Africans are true in­no­va­tors by de­fault

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION&ANALYSIS - Andile Ma­suku Andile Ma­suku is a broad­caster and en­tre­pre­neur based in Jo­han­nes­burg. He is the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer at

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.

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