Innovation is an essential ingredient for a nation’s progress. By innovation here, I am not restricting myself to innovation in technology. I mean innovation in any thought, idea and field you could think of. So, while nations generally evaluate themselves on the scale of their economies, the assessment should also cover talent and innovation. Because it is then that countries will constantly strive for betterment. We all are aware that countries like UK, US and China are ahead of the curve in terms of Innovation but sometimes, I find it very unfair that the entire world’s attention rests on them. And when we think of poverty and scarcity, the first country that comes to our mind is Africa. So, in order to sway from the usually trodden path, I tried digging into the fundamentals of Innovation in Africa, what fuels it and what could be the future of it.
Africa suffers from a lack of an adequate STI or Science, Technology and Innovation system of indicators policy, thus the importance of measuring science and innovation activities in the socio-economic transformation of the continent is absent. Although, the African political leadership has recommended several schemes to advance the role of STI for development, there are no adequate instruments to gauge the implementation of these schemes by the member states of the African Union. However, with more and more reports informing about Innovation in Africa, it is dawning on the world that Africa might turn out to be a great innovator, in its true sense. As a story by CNN says, ‘Africa is buzzing with its own brand of innovation, taking existing technology and adapting it to new uses.’ For example, mobile technology has become a game changer in many parts of the continent, with cell phones being used for everything – from transferring money to providing health care information. In fact, Africa’s resourcefulness goes way beyond mobile technology as the continent illustrates an ongoing fortitude of innovation in the way they employ a product for uses more than one. Says, Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade, “ There are ways of doing more with less that are very organic to the African ecosystem, and I think in general in the 21st century there’s a very important recognition that we need to all do more with less, and where better to look than the place that has been doing this for centuries?” According to her, advanced economies could learn a thing or two from Africa’s innovative spirit.
Taking from Olopade’s CNN interview, Africa’s 60% population is under 35 and so the next decade will see this generation taking up challenges and using global technology and ideas to lead innovation. In Africa, technology is very different; rather, the way technology is used is very different from its traditional use in advanced economies. Men in Kenya make phone chargers using bicycles; when electricity goes out, you can simply plug your cell phone into a bike and peddle away while your phone is getting charged. So, basically innovation here is more about recombination, recycling and finding new ways of using existing objects. Infact, this concept also has a very African name to it and its called Bushpunk – a uniquely African way of making something out of nothing; or as some might say “low-tech solutions to high-tech challenges.” A very good example of this is the mobile phone banking in Africa which grew out of this need to use mobile phones for more than just making calls.
Across the continent, there are various examples of how people re-use objects and technology to suit their needs:
In Lagos, there is a bustling industry of pavement computer experts.
In Maputo, satellite dishes are rewired to provide access to whole apartment blocks.
In South Africa, discarded rubbish is turned into beautiful fashion toys for kids.
One cannot talk about innovation in Africa without mentioning the vuvuzela-like washing machine invented by and for rural women. It is a fascinating mix of poverty and ingenuity and although Africans lack the opportunities and resources required for development, they can still create a wealth of innovations out of existing resources. Even though, the influence of African culture on the West has been much celebrated, it is one such continent which has always been seen as requiring external intervention for progress. However, with the growing number of high-profile African entrepreneurs and the increasing visibility of African leaders in the international community, the continent is budding and its potential is gradually coming into the forefront.
I would like to end by quoting Olpade:
“I think the ability for people to find opportunity where there is none is something very important in terms of the way that the 21st century will move forward.”
I think this is something that both developing and developed nations should bear in mind. And while the African continent is taking an endeavour of foreseeing a developed future, the rest of the ‘sophisticated’ world should learn from its efforts.
NEPAD, African Innovation Outlook, 2012, Executive Summary
Feature Image Credit: http://bit.ly/MNWkah
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