware. I’m talking about a tinkering, micro-fabrication and engineering environment. This would require some space, basic tools and a few specialized electronics and computers to make it work.

Here are just a few areas (If you have any more ideas, put them in the comments and I’ll add them below):

  • Power hacks = using dynamos, solar, hydro and other  ideas to hack new power systems that work off the grid and in remote rural regions (made by the people who live there).
  • SD cards = digital storage. In fact, provide these with content  already on them, including books (libraries), encyclopedias, etc.
  • Arduino Boards = an open-source physical computing platform based on a simple input/output board and a development environment that implements the Wiring language.
  • DIY Mesh Networks = Adjusting and improving upon ideas like the Village Telco project
  • [From Solomon King] – If you’re to explore physical computing, you might need a wide array of sensors for environment management, we’re talking GPS, tilt swtiches, digital gyros, sonar, etc. This stuff is pretty expensive so having a  space to play with them (on-site) would be nice.

Physical Space
It’s important that the Hardware Hacking Garage be setup as a centralized resource for the inventor community. Memberships should be available to any inventor, or student, upon application and approval. Many times access to tools and a workshop is all that enterprising inventors, micro-entrepreneurs, and youth, need to create their first innovative project.

For a sustainable approach, this Hardware Hacking Garage could have a store attached, which can serve as a sales and marketing outlet for the devices, inventions and solutions created by the community.

This is an idea that effects everyone across Africa, a space like this is accessible and usable by young and experienced, rural and urban inventors and entrepreneurs. As much as we’d like to pretend that the ideas coming from outside of Africa will be picked up and used, the truth is that the ideas need to come from Africans for themselves and their community. An open Hacking Garage platform is where real hardware innovation for Africa will come from.

Low-Cost Solar Invades Kenya

Meredith watching the Brunton 52 Solar panels - a boring jobReliable electricity in Kenya is an oxymoron. Last year’s rationing was up to 4 days per week in some parts of Nairobi, and with the low levels of water in the dam, it’s looking like 2010 won’t be such a bright year (pun intended…).

This is why I’m writing a post about solar power, which incidentally isn’t something I’m overly-well versed in, I usually leave this up to people like Afromusing. I did take the FLAP bags around Ghana, Kenya and Uganda earlier, but hadn’t started to truly delve into this arena until now. Before moving back, I picked up a Brunton Solaris 52solar power kit for my laptop needs. It has already proved indispensable.

Solantern

Joseph Nganga, a Kenyan businessman who I’ve known for a couple of years, has come back to Kenya and is taking the clean energy position firmly. He’s working with the World Bank on a plan for a “Cleantech Innovation Centre” in East Africa, and knows his way around both small- and large-scale renewable energy systems.

Right now he’s marketing and finding distributors for his Solantern product. It’s a Green Planet Lantern that is sold locally for 2000 Ksh ($25). His goal is to replace the unclean, and sometimes hazardous, kerosene lanterns that everyone uses in Kenya.

[Note: the electricity is off right now, and my wife is using one of Joseph’s Solanterns below]

My wife with a Solantern tonight

An average Kenyan family spends 20 Ksh ($.25) on Kerosene every night, a total of $91 per year. There’s a real value buying a Solantern, and the light lasts for much longer than that 20 Ksh of Kerosene would (and it’s cleaner).

ToughStuff

Chance would have it, that on this power-challenged day, I would also meet up with Nick Sowden from ToughStuff. He’s here in Kenya to do for East Africa what they’ve already done for Madagascar: create an industry for entrepreneurs out of 1 watt solar panels.

ToughStuff ProductsToughStuff offers a large selection of accessories for their panel, with extensions like an LED lamp (530 Ksh/$7), phone connectors (75 Ksh/$1), a rechargeable powerpack (550 Ksh/$7.25) and fake D-cell batteries that take direct input from the panel – used to power radios. It’s a compelling mix, and you can tell why they’ve done so well in Madagascar, and which bodes well for them in East Africa as well.

They’ve already started selling them through Chloride Exide in Kenya, at two shops in the industrial area you can pick up the kits for yourself. One shop is on Dunga Road, the other is on Kampala Road.

ToughStuff has a focus on entrepreneurs, which is why they have the “Buy One: Fund One” program. To entrepreneurs they offer financing through local MFIs.

Final Thoughts

Besides Solantern and ToughStuff, there are other projects like Portable Light (and others) working on low-cost solar for East Africa. It’s like the stars have aligned and all the cleantech companies are starting to really look at Africa as a place to make money – which it is.

The AfriGadget-side of me is waiting for local fundis to get their hands on these and to start customizing them for local needs. I want to see 8 ToughStuff solar panels daisy-chained together and used to power something larger. I want to see the wall-of-panels that light up 10 lights across a large room for night classes. The sort of thing that takes local needs, local technical talent and local businessmen to make happen.

Another thought… People think that these low-cost solar light kits are only for the poor. They’re wrong. I use them, as do many middle-class Kenyans if they can get their hands on them. The market is bigger than just the “bottom of the pyramid”.

Finally, I’m greatly pleased to see legitimate businesses, not NGOs, leading this charge. The quickest way to ruin this fledgling industry is by false ceilings imposed by development/aid subsidies around these products.

William Kamkwamba: Harnessing the Wind

“A rare and inspiring story of hope in rural Africa, a true story of youth challenging and winning against all of the adversity that life throws at it. William represents a new generation of Africans, using ingenuity and invention to overcome life’s challenges. Where so many tilt at windmills, William builds them!”

Three years ago I came across a fascinating story of a young man in Malawi who had built a windmill from scratch, and I wrote about it on AfriGadget. Since then, I’ve gotten to know William Kamkwamba as TED Africa fellows and most recently we spent a good deal of time together in Ghana at Maker Faire Africa.


William Kamkwamba by Nana Kofi Acquah at Maker Faire Africa 2009

There is now a book, a documentary and a foundation all set up around the inspired story of windmills from Malawi.

Fortunately, I was given a pre-release version of the ” The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” to review, and as it comes out in just 4 days it’s about time that I did that. It should also be noted that Bryan Mealer, who wrote the book with William, is an incredibly talented writer that knows his way around Africa and has a knack for getting the nuances of African life across in a way few others do.

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind

I found the most fascinating part of this book to be William’s description of living through a famine. Imagine only one meal a day, and only a few bites at that. William’s family felt like they were the lucky ones because they at least had something to eat. I’ve seen pictures of people starving, but to have it described so frankly made it so much more real.

Because of this famine, William wasn’t able to go to school. His desire to still learn was what led to his reading books from the local library. It was there that he discovered the books “Using Energy,” “Explaining physics” and “integrated science.” Ironically, he discovered “using energy” (the book that inspired his famous windmill) while looking for the dictionary to look up “grapes.” On the front of “using energy” was a row of windmills, and William was reminded of the pinwheels that he and his friends made as a child out of cut up water bottles. He spent days looking through old parts at a junk yard, trying to find the right parts to build his own windmill.

As a young boy, William and his friends would often take radios apart and put them back together, cannabilizing some of them to fix others that were broken. A prototypical AfriGadget inventor, William was an expert at creative thinking and improvising, using a bicycle dynamo to power his first windmill.

Final Thoughts

What I appreciate the most about William is, despite all the notoriety that has come with his inventions, he remains humble, easy to talk to, loyal to his family and home, and full of desire to learn. You see this come through in his interviews, even with all of the success he has had, he is still a well-grounded individual.

Maker Faire Africa - logo ideaA final bit of trivia: William’s windmill came very close to being the final logo for Maker Faire Africa this year, here’s the prototype of that. It’s great to see how he has influenced my work with AfriGadget over the intervening years. Many times he is on the stage at big western-focused events, however last month in Ghana he stood in front of his peers at Maker Faire Africa. The room of 300-400 fellow African inventors was enthralled… After all, how much more exciting is it to see home-grown ingenuity and innovation making it big than it is if it’s imported in from overseas?

Okay, go buy the book! :)

Finding and Funding African Innovators

How do you find the entrepreneurs and innovators in Africa who need investment funding to scale?

Agosta Liko - web entrepreneur in Kenya

Agosta Liko - web entrepreneur in Kenya

That’s the question I was most intrigued by on my panel today at SoCap with Emeka Okafor, Nii Simmonds and Ashifi Gogo about identifying opportunities for innovation in Africa.

There are really two big issues at stake. First, how to find the right people. Second, what funding level is needed.

Boots on the ground

You’re not going to find the compelling African entrepreneurs while sitting in an office in the US or Europe. It’s only by spending significant time on the ground in the countries you’re wanting to invest in that you find the people you need to know. It’s there that you get past the first-level of non-expert opportunity profiteers and attention seekers and find the people who actually do the work.

Two examples:

  1. AfriGadget is a blog about finding interesting stories of African innovation. It’s not always easy to come up with the stories though. You have to look hard, teach yourself to see things, in order to find these extraordinary individuals. Without the great blogging team and the people sending in stories from the ground, we wouldn’t have anything.
  2. I grew up in Nairobi, yet it took me a solid two years of meeting people and networking within the city to get beneath the surface and find the people with the talent and drive to create actual businesses.

It’s generally not cost-effective for every funding source to have their own person canvassing the continent. The question then becomes, how do you find the trusted intermediaries who know the real story on the ground, know the players and can spot the talent?

The seed (angel) funding gap

Most of the individuals with the skills to create their own businesses in the high-tech space are working for large NGOs and multinationals. Why? They got to a place in their life where they had to make the choice of going out on their own, armed with a good idea and no hope of funding, or putting food on the table. This is similar to entrepreneurs worldwide, however in Africa the gap between success and failure is a lot less forgiving and the choices are a lot fewer.

Most of the funding available for companies in Africa comes through loans, debt financing. It’s mostly used in SMEs at the medium-sized level. There’s a gap, and that is seed funding. There are very few opportunities to get equity-based funding, especially at the levels where most entrepreneurs starting off need it. This is the $10-300k range.

Who funds them? There are a few organizations internationally who run business plan competitions with money prizes, others that fund a few startups each year (TechnoServe, Kuv and Acumen come to mind). There are also some local people and organizations that do some of the funding (as was the case for Agosta Liko pictured above), but it’s very hard to come by even within Africa’s most advanced tech/finance cities (Nairobi, Johannesburg and Accra).

Who else is out there?
How can we bridge this gap?

Talking community with Ghanian devs

I was supposed to put on a talk to day at Maker Faire Africa (high-tech side) about mapping on mobiles and web, but when the time came it just didn’t feel like the right thing to do. Instead, with the mix of people at the room I launched into a discussion about what I saw as a lack of communication and cohesion with in the Ghanaian programming community.

Having a Ghana programmer talk

Everyone agreed that there is a lack of general communication and collaboration in this space, though there are a few user groups for things like Linux and a new one for Java. It’s too bad really, because I don’t think there is less talent in Ghana, but that this lack of cohesion of the tech community means that it’s hard for people to “announce” new things and/or get help for areas that they need to get assistance in. The reason I see this is due to the great activity that I see on the Kenyan Skunkworks email list – the contrast between Accra and Nairobi in this is quite stark.

At the end of the discussion, everyone in the room decided to try for the 2nd Tuesday of every month at 7pm. Daisy Baffoe is the one with the list and is going to get in touch with everyone with a location. Hopefully we’ll see the beginnings of a general programmer community in Ghana!

A picture with the Mozilla guys

Maker Faire: Africa

Maker Faire Africa (MFA) is a new event celebrating the innovation, ingenuity and invention within Africa – happening August 13-15 of this year in Accra, Ghana.

Maker Faire Africa in Ghana

We came at this event from a specific angle – we mixed the types of individuals who show up on AfriGadget and Timbuktu Chronicles, and the ethos of the greater MAKE community, all with the blessings of the good folks at Maker Faire. The dates were chosen to coincide with Amy Smith’s and MIT’s International Development and Design Summit (IDDS), which will run for 3 weeks before MFA, also in Ghana.

As Emeka puts it:

The aim of a Maker Faire-like event is to create a space on the continent where Afrigadget-type innovations, inventions and initiatives can be sought, identified, brought to life, supported, amplified, propagated, etc. Maker Faire Africa asks the question, “What happens when you put the drivers of ingenious concepts from Mali with those from Ghana and Kenya, and add resources to the mix?”

How You can Support MFA

get a Maker Faire Africa badge!First off, help spread the word! Let people know where and when it will be. Share the link to the site, grab a badge, blog it.

Second, help us find sponsors. If you know an organization or individual who would like to support this amazing event, put us in touch with them. It could be monetary, or it could be donating some cool gadgets, gear, tools or devices for people to hack on while there. (example idea: we’d love to get some LEGO Mindstorm kits for the local high schools).

Third, come. If you have the time and ability, we’d love to have you, your ideas and your gadgets at MFA.

The Team

In my role as founder of AfriGadget, I’m part of the organizing team to put together Maker Faire Africa, joined by my an excellent group of people including:

Want to get involved yourself? Get in touch!

“Made in Africa” my talk from Pop!Tech

Here is my 5-minute talk that I did at Pop!Tech this Saturday. It touches on Ushahidi, AfriGadget and why I’m optimistic about Africa.



The best part for me is that in a recording I can make sure I don’t forget any lines and I can add more images into the slideshow. I know I had to cut out a section of the talk in the live event as I was running out of time. Either way, I hope you enjoy it, as it’s a mixture of my history that explains a little of my present occupation.