Africa: the lightbulb continent


By Hlamvu Yose, Meagan du Plooy and Keegan Frances

Seventeen years ago, Africa was deemed hopeless by The Economist. Today six of the 10 fastest growing economies are in Africa.

Delivering the Christina Scott Memorial Lecture at Scifest on Saturday, journalist Toby Shapshak talked about why innovation is better in Africa. His TED talk on this topic has already had more than 1,4 million views.

In the last 25-30 years, he told his Scifest audience, the world has changed exponentially as a result of technological advancements – and a lot of these advancements have been made in a place the world considers underdeveloped.

One such innovation is M-PESA, an SMS system that only requires a registered sim card to transfer cash using the cheap and efficient pay-as-you-go service. Smartphones are essential, but they do not really change the lives of Africans, said Shapshak. “A sim card is a far way better method of making payments than a credit card.”

Another innovation born in Africa is M-Farm, an SMS system in Kenya which aids small farming co-operatives with the purchasing and sale of products thereby ensuring that everyone in the group makes money. This system aims to give these individuals a fighting chance against bigger businesses in their industry. I-Cow, developed by Su Kahumbu Stephanou, is a mobile phone agricultural platform which provides farmers in Kenya with tips which are in line with the latest trends in cattle farming.

In Rwanda, blood supplies are delivered via drones to the village clinics. It is a system that uses the cell phone network to guide the drone to destinations as far as 75km in distance. As Shapshak explained, “Like Uber, it sends an SMS when the delivery is outside.” Despite the difficulties that come with blood preservation during delivery, the drones have not lost one unit of blood to this problem. In Africa, the repair and maintenance of incubators has always been a costly process until it was discovered that Toyota parts could be used.

In Malawi, William Kamkwamba built a windmill using old bicycle parts to generate electricity to his house. He then went to study in Dartmouth College in Hanover, USA, and took the ideas he developed there back to Malawi.

Shapshak made it clear that creative innovations still exist in Africa despite it being a third world continent. Frequently, these innovations are made from the resources which Africans have.

Did you know?

  • 40% of software used on American ATMs is developed in Cape Town.
  • SKA is used as a Big Bang time travel tool and is found is South Africa.
  • Dolosse were first developed in East London and are now found as protective breakwaters in harbours worldwide.




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