I remember when I first started my postgraduate studies in nanomaterials, many people asked me how that would be applicable in Africa let alone Zimbabwe. My academic interests were too niche and futuristic that they seemed to be not applicable anywhere on the African continent. I tried to sell them on the benefits that nanomaterials could have in Africa but the technological gap was just too high that my explanation was merely an academic exercise than a plausible reality. Recently, I stumbled across a term called “disruptive development”, I felt it described best what Africa needed and created a place that nanomaterial engineers like myself could fit in. “Nanomaterials engineer? huh? I have never heard of this.” You might be saying to yourself, but that’s just the thing – there are new types of engineering careers propping up each decade. Technology is developing at such a rapid rate and the more we attempt to follow a linear path of development, the further behind we lag.
The truth is Africa is not developing equitably, we need to do generational (40 year) developmental leaps just to catch up with the rest of the world. We have to throw away the step-by-step manual on development and formulate new trajectories that propel us into the 21st century. We do not have to develop every sector at once, we can select key industries where incremental changes lead to big economic rewards. One such industry is that of materials. Perhaps, I am a little biased because of my academic background. However, I once walked 30km in one day through a bustling road in the city. Every person and car that passed me by had one thing in common, we were all using a battery in some way or the other. We rarely cognizant of the fact that our lives are dependent on these energy storage devices. All of the materials used to make batteries are found here in Africa! The global battery market size is expected to be worth US $310 billion by 2027 with a market growth of at least 12% per annum. To put that market size into context, South Africa’s GDP in 2019 was US$ 351 Billion according to the World bank. Africa is expected to be one of the biggest consumers of batteries as we rapidly adopt renewable resources. We need to get onto the table as a manufacturer of batteries not just a consumer. There are huge economic gains to be made here. Currently, we are at the bottom of the battery value chain as a raw material exporter. This needs to change
The reality is, as Africans we have the capability and intelligence to manufacture existing products as well as innovate. However, we should not limit ourselves within the constraints of traditional development. We are in a position where we can move from manual weeding to fumigating with a drone. We should be focused on disruption and not linearity. We can literally go from the mine into the production line without the material having left the continent. So why are we not doing it?
Firstly, we need to abandon the idea that only men can be engineers and that you need to be intelligent to be one. Anyone can be an engineer and you do not need excellent grades to be one. Disruptive innovation lends itself well in a diverse environment with innovators from diverse backgrounds. In fact, you do not need to be an engineer to be an innovator, innovation is not confined to scientists only.
Secondly, we need to abandon the idea that things designed in California are the best quality. That’s a marketing gimmick that the American businesses formulated. We were brought up being told German cars were upper echelon, but the Japanese brands are disproving that theory. The African market is sizeable enough to dispel any of these marketing gimmicks and build successful brands around African consumers. Mara Phones based in Rwanda is one of the first disruptors of mobile manufacturing in Africa. Let’s support local or continental manufacturers so we boost confidence of our African brands. Once we as African consumers support a product, the rest of the world will be ready to adopt our technologies. A good example is Ankara print in the fashion industry. Always remember to preferentially buy African technology first!
Thirdly, lets dispel the theory that innovation is difficult and Africa cannot innovate. Innovations are happening across the continent daily, Majik Water is a start-up based in Kenya that developed a technology that harvests water from the air. The truth is African’s are innovating everyday but our innovations do not get as much airtime as imported inventions because Africa has put herself as an adopter than a creator of technologies. The solution here is to always seek first for indigenous solutions before importing expensive technologies from abroad.
Finally, let’s stop waiting for the government to create initiatives and spaces for us to innovate. Our governments are marred with instabilities and the continent is rife with socioeconomic instability. To see the change – we are going to have to be the change we want to see. We need more universities to focus on delivering technological solutions as they can act as bridge that accesses public and private funds for active research. For example, Dr Dele Sanni from Obafemi Awolowo University Nigeria developed a 3-D-3-P rotary dryer that could be used to dry grain and cereals.
The truth is, African innovators can be disruptive innovators. The problems are indigenous, the solutions should also be indigenous. This is the only way to ensure inclusive growth, sustainable development and a better future than we can ever imagine!