Here are Africa's brilliant but underused innovations that could be magic bullet for continent's problems

Small-scale innovations that, if they were viable at a larger scale, would be able to transform the continent

THE European Union (EU) and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) have launched, in collaboration with the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States (ACP), a $52 million programme to bolster sustainable land management and restore drylands and degraded lands in the ACP regions.

According to the programme sponsors the project, called “Action Against Desertification”, aims to fight poverty and hunger, foster stability, build resilience to climate change, and encourage the sustainable management and restoration of their dryland forests and rangelands. All of this while promoting income-generating activities and employment. 

These large-scale projects by these large bureaucratic agencies are commonplace in Africa, and in recent decades they have received widespread criticism for implementing  top-down processes, achieving few tangible results, and rarely solving the issues they were mandated to tackle. After all, despite being formed 69 years ago the FAO, whose mandate it is to modernise and improve  agriculture, forestry and fisheries practices, “ensuring good nutrition and food security for all”, has not achieved this in Africa. Today approximately 20 million people are facing acute food insecurity in eastern and central Africa, with most of them being at “crisis” and “emergency” levels, according to aid agencies - including the FAO. 

Whilst Africa’s problems of hunger, health and technology may all seem far too daunting - several individuals and groups on the continent have not let the enormity of the task stand in their way, creating small-scale innovations that, if they were viable at a larger scale, would be able to transform the continent. 

Unfortunately, due to a lack of government and venture capital interest, most of those innovations lack funding and support other than a token award or prize money in a competition. Yet, these are grass-roots innovations that were created by Africans to fit a specific issue affecting their, or their community’s, every day life and provide tangible solutions. 

Energy saving stoves

Take for example energy-saving cookstoves. These have been found in both Kenya and countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Through the development of energy-saving ceramic “jikos” (cookstoves), charcoal use can be halved. There are also plenty of examples of people using sustainable cooking fuels, such as pellets made from locally available renewable biomass, which do not require the decimation of Africa’s precious forests for firewood and charcoal. These projects all create local employment and improve forestry practices yet they do not received the support that they should. Cleanstar - a brilliant Mozambican organisation offering clean burning cookstoves fuelled by ethanol derived from cassava - had to shut down operations because of lack of funding. A great shame considering there was a 1994 Convention that was signed by UN officials for $480 billion dollars to be spend on “anti-desertification” projects over the next two decades. 

Whilst there are communities and organisations, such as Afrinnovator or Venture Capital for Africa, that recognise African innovators, their solutions continue to fly under the radar despite the huge changes they could make beyond state borders. 

Here are just a few of Africa’s noteworthy innovations that have the ability to solve many of Africa’s problems and should be seen everywhere: 

Affordable clean energy: 

Saphon Energy 

This remarkable piece of technology was designed and developed in Tunisia by a tunisian inventor - Anis Aouini. It offers a radical new way of harnessing the wind - without using the usual rotating blade system. This technology has the ability to produce renewable electricity through a wind converter called ”The Saphonian” - it is bladeless, rotationless, and follows, instead, a back and forth 3D knot motion, largely inspired from sailboats. Not only is it substantially more cost-effective, but it also tackles another environmental issue related to wind turbines - it reduces the huge threat to thousands of Africa’s migratory birds. 

ClaphijoReducing crop wastage

Determined to prevent the huge drop in fruit and vegetable prices out of peak season and curb the volumes of crop wastage in Tanzania, Claphijo Enterprises offers post-harvest management of crops by processing perishable fruits and vegetables through dehydration using a solar drying mechanism.  

Infinite Loop: Low cost computers

Infinite Loop, or Low-Cost Computer (LC-COM), was developed by Togolese Sam Kodo. They produce miniature computers that can fit into a pocket and plug into TVs or touch screens and turn them into an internet enabled desktop PC. Each sells for $76. 

Dry Bath Gel: Waterless hygiene

Ludwick Marishane created “Dry Bath Gel”, an anti-bacterial waterless shower substitute, which gives people without access to water the ability to clean and moisturise their skin. This could have a tremendous impact on diseases such as trachoma, which affects 350 million people in Africa and has blinded 8 million people, and for whom the access to water and the ability to clean their own face would take care of most of the trachoma problem.

DiaLifeLack of healthcare access

This Algerian application, created by Tahar Zanouda, Amine Aboura and Amine Bounoughaz is an online health management platform for diabetics. It allows them to input blood sugar level data over time and share it directly with their doctors. Doctors can then communicate with patients directly by posting on their “DiaWall,” and the site offers an encyclopedia of information on diabetes called DiaPedia. The central goal of the app is to save diabetic patients money as it prescribes certain foods and warns patients of dangerous cycles.

Cardiopad: A life-saving heart signal

Cardiovascular diseases represent a huge public health problem in Africa. In Central Africa alone the WHO in 2004 reported that 2 million deaths per year resulted from the disease, compounded by a lack of access to cardiac exams. Cameroonian Arthur Zang has created the Cardiopad, Africa’s first mobile system to send a cardiac, or heart signal, over a wireless network, to deal with this issue. The system will give much needed medical assistance to heart patients in rural areas. 

Roadless: Lack of infrastructure

The transportation of goods in Africa can be a tricky business due to poor infrastructure. Malawian Ackeem Ngwenya has developed a shape-shifting wheel that could adapt to different terrains, thus providing a one-size-fits-all solution for load-carrying carts, bikes or vehicles in areas with no infrastructure. By using the principle of a scissor jack, and arraying a series of them around a circle, the wheel would either grow shorter and wider, or taller and narrower, as the mechanism is manipulated. Unfortunately due to a lack of funds to complete his studies, Ngwenya is trying to raise funds to complete the project. 

Faso Soap: Tackling malaria

With over 300 million malaria cases each year globally, the mosquito-borne disease remains a significant—but preventable—health threat. Fortunately students from Burundi and Burkina Faso have developed an innovative mosquito repellant solution made with natural ingredients that are available locally in Burkina Faso. This solution, added to locally manufactured soap, provides a very accessible, low-cost anti-malarial tool. The soap is enriched with a mixture of local herbs and leaves a scent that repels mosquitoes off the skin. In addition waste water products from the soap contain substances that prevent the development of mosquito larvae. 

FORA: Access to higher education

Nigerian Iyinoluwa Aboyeji established a startup that is providing university-level online courses for people living in Sub-Sarahan Africa, particularly Nigeria.The startup offers accredited online university courses from some of the most prestigious or otherwise internationally-recognised schools (such as MIT and Princeton). When 500 potential students want to take the same course, it gives Fora leverage to negotiate a lower price with the providers.

Zambikes: Lack of affordable transport

Zambikes develops and provides efficient transport solutions throughout Zambia through the production of bikes made form bamboo. They manufacture, assemble and distribute high quality bicycles, bicycle ambulances and cargo bicycle trailers to the under-privileged. Zambulances (bicycle ambulances) address the transport bottleneck by allowing patients to be ferried to health facilities in a faster and more comfortable way. The Zamcart (cargo bicycle trailer) allows the individual using it to carry up to three times more load (due to increased capacity of up to 300kg). This not only increases efficiency but also earning power. 

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