Heather Fleming

“Technology, Design, Innovation, Africa”: An On-the-Ground Perspective

Investors and potential investors in Africa gathered in Dar es Salaam in May for the World Economic Forum on Africa. Joining the forum were African government officials representing nearly every African nation, finance investors from China, India, the US and Europe, as well as non-profits, NGOs, and social entrepreneurs. In the opening session, Tanzanian President Kikwete expressed his desire to propel agricultural growth, but the hot topics also included multinational investment in Africa, energy infrastructure, women entrepreneurship, and building social leaders. The rallying cry: let’s stop talking about Africa’s “potential” and start building successful case studies.

The World Economic Forum tagline is “Committed to improving the state of the world.” To me that requires tackling big issues like poverty and inequality through environmentally sustainable development. The driving factors to achieving environmental sustainability? The use and design of technology. Empowering women. Supporting local innovation.

I was privileged to speak with a few individuals addressing these issues in Africa as policy makers, entrepreneurs, and non-profit organizations. I asked each of them, “Tell me about innovation, design, women and/or technology in Africa.” Here are some of their responses.

Nick Moon: Co-founder and Managing Director of Kickstart, a non-profit organization developing and marketing new technologies that are bought by local entrepreneurs and used to establish new small businesses.

“Very little work, in terms of design, innovation, technology in Africa, is being done for the people at the very bottom of the economic pyramid. It’s generally assumed that somehow or another miniaturized or minimalized version of high-tech developed for wealthy economies will somehow trickle down to bottom the pyramid. I think that’s totally the wrong approach. Because these consumers are in such a different set of social, economic and emotional circumstances that they require technology solutions to be developed specifically to meet those circumstances. And so it’s a completely different field. Going further, it’s probably more true that we can upscale small or low-tech solutions we develop for the BOP so that they have the potential for trickling down into wealthy economies.”

Bruce McNamer: CEO of Technoserve, a non-profit providing business advice and access to both markets and capital to businesspeople in developing countries.

“I think increasing opportunity for women in business, intersecting that with technology, as well as increasing possibilities in distribution, and diffusion of innovation, not just for women, but all entrepreneurs, is necessary. To attempt this years ago – to have the design tools and finance for business – was too costly. And so the developing world always ended up as a recipient. But now we’re building a middle class, the most rapidly growing consumer sector, which creates a strong market for products. This is the best opportunity for development.”

Kevin Martin: Acumen Fund Fellow working with d.Light, a low-cost solar lantern company providing lighting to families in developing countries.

“Africa’s challenges do not exist in silos: the prevalence of HIV/AIDS, for instance, is a function of culture, history, and economy as well as a dozen other factors. Challenges such as these require holistic solutions which integrate the on-the-ground-reality faced by the continent. I believe that the confluence of human centered design and modern technology is the most powerful tool the world has for generating the innovative solutions required to overcome these challenges.”

Jason Morenikeji: Project Director of The Clean Energy Company, building sustainable wind power solutions in Mozambique.

“There is this concept of African innovation which you see, especially in Mozambique, every time you go to a garage. I’ll see a piece of equipment, welding machines, bits of metal and wound wire and it blows me away sometimes. But innovation always comes from a specific need that’s inherent and if you bring that need from outside then it gets too convoluted in the way it’s translated. It almost has to happen itself over time. So in terms of bringing innovation and new design concepts, it takes time on the ground to see how things work and you have to adapt what you’re bringing to the African innovation process.”

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