Africa innovations: 15 ideas helping to transform a continent
Bright ideas: A cellphone database for dairy farmers and a strain of sweet potato that can help fight child blindness.
These are just two of the imaginative new ideas that are tackling Africa’s old problems
1. Hippo water roller
Idea: The Hippo water roller is a drum that can be rolled on the ground, making it easier for those without access to taps to haul larger amounts of water faster.
Problem: Two out of every five people in Africa have no nearby water facilities and are forced to walk long distances to reach water sources. Traditional methods of balancing heavy loads of water on the head limit the amount people can carry, and cause long-term spinal injuries. Women and children usually carry out these time-consuming tasks, missing out on educational and economic opportunities. In extreme cases, they can be at increased risks of assault or rape when travelling long distances.
Method: The Hippo roller can be filled with water which is then pushed or pulled using a handle. The weight of the water is spread evenly so a full drum carries almost five times more than traditional containers, but weighs in at half the usual 20kg, allowing it to be transported faster. A steel handle has been designed to allow two pushers for steeper hills. “Essentially it alleviates the suffering people endure just to collect water and take it home. Boreholes or wells can dry out but people can still use the same roller [in other wells]. One roller will typically serve a household of seven for five to seven years,” said project manager Grant Gibbs.
Verdict: About 42 000 Hippo rollers have been sold in 21 African countries and demand exceeds supply. Costing $125 each, they are distributed through NGOs. A mobile manufacturing unit is set to begin making them in Tanzania. Former South African president Nelson Mandela has made a “personal appeal” for supporting for the project, saying it “will positively change the lives of millions of our fellow South Africans”. Monica Mark
2. The iCow app
Idea: To harness the power of cellphones to encourage best practice for dairy farmers and increase milk production.
Problem: Small-scale dairy farmers often living in remote areas don’t have access to valuable information about latest prices of milk or cattle, and they may not keep accurate records of important details such as their cows’ gestation periods or their livestock’s lineage—often resulting in inbreeding and disease.
Method: Created by Kenyan farmer Su Kahumbu, iCow is an app that works on the type of basic cellphones farmers own. Each animal is registered with the service, which then sends SMS reminders to the farmer about milking schedules, immunisation dates and tips about nutrition and breeding or information about local vets or artificial insemination providers. UK-based foundation the Indigo Trust helped fund iCow’s development. Its executive Loren Treisman says: “It’s exciting to see a technology-driven project targeting such an unexpected constituency. Farmers have been empowered to improve their own lives through accessing critical agricultural information as opposed to depending on aid. What particularly excited us is that as a social enterprise, the iCow team have a sustainable business model which will enable them to expand rapidly and maximise their reach and impact without dependence on ongoing funding.”
Verdict: “The wonderful thing with iCow is that by the time you have used the app and adhered to all the instructions, your cows end up healthier, bigger and stronger. They can easily fetch you more money in the marketplace. Every smart farmer will use iCow,” a small-scale farmer based in the cental highlands of Kenya told Forbes magazine. Ian Tucker
3. Farmer managed natural regeneration
Idea: Farmer managed natural regeneration (FMNR), which restores existing trees on drought-stricken land, to improve Senegal’s dwindling harvests.
Problem: Senegal is suffering its third drought of the decade, resulting in reduced crops and inflated food prices. The World Food Programme assisted more than nine million people in the Sahel region of West Africa this year, including 800 000 in Senegal.
Method: Attempts to tackle the resulting problem of soil fertility have largely flopped so far. Trees planted as part of reforestation schemes have seen only a 5% success rate and fallowing is not an option, with 80% of African farmers owning under two hectares of land, which need to be utilised year in, year out. This puts the emphasis on reinvigorating the stumps of nitrogen-fixing trees, which were formerly cleared to maximise crop space. Farmers are thus encouraged to prune the stems and branches of trees like Faidherbia albida, giving new life to the vegetation already there.
Verdict: FMNR is an inexpensive way for farmers to make improvements with the resources they already have, increasing millet harvests from 430kg to 750kg a hectare, and saving money on fertilisers, with restored trees producing leaf litter (forming humus) and giving shade to livestock (for manure). It gives the ecosystem a holistic boost, encouraging wildlife like bush pigeons and rabbits to return, and providing welcome human benefits such as wood cuttings for cooking and new food sources such as tamarind. Mina Holland
4. Portable water pumps
Idea: Portable irrigation technology helping sub-Saharan smallholder farmers grow crops out of season.
Problem: When it comes to food supply, Africa faces enormous instability due to unpredictable climate and poor resources. Only 6% of Africa’s cultivated land is irrigated, limiting the volume of crops that can be grown out of season, but increased access to irrigation systems stands to increase food productivity by up to 50%.
Method: Kick Start, a not-for-profit organisation that specialises in irrigation technology, is making portable water pumps accessible to farming communities across Africa—most significantly in Kenya, Tanzania and Mali. These cost anything from $35 to $95 but, putting the emphasis on entrepreneurship, Kick Start are selling the pumps to farmers rather than giving them away.
Solution: Kick Start told The Atlantic that, since 1991, their pumps have lifted 667 000 people out of poverty, helping to “create an entrepreneurial middle class, starting with the family farm”. They have pumped new revenues equivalent to 0.6% of the GDP in Kenya alone. MH
5. The Cardiopad
Idea: A computer tablet diagnoses heart disease in rural households with limited access to medical services.
Problem: Cardiovascular diseases kill about 17-million worldwide annually. In many African countries, those at risk often have to spend huge amounts of money and travel hundreds of kilometres to reach heart specialists concentrated in urban centres. The Cameroon Heart Foundation has noted a “sharp spike” in heart disease among its 20-million-strong population, which is served by fewer than 40 heart specialists.
Method: A program on the Cardiopad, designed by 24-year-old Cameroonian engineer Arthur Zang, collects signals generated by the rhythmic contraction and expansion of a patient’s heart. Electrodes are fixed near the patient’s heart. Africa’s first fully touch-screen medical tablet then produces a moving graphical depiction of the cardiac cycle, which is wirelessly transmitted over GSM networks to a cardiologist for interpretation and diagnosis. “I designed the Cardiopad to resolve a pressing problem. If a cardiac exam is prescribed for a patient in Garoua in the north of the country, they are obliged to travel a distance of over 900km to Yaoundé or Douala,” Zang says.
Verdict: At the Laquintinie, one of the country’s biggest hospitals, cardiologist Dr Daniel Lemogoum said that, in a recent survey, three in every five persons who uses the Cardiopad has been diagnosed as hypertensive, or at risk of heart diseases. “These are people who would not necessarily have been aware they are hypertensive. It means sudden deaths might be preventable.” MM
6. Nigerian computer tablet
Idea: The Inye computer tablet that can connect to the internet via a dongle surmounts the price and infrastructure barriers in one go.
Problem: Tech-savvy youths, who make up the bulk of the continent’s population, face being left behind by a growing “digital divide”. While much of Africa has skipped the desktop internet era and gone straight to mobile tech, big name brands retail in price ranges that remain out of reach for a majority in sub-Saharan Africa. Infrastructure is also straining under rapid population growth, and wireless and broadband technology is not yet widely available in many public places.
Method: Co-founders Saheed Adepoju and Anibe Agamah, aimed to plug a gap in affordable mobile devices with the Inye tablet in Nigeria. They say its strongest selling point is its price—currently around $315. Run on Android systems, it can be connected to the internet via widely used dongles rather than wirelessly. IT provider Encipher also offers add-on bundles from games to specifically tailored apps. Local developers are designing apps that address issues such as HIV, water and sanitation and education.
Verdict: The group is now retailing its Inye 2 model to popular demand. Long-term, there are plans to expand beyond Africa’s most populous country. MM
7. Ethanol cooking oil plant
Idea: Refining locally sourced cassava into ethanol fuel to provide cleaner cooking fuel.
Problem: Forests in Africa are being cut down at a rate of 4m hectares a year, more than twice the worldwide average rate. Some of this is fuelled by demand for wood and charcoal, which the UN estimates is still used in almost 80% of African homes as a cheaper option to gas. The smoke from cooking using these solid fuels also triggers respiratory problems that cause nearly two million deaths in the developing world each year.
Method: CleanStar Mozambique, a partnership between CleanStar and Danish industrial enzymes producer Novozymes, has opened the world’s first sustainable cooking-fuel plant in Mozambique. CleanStar has steered clear of monoculture crops in favour of sustainable farming methods. One-sixth of the final yield comes from locally harvested cassava, which requires farmers to plant in rotation with other edible crops to keep the soil fertile. A Sofala Province-based plant transforms the products into ethanol, which is sold on the local market along with adapted cooking stoves also produced by the company.
Verdict: “City women are tired of watching charcoal prices rise, carrying dirty fuel, and waiting for the day that they can afford a safe gas stove and a reliable supply of imported cylinders,” CleanStar marketing director Thelma Venichand said. “They are ready to buy a modern cooking device that uses clean, locally made fuel, performs well and saves them time and money.” The plant aims to produce 2-million litres of fuel annually, and reach 120 000 households within three years. MM
8. Refugees United
Idea: Danish brothers David and Christopher Mikkelsen founded Refugees United in 2008 after they helped a young Afghan refugee in Copenhagen search for lost family members. Realising the futile paper trail that many refugees were faced with when looking for missing relatives, the brothers wanted to find an easier way that refugees could trace their families.
Problem: There are 43-million forcibly displaced people worldwide with hundreds of thousands of refugee families scattered across the globe. Before 2008 all family tracing was done by refugee agencies, which still rely on paper forms and postal systems to try to locate people. There was no online global data bank that could be accessed or used by refugees themselves.
Technique: Refugees United is an online search tool, where refugees can create a free profile and start their search for family via an online database using the internet or a mobile phone. It works through an open-source model, partnering with not-for-profit refugee organisations including the Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as well as corporate tech partners such as Erickson and Google.
Verdict: More than 100 000 people are registered on the Refugees United family tracing platform. It is available in dozens of different languages and contains searchable information on refugees from more than 82 countries. It is currently helping 15 000 people trace family in the Kakuma refugee camp, home to 80 000 refugees and asylum-seekers, in Kenya. The main challenge is actually reaching the refugees, often the poorest of the poor, who don’t have ready access to computers or cellphones. Annie Kelly
9. DIY aid supplies
Idea: To make Africa self-sufficient in emergency relief supplies.
Problem: For a continent so in need of quick, affordable emergency relief, not to mention so riddled with unemployment, there’s a cruel irony about the provenance of emergency supplies. Smaller African manufacturers have traditionally been unable to compete with Chinese prices, or to meet the vast demand for emergency goods within Africa. As a result, aid agencies such as Unicef have forged links with foreign producers better able to produce these supplies at the scale, cost and quality required. Yet this inevitably requires longer lead times and higher transportation costs than sourcing goods locally—and Africans lose out on the work.
Method: Advance Aid is an organisation that wants to make aid destined for Africa available within Africa, from blankets and mosquito nets to basic cooking equipment and hygiene kits. The organisation acts as an intermediary between large aid agencies and African producers, putting together packages of aid supplies sourced locally. This has been very effective in Kenya, where Advance Aid have supplied 5 000 locally sourced emergency kits to World Vision and another 14 000 jerry cans to Catholic Relief Services, who distributed them in Dadaab, the refugee camp near the Somalian border.
Founder David Dickie says: “Aid is not working. I’m trying to turn the market on its head by creating jobs in Africa. Building this capacity in Africa will make a real difference to agencies, to the beneficiaries of the aid and to local businesses … [It] is a very efficient way of bringing together the development and humanitarian agendas.”
Verdict: Advance Aid’s work in Kenya in 2011 marks the first time that emergency relief goods produced in Africa have been provided for an African emergency, with 80% of goods sourced within the country. It put $1.5-billion into the Kenyan economy and brought orders to 12 local manufacturers. MH
10. Sickle cell disease research
Idea: To carry out scientific research on sickle cell disease (SCD) and show that large-scale, cutting-edge genomic studies are possible in Africa.
Problem: Every year, 300 000 children worldwide are born with SCD, a genetic blood disorder that can result in severe anaemia. Seventy percent of these children, or 210 000, are born in Africa. Tanzania has one of the highest annual birth rates of SCD in the world and without treatment up to 90% of these children will die in early childhood. However, many of these deaths could be prevented by early diagnosis and treatment. A better understanding of the genetic and environmental mechanisms of the disease will lead to improved diagnosis and therapies.
Method: Dr Julie Makani from Muhimbili University in Tanzania is working with the Wellcome Trust to conduct a genome-wide association study (GWAS) in order to better understand the genetic and environmental factors affecting SCD. The Muhimbili Wellcome Programme originally aimed to follow 400 children but is now following 2 500, making it one of the largest, biomedical SCD resources in the world. Makani says that the work “provides validation that it is possible to conduct genomic research in Africa”.
Verdict: Professor Lorna Casselton from the Royal Society says: “SCD has a severe toll on Africa, and high-quality research to lessen the burden is much needed. Dr Makani stands as a role model for other young African scientists wishing to make a difference.” Olivia Honigsbaum
Idea: To offer emergency credit through cellphones to people who don’t have access to credit cards or bank loans.
Problem: Credit cards are still rarely available to Kenyans and bank loans are only authorised for large amounts of cash or as investments for buying homes or starting businesses. Often the only source of emergency cash is loan sharks, increasingly big business in Kenya, with borrowers signing ambiguous photocopied contracts and tying themselves into interest rates of 50% or more. M-Pepea was launched to try to bridge this gap.
Method: M-Pepea, set up in late 2010, provides its customers with emergency funds within a few hours. It partners with Kenyan businesses, with employees then able to use M-Pepea to get immediate loans of up to 20% of their monthly salary. The money is accessed through their cellphones, with M-Pepea sending a special pin code to be used in cash machines. Money can also be collected at branches of Safaricom, one of Kenya’s largest cellphone operators, and then deducted from the borrower’s pay packet at the end of the month. M-Pepea charges around 10% interest rates on the loans, which are paid in full at the end of the month.
Verdict: M-Pepea has currently partnered with 20 businesses and has around 300 subscribers, and is hoping to have increased this to 20 000 by the end of 2013. Its partnership with Safaricom is encouraging but the company has run into problems with businesses defaulting. “We’re still in our initial phase, but we’ve seen how positively people have responded to the service,” says David Munga, M-Pepea’s 33-year-old founder. “If, like many Kenyans, you’ve found yourself at the side of the road with a broken car, no credit card and no money in the bank, it’s a way of getting yourself that money without having to get into trouble.” AK
12. The Tutu van
Idea: The brightly coloured “Tutu Tester” van is a mobile clinic that incorporates screening for tuberculosis (TB) and HIV into a general health check-up in order to overcome the stigma associated with these diseases.
Problem: South Africa is at the centre of an epidemic of TB/HIV co-infections. An estimated 5.7-million people are infected with HIV and, fuelled by HIV, the country’s rate of TB has increased over the last 20 years to the point where it now has the third highest TB burden in the world. In the case of HIV, voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) is vital for preventing and treating the disease. However, data from the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation conducted in communities most affected by HIV shows that VCT is often inaccessible or inadequately performed. This results in missed opportunities for prevention and increased morbidity and mortality—hence the need for new control strategies to keep the epidemic in check.
Method: The Tutu Tester is a mobile clinic that takes sophisticated testing equipment and trained staff (including a nurse, a counsellor and an educator) into areas without adequate health facilities. By framing TB and HIV screening within a battery of other healthy living tests, including pregnancy, diabetes and hypertension, people are encouraged to get tested for the diseases. Dr Linda-Gail Bekker, a leading scientist working with the foundation, says that data from these screens shows that “the increase in TB has quite clearly tracked the increase in HIV rates”. Further, the introduction of antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV has also led to a decline in the incidence of TB. This suggests that ART programmes, if sufficiently implemented, may greatly assist in reducing TB mortality.
Verdict: There is still a stigma attached to HIV and TB. But as Liz Thebus, a healthcare worker at the Tutu Tester says: “The outside world does not know whether someone wants to be screened for HIV or diabetes. They are in that respect much more anonymous.” OH
13. Orange sweet potato
Idea: Breeding sweet potatoes to contain betacarotene, to help in the fight against childhood blindness.
Problem: More than three million children in Africa suffer from blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency; in Uganda it is estimated that 28% of children are deficient. Currently aid agencies combat this problem by giving children vitamin A supplements, but addressing this issue with a locally grown food would be more sustainable.
Method: A new strain of sweet potato was conventionally bred which contains between four and six times as much betacarotene as a regular sweet potato—betacarotene is converted by the body into vitamin A. The OSP (orange sweet potato) was distributed to 10 000 farming households in Uganda; at the end of the two-year study vitamin A deficiency in non-breastfeeding children aged between 12 and 35 months fell from nearly 50% to 12%. Dr Christine Holz from the International Food Policy Research Institute who led the project said: “Overall, these results add to the growing evidence base that OSP provides large amounts of vitamin A in the diet.”
Verdict: Similar results were obtained from a sister project in Mozambique; now the scheme is being scaled up to reach 225 000 households by 2016. IT
14. Speaking Books
Idea: A range of easy-to-use audio books designed to get potentially life-saving health messages out to millions of isolated people struggling with depression and mental health problems.
Problem: In 2003, Zane Wilson, the founder of the South African Depression & Anxiety Group (Sadag), the country’s largest mental health initiative, was horrified at how suicide rates among young South Africans were spiking. Mental health carries a huge social stigma across Africa and information booklets designed to help people with depression or mental health problems simply weren’t working, especially in remote communities with high illiteracy rates. People weren’t getting the help they needed—a 2009 study showed that only a quarter of the 16.5% of South Africans suffering from mental health problems had received any kind of treatment.
Method: Speaking Books created a range of free books with simple audio buttons talking the user through each page. The first Speaking Book, voiced by South African actress and celebrity Lillian Dube, was called Suicide Shouldn’t Be a Secret and focused on how depression is a real and treatable illness, encouraging people to get help when they need it.
Verdict: Speaking Books have now produced 48 titles in 24 different languages and are now used in 20 African countries across the continent. The books now tackle a number of critical healthcare issues outside of suicide prevention such as HIV and Aids, malaria, maternal health and clinical trials. Speaking Books has also expanded to China, India and South America. “The situation we face in rural South Africa is the same in any other African country—low literacy compounded by lack of access to services and affordable healthcare,” says Wilson. “This means that patients are often not able to get help for many health problems. We believe that this interactive, durable, high-quality, hardcover book engages the user or patient, and allows them to build self-confidence and skills with a simple action plan”. AK
15. Narrative exposure therapy
Idea: Narrative exposure therapy (NET) for Uganda’s former child soldiers, encouraging storytelling to help come to terms with their experiences.
Problem: Abducted and forced into conscription by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), over 25 000 Ugandan children were pushed into violent atrocities during a civil war that lasted 22 years, often killing their own families. The majority were left with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—with symptoms including depression, flashbacks and suicidal thoughts. Moreover, hostility from their former communities has left countless child soldiers alienated, making PTSD a longer, lonelier battle.
Method: NET was introduced to Ugandan child soldiers as a means of making conscious their deeply repressed traumas. The technique highlights the importance of story, creating a kind of fiction from real-life experience as a vehicle for coming to terms with it. Nick Taussig, co-founder of the Mtaala Foundation—a charity that sets up educational communities in Uganda, empowering Ugandans to help their own youth—says that narrative exposure, though not a new concept, appeals to Ugandan culture, “There’s a strong oral tradition in Uganda, and these treatments build on that by committing the children’s stories to paper, investing them with added meaning.”
Verdict: A study of 85 former child soldiers conducted by Bielefeld University, Germany, demonstrated that 80% of those who underwent NET showed clinical improvements. MH – guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012