African Innovation: A Different Narrative



(Yasmina Martin)-Kelvin Doe takes trash and makes batteries out of it. Doe, a 15-year old from Sierra Leone, has an inventive spirit and designs things out of other people’s metal scraps, finding creative ways to handle the real issues he encounters every day. The difficult conditions he lives in serve not to suffocate his ideas but instead give him inspiration to solve the problems that affect him directly-his community only got power once a month so he invented a generator to have a better and more reliable source of power. He also runs a FM radio station for his community under the pseudonym “DJ Focus,” which acts as a form of community building and empowerment. The station was created as part of a competition that offered winners year-long mentoring from students at MIT and Harvard, and Doe went on to visit Cambridge and work with MIT engineers on an innovative project.

Other innovations in sub-Saharan Africa can change the way we view technology and how it can and should be used. My Global Sounds class has been focusing on ideas of “world music” as a construct, and we’ve recently been studying  electronic sounds from sub-Saharan Africa, namely Congo and Angola. A large part of Kuduro music and dance movement in Angola came from kids using their cellphone buttons and old/found PCs to create fast, hypnotic beats. Kuduro dance is characterized by wild, jerky movements set to the music, which itself has a very distinctive, grating, party/hip-hop feel to it. This way of creating music lies outside the Western perception of how electronic music should be made (by using computers and music production programs.) Overtime, the sound was recognized by Portuguese group Baraka Som Sistema and Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A, crossing borders and cultures from Angola to Portugal to Brazil. The type of Kuduro played in Portuguese clubs, however, differs from the original sounds that came from an Angola that was still in the midst of civil war which lasted from 1975 to 2002. In this way, Kuduro has a very specific war-era quality; many of the dancers in early music videos were amputees who had encountered mines during the war.

Going north to Kenya, we see a similar movement of self-made innovation and informal business with Jua Kali (Swahili for “hot sun.”) Jua kali, an informal business sector that first started appearing in the 80s, is the phenomenon of Kenyan artisans offering fast solutions for everyday problems which can range from a broken flip flop to a busted tire. Jua kali entrepreneurs and artisans know the needs of their own communities and can effectively respond to them, even though the repairs often don’t last very long. The artisans also faces challenges in finding appropriate venues where they can promote and sell their products. These concerns have been brought to the attention of the Kenyan government, which is working to streamline the jua kali sector and give artisans the support they need. Despite some of its issues, jua kali is still a thriving part of the Kenyan economy-in a way, its lack of infrastructure makes room for more creative ideas, even if artisans sometimes face difficulties.  Another amazing example of world-class innovation from Kenya is MPesa, a system that allows people to send money to their cellphones.

This narrative runs against the dominant discourse of African poverty that has become all too prominent in Western media. When speaking of entrepreneurship in Africa, we often think of social entrepreneurship where outsiders collaborate with locals to make realistic and sustainable improvements to a community. Social entrepreneurship has taken off in the past few decades, encouraging people to think about large-scale solutions to pressing issues. Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, summed up the main idea: “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”Organizations such as Think Impact recruit college students to spend 2 months in South Africa working with locals in Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, or Rwanda, calling their program a “life-changing summer experience.” It’s not hard to think of more examples of organizations like Think Impact-yet how often do we remember that entrepreneurship and innovation is also driven by members of the global south, and not just prompted by benevolent outsiders? It shouldn’t be a surprise to see “Africa” and “success story” in the same line.