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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

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Finding Africa’s Innovators

[These are my notes from my talk at TEDxAntananarivo in Madagascar today]

There are 2 things I’m going to leave you with today. One is a changing story of Africa, where the West is beginning to see Africa in a different light due to technological innovation. The second is a challenge to you here in Madagascar on how you recognize and promote the successes from your own country.

I’m going to start with a TED story, since this is a TEDx event. In 2007 I, along with Harinjaka who invited me here today, was an inaugural African TED Fellow in Tanzania. That was a life changing event for many of us – it brought together 100 young influencers from across Africa, formed the relational base that allowed Ushahidi to be created, put Harinjaka and myself on the main TED stage for short talks, and it thrust into the limelight a young Malawian who few yet had heard about anywhere in the world.

William Kamkwamba

Another Malawian TED Fellow, Soyapi Mumba, introduced me to someone I had written about but never met: William Kamkwamba. It was a great surprise and an honor to meet William in person, as we had written about him on our blog AfriGadget the year before. As a young schoolboy, he was forced to drop out of school during their big drought, he had checked out a book and hand-fabricated a windmill from old plastic, sheet metal and bicycle parts to help power his home. An amazing story that is now a book, and soon to be a film.

At that time, in 2006, it was a true outlier story. The kind you just didn’t here about that often.

I’m going to propose to you a new story, where we’re not amazed and surprised to hear of ingenuity and innovation springing from African soil. Instead we’re seeking it out and celebrating what we already know is there. Let the people in the West be surprised, but not us, because we know and value our inventors and entrepreneurs already.

I guess, if you were to boil down the last 5 years of my life, you could claim that it has been focused on finding Africa’s innovators, telling their stories, and joining them in my own high tech way.

  • I founded AfriGadget, a group blog, telling the stories of Africans solving their everyday problems with their own ingenuity.
  • My personal blog WhiteAfrican is where I highlight the high tech side of the mobile and web movement across Africa
  • This year we set up the iHub, Nairobi’s tech innovation hub, forming a nexus point in the city for Kenya’ thriving tech community.
  • I’m one of the co-founders of Ushahidi, the open source software for crowd sourcing information that started in Kenya and is now used globally.
  • Last year I co-organized Maker Faire Africa in Ghana, and this year in Kenya, which showcases 100+ inventors, innovators and ingenious solutions from that region.

That sounds like a lot, but if anything, this constant brushing together with Africa’s innovators has taught me that we’re just now scratching the surface of what’s out there. Innovative business practices mixed with a different technology paradigm are shaping a new form of business, products and services across the continent.

Let’s take a speed run through a couple so that you can get a glimpse into this world:

(Note: I won’t put all the images here, as you can find them on AfriGadget and Maker Faire Africa Flickr pools)

It goes on, and on, and it isn’t new.

I was 2 years old when I moved to Sudan, back in 1977. In that time in the South, we had to hunt for our meat. There was this tall elephant grass that grows near the Nile that made it hard to see. I remember going hunting for meat with my dad and his colleagues and having the hunters sit on top of our old Landcruiser in order to see over the tops of this growth. Here’s something that most people don’t know, for hundreds of years the Southern Sudanese have created rafts out this same grass and reeds to move themselves, their animals and goods down the Nile for trade.

It’s an ingenious use of a naturally regrowing part of their environment, from which both people and nature benefit.

My take is this:
innovative individuals are found in the same percentage here in Madagascar as they are in the rest of Africa and the world. That there is an even distribution of innovation globally.

Innovation and other’s success

Now, I know there has been trouble in this country over the last couple years. We in Kenya have our own too, as do other nations across the continent.

This is my challenge to you, despite the turmoil, figure out how you will tell the positive stories of Malagasy innovation. Don’t let the world direct the narrative of poverty, corruption and coups, instead own the narrative, be proactive in showcasing your successes, even when it’s not you that directly benefits. For, until we own this narrative about our continent, we will forever be slaves to those that do.

The organization that I co-founded with 3 other Kenyans, Ushahidi, has had quite a lot of success globally. I remember in the second year one of the other founders saying to me that they were surprised with our success, that they hadn’t believed we could get this far. I was surprised too, since I had never thought there was a limit to how far we could go.

This is about what I’m starting to refer to as the African success complex, where we don’t always believe that we can stand on the global stage toe-to-toe with our global peers. Many times this can take the form of tearing down the people in your own community because their success is somehow seen as your loss. It’s exactly the opposite. The more successes that we have, the more likely we all are to benefit. It’s much like a shopping center, where one store alone is hardly a draw for customers, but many together bring them in hordes.

The stories we tell about ourselves are what define us. They are mirrored back and become reality. When you say, “I’m going to be the best _________ in Madagascar”, you’re limiting yourself. In what we do at Ushahidi, we don’t compare ourselves to anyone in Africa, nor even globally. We choose to compare ourselves against what we expect of ourselves, not what others expect of us, and this gives us the freedom to grow and succeed beyond even our expectations.

I’ve only had one day in Madagascar, and I hope to return again to this beautiful country soon. In that time however, I walked the streets and found a story of home grown Malagasy innovation to share with the world on AfriGadget.

Yesterday I met a lady who takes the bark from a certain type of tree, pulps it and makes paper. I’m sure many of you have seen her family’s work on the way to the airport. This paper is then sold as a specialty gift paper to tourists and others. It’s an example of Malagasy entrepreneurship that has gone far, where the whole family is supported by this business.

There are already a great number of exceptional bloggers and journalists from this country, like Foko, and I look forward to seeing the next stories from you, pushed into the global sphere about the businesses, entrepreneurs, inventors and social success stories.

[The slides]

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.

TEDx Nairobi in 2 Days

In two days, August 8th, there will be a TEDx event in Nairobi taking place at the British Council. These are self-organized and hosted events that enable individuals to team together and create a TED-like experience in their own city. The TEDx Nairobi team has a number of TED Fellows leading it, and an outstanding line-up of speakers and talks to screen.

TEDx Nairobi speakers

The best part about a TEDx event is the other people you meet there. It’s an eclectic mix of individuals, so you could find yourself rubbing shoulders with a scientist on one side and a dance instructor on the other, all while talking to the CEO of a major multinational tech company. It’s a time for open ideas and conversation, along with a healthy mixture of thought provoking talks.

As a TED Fellow and a Nairobi guy myself, I’m highly disappointed that I won’t be able to make it to the event. I have no doubt that the speakers will put on some of their best performances, as the pressure to do a good job is on. Personally, I’d like to hear what Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect will bring to the table as I’m sure it will be both moving and insightful. I’m curious to hear if Aly-Khan Satchu of Rich.co.ke will talk about his work, or bring something different to the table. Lastly, I know I will miss hearing the music of Muthoni.

The TED Commandments

What some know about, and all speakers need to read, is “The TED Commandments“. These are 10 rules that every TED speaker should know:

  1. Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out thy Usual Shtick
  2. Thou Shalt Dream a Great Dream, or Show Forth a Wondrous New Thing, Or Share Something Thou Hast Never Shared Before
  3. Thou Shalt Reveal thy Curiosity and Thy Passion
  4. Thou Shalt Tell a Story
  5. Thou Shalt Freely Comment on the Utterances of Other Speakers for the Sake of Blessed Connection and Exquisite Controversy
  6. Thou Shalt Not Flaunt thine Ego. Be Thou Vulnerable. Speak of thy Failure as well as thy Success.
  7. Thou Shalt Not Sell from the Stage: Neither thy Company, thy Goods, thy Writings, nor thy Desperate need for Funding; Lest Thou be Cast Aside into Outer Darkness.
  8. Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.
  9. Thou Shalt Not Read thy Speech.
  10. Thou Shalt Not Steal the Time of Them that Follow Thee

The organizers tell me that seats are now VERY limited. In fact, as of writing this there are only 12 seats left. Try your luck, see if you can make it to the event by filling in the registration form.

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