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Africa’s Innovation Generation: Dynamos and Mobile Wiz Kids

Leapfrogging PCs, Africa’s burgeoning generation of mobile tech-savvy entrepreneurs is bursting with ideas and practical inventions, from African apps for smart phones to software solutions that address uniquely local challenges.

In this installment of Digital Diversity, Kenya-based Erik Hersman, a co-founder of Ushahidi, a free and open source platform for crowdsourcing information and visualizing data, writes about iHub (Innovation Hub), a project that brings together Nairobi’s entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and investors. And he reflects on how Africa is brimming with ideas and inventions that are making real technology progress.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts about how mobile phones are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Erik Hersman

A young Kenyan man invents a mobile-phone-triggered 11-phase home alarm system. A Ghanaian farmer studies medical dispensers and invents a new seed-planting tool. A Kenyan woman comes up with a way to recycle old plastic and trash into stylish handbags. A Ugandan biochemistry engineer hand-builds a solar-powered LED traffic light. A South African inventor creates a new water-saving toilet cistern.

Source of African Innovation

Whether walking through the bustling, unofficial, industrial areas of Nairobi, or traveling through back road villages in rural Uganda, it’s always a welcome surprise to find innovation taking place all around you.

Fortunately for me, and other AfriGadget editors, that’s what we get to do as we travel. We are a loose collection of technologists, bloggers and engineers. Our goal is to find stories, videos and pictures of Africans who are solving everyday problems with African ingenuity.

Talking to workers in unlicensed workshops and “godowns” proves to be an interesting exercise in understanding the roots of creativity that lead to these unexpected stories of innovation in Africa.

Here it’s not about academics or science. Instead, it’s real-world solutions to problems found by micro-entrepreneurs and everyday Africans. It’s about Africans bending the little they have to their will. Using creativity to overcome life’s challenges.

Here, we see ingenuity born of necessity.

Packaging and Perception

The truth is that innovation in Africa is everywhere. My theory is that there is an even distribution of innovation globally, in the same proportion in Africa as any other continent in the world.

The problem is packaging. Here in Africa it generally doesn’t take the same form that you would expect to see in the U.S. or Europe, which means we don’t see it for what it is.

Take for instance Michael Onyongo, an entrepreneur from western Kenya who customizes the hardy, yet awkward-to-ride, bicycles imported from China. His “Masiro 2010” bicycle is made for people who transport up to 500lbs. It comes with shock absorbers if you so choose — which is very much in demand in his home area due to the need of carrying 10-14 banana stalks at a time on one trip.

He also offers to his clients the addition of a dynamo mobile phone charger.

Last June, Nokia, the Finnish mobile phone giant, launched a slick kit to allow anyone to charge their mobile phone using a bicycle. The bicycle charger kit has Nokia’s usual dedication to high quality hardware design and uses a simple dynamo to make it work.

While certainly well packaged, it wasn’t unique to us here in Africa, where Michael Onyongo and other enterprising bicycle owners have been wiring them up for years.

Running the AfriGadget site has made me realize that the innovations we see are no less ingenious than their flashy counterparts with custom-molded bodies. Only the source, the inspiration, for this type of innovation comes from a different place.

Taking it High Tech

These tales of garage-style inventions are only part of the story. For every side-of-the-road inventor, there is another person with the same level of ingenuity applying it to software development and mobile services.

We’re seeing a new generation of African technologists who are taking to software with a passion. Local innovators are coming up with solutions that fit the culture and their own challenges.

Africa’s major technology centers are cities, and the big ones like Nairobi, Accra and Lagos have a lot of smart, driven and curious technologists with a leaning towards all things mobile.

In Kenya, we have the iHub (http://www.ihub.co.ke/pages/home.php) — Nairobi’s innovation hub and nexus point for the local tech community. On the top floor of a sparkling new glass building with 12-foot ceilings and wall-to-wall windows, it is the hangout and home for over 2,500 members of the technology community in Kenya’s capital city.

Pumped full of high-speed fiber Internet connections and constantly full of people tapping away on their laptops, iHub is the beating heart of the community. Here university students with too much time bump up against seasoned mobile phone programmers and start messing around with new ideas.

While some are busy hacking together a way to get the cooking started when they leave work by sending an SMS message to their wired-up stove, others are thinking of new ways that they can build businesses by making mobile payment systems work better, providing agricultural information to farmers or creating new mobile games.

Wesley Kirinya is a great example of the type of technology entrepreneur that inhabits this space. He has built a couple of iPhone games, but now he’s working on a new app that has the potential of being on millions of people’s phones worldwide.

Currently Wesley is testing the app against 40 different mobile phone handsets to make sure it works flawlessly. At the same time he’s talking to mobile operators and manufacturers about distribution. He’s not alone either, as 30-40 others are doing the same thing at any given time.

The boom in African tech is at its very early stages. A generation is coming online, through their phone first and then their PC. They’re just now flexing their muscles.

Africa has a competitive advantage in the mobile space, jumping PCs in many ways. As businesses grow up on the software side, it will mean a new type of entrepreneur reaching out to a new type of consumer. It’s an exciting place to be, and the future is very bright indeed.



Raised in Kenya and Sudan, Erik Hersman is a technologist and blogger who lives in Nairobi. He is a co-founder of Ushahidi, a free and open source platform for crowdsourcing information and visualizing data. He is the founder of AfriGadget, a multi-author site that showcases stories of African inventions and ingenuity, and an African technology blogger at WhiteAfrican.com. His current project is the iHub, Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community, bringing together entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and the investment community.

Erik is a Senior TED Fellow, a PopTech Fellow and speaker. You can find him on Twitter: @WhiteAfrican

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net / FrontlineSMS. He shares exciting stories in Mobile Message about how mobile phones – and technology more broadly – is being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can read all the posts in this series, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter.