African innovations for African problems

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The web and media are abuzz with Ebola these days. A westerner gets infected and all media outlets provide wide coverage on all the details. But we all know the epicentre of it, Africa. According to the World Health Organization the death toll has surpassed the 4000 mark. But Ebola is nothing new is it? Just like Malaria, so far the biggest killer in Africa. Ebola gets a lot of attention largely because everyone (Africans and the world) is at risk (not necessarily the case with malaria). As it is typically the case, African Governments are desperately looking for the West to bring a cure. When news of Zmapp came, many Africans saw in this, once again, an innovative solution coming from somewhere else to solve an African problem.

Isn’t it time to stop though? Stop and think for a while about innovation from an African perspective. Why is it that after years of independence from colonial rule, we still have to look to them? Are Africans not going to the best universities in the world? Don’t they work for the best possible organizations and companies out there? And isn’t it time we started truly looking from within to solve our problems? I know these questions have been asked a lot already. Much has been said about the flight of talents from the continent. Many well-educated Sub-Saharan Africans feel they have better opportunities out of their respective homelands and it is easy to see why. It is often simplistic to assume they leave their countries just because they want to earn better wages. This is only one among many other reasons. Fostering a real culture of innovation for Africa comes down to a lot of factors, but these three are key to solving our problems: liberalizing free thinking, supporting our innovation environment and leveraging our talents.

Liberalizing free thinking

Free thinking was the basis of the enlightenment movement in the 18th century. The enlightenment movement later brought about the industrial revolution whose ripple effects still affect our daily lives today. Authors like Emmanuel Kant with its famous quote “sapere aude”, dare to know in English were instrumental to the enlightenment movement. The African enlightenment movement is long overdue. Our fathers fought for our political independence, we need to fight for our economic independence. This starts with an audacity to think differently. Governments in Africa should encourage rather than deter it and civil societies should demand it. Real solutions to African problems will come when people are free to open up and think about the issues that affect us from a real critical perspective. We should not let the economist or the financial times tell us about our immense growth prospects. So long as double digit growth figures do not provide jobs, shelter and food, Africa is not thinking and Africa is not rising. Besides it is not like we are not thinking already, we are but we need to think more especially about our innovation environment.

Supporting our Innovation Environment

When Arthur Zang realised 30% of Cameroon’s 22 million people suffer from high blood pressure, a key contributing factor to heart disease, he designed cardio pad. This a touchscreen device that serves as a complete diagnostic kit for people in remote area. His effort has drawn a lot of attention. From being featured on forbes, to winning a rolex award and recently speaking at Ted, Arthur Zang has been making a big name for himself. True he has been receiving a lot of attention from local news outlets in Africa but very little support, save from the FCFA 20 million ($385050) awarded to him by President Paul Biya of Cameroon. This is a student from poorly equipped university of Cameroon. Shouldn’t people and governments take notice to provide more enabling environments from our scientists? Like previously stated above, our talents are not leaving for wages related issues only, many of them don’t find in Africa the kind of environment that enables them to excel at what they do. Africans typically make a name for themselves abroad before coming back. Should it not be the opposite? How do we leverage our talents?

Leveraging our talents

This is not just bringing our best brains back. It is actually formulating a strategy on how to best use the resources we have out of the continent. It is providing better incentives (not just financial) in order to attract our best talents. It is more importantly, outlining a vision that is inspiring enough to get talents to believe in Africa. It is frustrating when foreign news outlets tell us how rich we are and how great we could be as if we did not know that ourselves.  We don’t care whether the French, British or Americans believe in our potentials. We do care however about the kind of vision and strategy our governments are articulating so millions can be lifted out of poverty. This is in part down to getting the most talented Africans together so they can solve our problems. From Ebola, Malaria, education, access to basic healthcare, infrastructure and energy, access to food and water there is no shortage of challenges to tackle and it is about time we get to critically think about innovation from an African perspective, provide a more enabling environment for our talents and leveraging them to grow in a manner that benefits all. This is not only possible but very realistic.

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About Patrick Mayoh 1 Article
Patrick Mayoh is an In-country analyst for Euromonitor International.

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