When you tell people you have been to Africa, or a particular country in Africa, often the first question you receive is, “was it safe?” This suspicion over the continents somewhat negative stereotypes is not only inhibiting people from holidaying in Africa, it is also stopping investors taking time to travel down and understand first hand the spirit of innovation that sweeps across the continent.
Innovation springs from necessity and it starts from a very young age. Kids all over are forced into make their own toys from bits of tin cans and plastic bottles and other things they found thrown away. You often find kids riding home made push bikes, or pushing around cars they have made from scrap. I believe it is from this beginning that the incredible innovations begin.
When we think of innovation, we are think of the newest mobile phone and its applications, sustainable energy producing technology, or a medical break through etc etc. It is not only these high profile innovations, many of which I have written about, that are impressive in Africa. For example, take a car, that is written off after a crash. In fact this happened to me, I had a little bump in my car, and the garage decided it wasn’t worth repairing because the radiator was bent out of shape. In Africa the mechanics always seem to find a way to patch up a car and get it running again. And this without the ready supply of spare parts we find here in the UK. Innovation in car repairs in Africa is so important because of the bad roads and and environmental hot dusty conditions makes maintenance very difficult. With a little refining, many of these innovative car mechanics may find themselves working for Ghana’s home grown car company Katanka, which is making cars in Ghana, designed by Ghanaians, for Africa!
This is also the case with mobile phone usage in Africa. Speakers at forums and African technology writers always talk about the massive increase in mobile phone usage throughout the continent. What they don’t talk about it the phone repair guys that have also popped up all over the continent. When you have a mobile phone, you want it to last as long as possible, especially as it is usually a big investment. Here, when your phone is broken, it is usually time to find another phone. There, that is not always the case. Personally, I had an old Nokia that no longer functioned, which I had almost given up on. I came across a little phone repair shop on a side road and decided to see if he could fix it. After 3 minutes, a deconstructed, newly soldered and reconstructed phone, the phone worked perfectly. Often firms state that there is a lack of skilled workers, but with a little training, there are specialists out their that would be able to excel.
A BBC documentary Welcome to Lagos showed exactly how much innovation occurs in a major city like Lagos, where people are competing with each other to make a living. In one example in a Lagos cattle market (and slaughter yard), Gabriel collects the blood, boils it up over a fire made from used car tyres (which create immense heat), and stirs it until it thickens, dries it and creates chicken feed. This also reminds me of the young Malawian boy who built a windmill to create electricity in his village, seen here talking at Ted in 2009. (It is worth a watch, very inspiring!) This innovation, built material scavenged from a scrap yard, was born out of necessity. His family were struggling during a famine and he was no longer able to go to school. By reading physics books, we was able to create power for himself and others in the village.
Whilst is can be argued that the stereotypes that plague Africa are justified to a certain extent, it is also true the a culture of innovation and resourcefulness can be utilised by businesses inside and outside the continent. You may be thinking that this is is a far cry from the innovation promoted by the Innovation Prize for Africa or other innovation events, but this is more about the culture of innovation and the drive of many Africans to create solutions to improve their lot. It is the toy car builders of today, that will be winning the IPA of tomorrow.