Innovation

Something old, something new, and something borrowed – Africa’s innovation space in 2018.

Africa has seen a boom in technological breakthroughs and innovation in recent years and 2018 was no different, as a number of young innovators showed why home grown solutions are the answer to many of the continent’s developmental challenges.

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA (REUTERS) – 

Some analysts believe that African nations have no better alternative, than to place technology and innovation, at the sharp end of any plans to catapult past decades of marginalisation and underdevelopment.

This year saw the continent embrace a mix of home-grown innovation, and technology invented elsewhere but adapted for local use.

For example, South Africa launched an ATM-like vending machine to dispense medicines to patients with chronic illnesses such as HIV/AIDS in a move aimed at reducing waiting times and congestion in public healthcare facilities.

“This machine is helping me when it comes to time and helps me when it comes to standing because we are sick, we get dizzy at times because it gets very full. With this machine you just get here and punch in your numbers and take your medication and go home,” Primrose Good told Reuters shortly after using the machine for the first time.

Malawi is also looking to disrupt its public health sector.

The country – in partnership with UNICEF – started using drones this year to create high-resolution maps of densely populated hotspots in order to implement interventions and stem the spread of cholera. The disease critically hit at least 6 districts following an outbreak last year.

Malawi is just one of the few African countries that have opened a drone corridor where scientists and other experts can carry out humanitarian and medical experiments.

“It has revealed many things that we didn’t know about. As community leaders, we now have a huge task to ensure that our surroundings are clean and tidy. We have assured the organisers that we will take immediate action and within the next six months things will improve,” said community leader, Bernadetta Bernard, after being trained to analyse the drone images and plan the relevant awareness campaigns.

Planning is also key if you’re hoping to get around in South Africa using minibuses or “taxis” as they’re known locally.

The minibuses are the backbone of South Africa’s transport industry, driving a conservative estimate of about 3.7 billion US Dollars in revenue through the country’s economy every year.

But even seasoned commuters here struggle to master the specifics of which routes, bus stations, or prices to use in the largely unregulated sector.

Skhona Khumalo is a 28-year-old tech innovator and one of the drivers of an app that aims to help commuters navigate through the maze.

“This industry is a gem, it’s an actual jewel of South Africa and how do we increase participation and the first place we start is by making it a more pleasant experience,” he said.

But it’s hard to enjoy the ride when you don’t feel safe – and that also goes for car owners who are in the business of hiring out their vehicles.

Cameroonian programmer Zuo Bruno created an internet-free application to track cars when the government shut down the internet during a crisis in the country’s Anglophone region. About 50 Cameroonian companies have signed up and Bruno has expanded his business into Ghana and Nigeria.

“We’ve sent an SMS from the owners, and this SMS is telling the car to immobilize, that is to stop the engine from functioning. And once this SMS arrived from the car, from the phone to the car, the car is going to stop and as you can see the car has stopped and right now even a new engine cannot bring back this car to life. But of course the owner can send another SMS telling the car to come back to normalcy, and it can even allow the owner to locate where the car is, at any point in time,” Bruno told Reuters during a demonstration of the app’s features.

It is becoming increasingly important for African governments, businesses and their global partners, to know the origins and uses of assets and resources.

Rwanda is embarking on the world’s first blockchain project to track its mining of tantalum, the mineral used in mobile phones. It wants to win over foreign investors by showing it’s a reliable conflict-free source of minerals.

At a mine in Ngororero, western Rwanda, the system was demonstrated using mobile phones, facial recognition software and GPS tracking to follow resources from the mine, to a refinery in Macedonia, and on to buyers.

It’s the brainchild of Circulor, a British-startup specialized in blockchain, and Power Resources Group, which has mining and refining operations in Rwanda and Macedonia.

“Rwanda has demonstrated without a doubt that the minerals coming from Rwanda are conflict-free and that’s not questionable whatsoever. But now what we are looking at is how to continue to demonstrate that with a solution that is cost effective, that is efficient, and that is adopting also modern technologies that are consistent with how the rest of the world are doing this,” said Frank Gatare, the chief executive of Rwanda’s Mines, Petroleum and Gas Board.

EarthRanger is another digital platform that was developed by international partners for niche use on the continent.

It was developed by U.S. philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as a response to the surge in ivory poaching in Africa, where the elephant population fell around 20 percent between 2006 and 2015. In its early stages of development the tech platform was named the Domain Awareness System (DAS).

“So what we do with DAS is we monitor all our assets, every collared animal and we input data which in turn helps us make decisions and plan operations when we extract the data and analyze,” Alina Peters told Reuters from the EarthRanger control room she oversees in Tanzania’s famous Serengeti National Park.

Alina Peters may soon be out of a job though; Sophia or her descendants could interface better with EarthRanger.

The software for Sophia, the world’s first humanoid robot was partly developed by an artificial intelligence research company in Addis Ababa – she even speaks some Amharic.

Its leaders hope that Ethiopia will lead Africa in A.I., but the tech space there is still young and its skeptics and infrastructural challenges are plentiful.

“I can say we are in the leading edge of AI and block chain. But nobody thinks that this image is true. Nobody thinks that this is reality,” said Getnet Assefa, CEO and co-founder of iCog Labs, which worked on Sophia.

Techies hope moves made by the government to open up the economy will take hold in 2019, and fast track support and development in the innovation space.

If that works, then Ethiopia will soon be able to face off against countries like Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya that are currently heading Africa’s innovation and tech.

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