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African Ingenuity

August 5, 2009


We all know that you don’t have to be rich to be innovative. In fact, the old saw that claims necessity is the mother of invention applies more often to the poor than to the rich because their needs are so much greater. One website that touts African ingenuity is called Afrigadgets.com. The site features a range of cobbled-together gadgets that solve everyday problems or that are simply whimsical and satisfy the itch to create. I learned about the site at a workshop I attended last week sponsored by the Department of Defense’s Center for Excellence in Disaster Management & Humanitarian Assistance. To give you an idea about the kinds of gadgets the site highlights, play the attached video that discusses the work of Zambikes, a company in Zambia that retrofits bicycles with trailers that can be used for various purposes. The video shows how the company builds a product they call the “Zambulance.” It’s a trailer that can be used to get sick people from their homes to a clinic or hospital. As the site notes, “this is especially useful in rural Zambia (and other parts of Africa) where there aren’t many cars to get the sick to hospital, much less an ambulance.”



Zambike also makes the “Zamcart,” a bike-pulled utility trailer that can play an important role in rural supply chains. As the above video shows, Zambikes products are made to survive the difficult conditions found in rural areas. The company highlights the quality of products by selling and outfitting bikes “under the local brand name of ‘Amaka Sana’, the Bemba word for ‘very strong’.



Another adage that comes to mind when you peruse the Afrigadget site is: “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.” The site shows a “’stick-up’ Light Bulb [that] sells on Amazon for $3.99” then shows the local version made from discarded items.




In previous posts, I’ve discussed how the cellphone market has taken off in Africa and some of the interesting ways that cellphones there have been used. One of the challenges of using a cellphone in some parts of Africa is finding a way to recharge its battery. The Afrigadget site shows how one man built a wind-powered generator (with the intent of providing power to generate lightbulbs) and was overwhelmed when his neighbors wanted to use the device to recharge their cellphones. The site also discusses two other young men, “Pascal Katana, 22 who with Jeremiah Murimi, 24, [who] invented a dynamo-powered “smart charger” to help people without electricity in rural areas to charge their cell phones. The system costs $4.50 and it takes an hour to fully charge a cell phone.” The BBC picked up on the story and details why the system has such potential [“Pedal power for Kenya’s mobiles,” BBC News, 24 July 2009].

“[Currently], people have to travel great distances to shops where they are charged $2 a time to power their phone, usually from a car battery or solar panel. … It is estimated that some 17.5 million people out of Kenya’s 38.5 million population own a mobile handset – up from 200,000 in 2000. Although similar devices already exist in other countries, they are not available in Kenya.”

The device is small enough to fit in your pocket and takes advantage of the dynamos many bikes use to power lights for traveling after dark. Like many other “Afrigadgets,” the cellphone charger is made up of “items from a junk yard – using bits from spoilt radios and spoilt televisions.” The inventors, Murimi and Katana, are electrical engineering students from Nairobi University. Another student from that same university, Pascal Katana, has “developed an electronic device that ‘automates’ fishing. The trap employs amplification of the sound made by fish while feeding. The acoustic signals are radiated and attract other fish who head toward the direction of the source thinking there is food there. Once a good catch is detected by a net weighing mechanism, it triggers a GPRS/GSM device attached to the system and the fisherman gets a call/sms informing him that his catch is ready.” Pascal encompasses one the characteristics found in many developing country innovators — an appreciation for the environment. He “is in the process of developing a by-catch control system which will ensure that his contraption doesn’t cause overfishing.”


Of course, not all technology solutions are going to be developed by local innovators using components found in trash heaps. The best efforts of innovators in the developed world are also needed to address the world’s most pressing problems. However, if you enjoy seeing the fruits of creative thinking, you’ll have a great time browsing Afrigadgets’ archives.

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