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African Ingenuity

AFRICAN INGENUITY: From Sardine-tin lamps to wooden fridges, These African “Frugal Innovators” Refuse To Be Limited By Their Circumstances

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Kouassi Bafounga

The discarded sardine tins, used mayonnaise jars and old tomato cans jumbled together on ‘s front porch look like a pile of trash someone forgot to throw out.

But retrieving a gleaming lid from the mess, he beams as if he has just found a piece of gold.

These everyday objects are treasure to the self-made inventor living in Bangui, the capital of war-ravaged Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest countries.

In his tiny house of crumbling bricks, Bafounga collects what others throw away – and turns it into something useful.

He cuts shapes from tin cans and fixes them together with glass, string and a little petrol to produce storm-proof lanterns.

Bafounga is a shining example of the “frugal innovation” movement that has its roots in India, inspired by the notion of “jugaad”, a Hindi word meaning “improvising with whatever resources are available”. This trend of doing more with less has spread all over the world.

Bafounga devised his first lantern in Bambari when he was 15 and living with his older brother after his parents died. Unable to afford school fees and with time on his hands, he began tinkering with scrap materials.

Central African Republic’s second-largest city still has virtually no street lighting – perhaps not surprising in a country where little more than 10 percent of people had access to electricity in 2014, according to the World Bank.

Even in fortunate homes with one or two ceiling bulbs, the light often flickers off soon after sunset due to power cuts that plunge most of the town into darkness.

Now aged 35, making and selling lanterns remains Bafounga’s way to make a living. “They last until sunrise and cost 1,500 francs ($2.76) each,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Youths living in a camp for displaced people hammer out buckets to sell at the market from sheets of metal in Bambari, Central African Republic, January 22, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Inna Lazareva

“FAB LAB”

Last year, Bafounga was one of 11 winners in a “Fab Lab” innovation competition run by the French embassy and Alliance Française, a French cultural center in Bangui, with financing from the European Union’s Bêkou Trust Fund.

The finalists, chosen from more than 100 applicants, received assistance to develop their products into businesses.

The aim is to “move away from handouts and focus on empowering the Central Africans to control their own future”, said Dermot Hegarty of the Danish Refugee Council, which runs the scheme along with aid agencies ACTED and Mercy Corps.

“Frugal innovation” is important in a country like Central African Republic, Hegarty said.

“Access to goods and materials is exceptionally difficult, so you have to be able to use everything at your disposal,” he explained.

The inventions offer simple solutions to everyday problems.

They include a shelling machine for the much-loved peanuts sold at markets and a cheese-maker run by a women’s collective, over half of whom lost their husbands to war and disease.

CREATIVITY FROM CRISIS

In the United States, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also has a Fab Lab program runs a “fab academy” that includes classes over the internet, director Sherry Lassiter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But Central African Republic – which ranked bottom of all countries in the latest Human Development Index, and has limited internet access – may seem an unlikely place for innovators.

The country has been riven by sectarian conflict since 2013 when Muslim-majority Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize, triggering a backlash by predominantly Christian and animist fighters.

Five years into the conflict, marked by successive waves of ethnic cleansing, the humanitarian situation is dire.

Almost 70 percent of families lack essentials such as clean drinking water, over three-quarters of the population live in poverty, and close to one-fifth have fled their homes amid violence, according to the World Bank and the United Nations.

Some say those pressures – combined with mass unemployment – are what drives people like Bafounga to be creative.

Joel Henri Baliba, inventor of the wooden fridge, stands inside his workshop in Bangui, Central African Republic, January 16, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Inna Lazareva

On the streets of Bambari where he grew up, a place where most inhabitants are displaced from their native villages, children play with toy trucks fashioned from sugar boxes and plastic bottle tops, held together with wooden toothpicks.

On a dusty roadside, two teenage boys sell lamps consisting of LED bulbs powered by batteries, made brighter by attaching them to old CDs that reflect the light.

Adolescents living in straw huts in a camp for displaced people in the middle of the city are busy hammering out buckets from curved sheets of metal, some ripped off homes by armed groups in the clashes that have rocked the area since 2014.

BUSINESS AMBITION

Joel Henri Baliba, 67, used to work in the airforce of the infamous self-crowned Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, speaks Russian after a training stint in Ukraine in the 1970s, and is the proud inventor of the country’s first wooden refrigerator.

Though he retired in 2015, when a friend drew his attention to the innovation competition, he took up the challenge.

“A fridge is important for food conservation and also for medicine, but here most people don’t have fridges,” he said.

“The prices are very high, most people can’t afford one – that’s why I wanted to make something that costs less.”

By crafting the outer shell and interior from wood, which is plentiful, and using the usual refrigeration technology, Baliba can sell his product for up to 100,000 Central African francs ($184) cheaper than conventional fridges.

“We also allow people to pay in instalments,” he said, showing contracts signed with customers.

Before the competition, Baliba had never tried to invent anything. “But now I have more ideas!” he said.

Along with the other finalists, Baliba and Bafounga have received training in business and entrepreneurship.

Bafounga hopes to set up a permanent stall at a roadside market in central Bangui and employ others to help him, while Baliba already has a team of seven workers.

“It’s not quite a full salary, but we share what we earn,” Baliba said.

Children play with toy trucks, fashioned from sugar boxes, bottle tops and toothpicks, in Bambari, Central African Republic, January 22, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Inna Lazareva

CHEAPER, SIMPLER

Emma Hesselink of the Center for Frugal Innovation in Africa, based in the Netherlands, said sub-Saharan Africa is a region where the resourceful approach “is increasingly regarded as a valuable innovation strategy”.

The center has supported Dutch scientists to design thermometers adapted for use across Africa, based on research carried out in Uganda.

Sometimes the process leads to “reverse innovation”, where cheaper, simpler products aimed at the African market become popular in developed countries, Hesselink added.

One danger is that it could trigger a race to the bottom in terms of labor and quality standards, she cautioned.

For Baliba, conflict is another risk. “During the crisis, we lost everything,” he added, describing how an armed group broke into his home and stole his belongings.

But now that the situation in Bangui is calmer, he is keen to share his experiences to encourage and teach others.

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“You don’t really need a high level of knowledge – you just need to think of things that exist already and… how to improve them,” he said. “Everyone can do that.”

($1 = 543.2900 Central African CFA franc BEAC) (Reporting by Inna Lazareva, Editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Source: FEATURE-Sardine-tin lamps and wooden fridges: Meet Central …

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African Ingenuity

No Computer, No Problem. A Ghanaian Teacher Uses Blackboard And Chalk To Teach Microsoft Windows

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Viral sensation and tech hero. (Courtesy: Richard Appiah Akoto)

Richard Appiah Akoto posted photos of himself drawing the features of a Microsoft Word processing window on a blackboard with multi-colored chalk. The students in his class can also be seen drawing it into their notebooks. Social media exploded in admiration and wonder at his effort to explain how computers work—without computers.

The 33 year old  is the information and communication technology (ICT) teacher at Betenase M/A Junior High School in the town of Sekyedomase, about two and half hours drive north of Ghana’s second city, Kumasi. The school has no computers although its 14 and 15 year old students are expected to write and pass a national tech exam as a requirement for entry into high school.

On Facebook, Akoto goes by the nickname “Owura Kwadwo Hottish” which was the name that went viral on both Facebook and Twitter. His photo was seen as both a bit of ironic fun about life in Africa but also as a source of inspiration particularly for Africans in the tech community like the Cameroonian tech entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong, who tweets as @africatechie.

“This is not my first time [of drawing] it. I have been doing it anytime I am in the classroom… I like posting pictures on Facebook so I just felt like [sharing it]. I didn’t know it would get the attention of people like that”, says Akoto, who has been a teacher at the school for six years.

The photos gained prominence after a popular Ghanaian comedian (who is also a teacher) shared it with his 140,000 Facebook fans and later picked up by international websites and tech enthusiasts on the continent one of which was Rebecca Enonchong, a Cameroonian tech influencer whose reaction resulted in response from Microsoft

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African Ingenuity

25 Year Old Cameroonian Entrepreneur is Tackling Maternal Mortality with Technology

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Alain Nteff is one stand-up young entrepreneur. He saw a problem and he did something about it. The 25 year old Cameroonian entrepreneur is the co-founder of Gifted Mom, a mobile health platform that uses low-cost technology to help mothers and pregnant women access medical advice in out-of-the-way, rural communities. 

“The message I am trying to send out with my team is that the problem of maternal and infant death is not a woman issue — it’s a humanitarian issue,” he said in an interview with CNN. “Everybody should take [it] seriously — we all have mothers, we all have sisters, and it’s not just a problem for women or girls.”

The seed for the Gifted Mom idea was planted in 2012 when Nteff, then a 20-year-old engineering student, visited a hospital in rural Cameroon where his friend Conrad Tankou was doing his medical practice. There he witnessed several mothers and newborns die from conditions that could have been predicted and managed with proper antenatal care. Nteff was deeply affected by what he saw, and together with Tankou started thinking of ways in which they could use their skills to tackle the issue of maternal and infant mortality.

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African Ingenuity

Kenyan High School Dropout Designs Efficient Block Making Machine

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Maxwell Omondi is a Kenyan Innovator. In spite many challenges, his latest innovation is getting some traction. The 26 year old did not finish high school but that is no deterrent for him.

The 26 year old is the talk of his Yala hometown as well as Kisumu’s Mamboleo for designing a hydraulic powered block making machine that can produce up to 5,000 blocks a day.

The block making process begins in the mortar where quarry dust, sand, cement and water are mixed in specified ratios.

Workers at the Yala site praised the machine, noting that it was less time consuming and efficient, creating a higher quality than the ones made manually.

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