Africans are true innovators by default
LIKE many a global citizen, I have spent a great deal of time wading through the dozens of think pieces published in the wake of the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. It has been fascinating to observe the predictable way that commentators the world over grouped themselves into two schools of thought when it came to interpreting the major themes that emerged from the gathering.
On one hand, you have those who are deflated by an apparent lack of political will to meaningfully address massive concerns such as the persistent gap between the world’s rich and poor, and the growing Western trend towards nationalistic protectionism. On the other hand, you have pundits that are generally optimistic about the world’s macro-economic condition. Many in the latter camp seem suitably encouraged by the potential of buzz-word technologies such as renewable energy, blockchain-enabled fintech, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering to deliver unprecedented improvements in quality of life to populations in the developing world.
The founder and executive chairman of the WEF, Professor Klaus Schwab, has popularised the notion of “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” – a phrase that encapsulates what is now widely considered to be the prevailing state of global socio-economics. In his book by the same name, Schwab posits that the world has officially graduated from the Industrial Age and that we are living at a time when numerous physical, digital and biological technologies are disrupting industries, upending economies and challenging longheld societal norms.
Meanwhile, in Africa, the real-world impact of the HIV/Aids epidemic continues to be felt.
While world leaders, esteemed scholars and titans of industry wax lyrical about the impact of technological innovation on the state of world economics and advance theories on what it means to be human in 2017, I along with millions of Africans remain content to judge technological innovation and its praiseworthiness by simpler metrics such as “Will this pill keep me alive?” “What price will this maize fetch at the market?” “Can I download my textbooks on this free wi-fi?” “Will this tap water give me typhoid fever?” or “Can I use this e-wallet to send money to my family back home?”
It seems to me that as Africans we ought to take the pragmatic middle ground when it comes to appreciating the role of innovation. I would argue that here, more than nearly any other place on Earth, we pursue and embrace innovation for two reasons. Firstly, in order to survive, and secondly, to enable ourselves to thrive in spite of circumstance.
Case in point, the Ugandan engineering graduate, Brian Turyabagye, who was inspired to come up with a medical solution after watching his friend’s grandmother die of pneumonia following numerous misdiagnoses.
That led him to develop a biomedical “smart jacket” that can distinguish pneumonia symptoms from other diseases, thus cutting the diagnosis rate for the illness by three or four times.
Also noteworthy is Mastercard’s recently-launched digital marketplace platform, 2Kuze. Produced in collaboration with the Cafédirect Producers Foundation – a non-profit organisation which works with more than 300 000 smallholder farmers around the world – 2Kuze connects growers with commercial agents, buyers and financial institutions in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The app allows farmers to buy, sell and receive payments for agricultural products via their feature phones. If this initiative works as well as many people hope it will, it is bound to significantly improve the lives of small-scale farmers.
While there is certainly room for academic postulation about what defines technological innovation and how best to go about measuring its impact, I reckon that Africa should avoid getting caught up in the hype. We are true innovators by default, and we ought to own the pragmatic middle ground. Here’s to more think pieces about innovation that matters.