IEEE Volunteer Highlights a Number of Innovations Within Africa

Cofounder of a research and startup incubation organization discusses setbacks and opportunities

23 March 2015

Photo: Lo'gel Project

A Ugandan entrepreneur operating a solar charger developed by the EPICS in IEEE Uganda team, which provides an alternative energy source to locals while also generating revenue.

IEEE Member Lwanga Herbert is the co-founder of the nongovernmental organization Log’el Project, an R&D center with the mission of providing sustainable engineering solutions for communities in Uganda. As an IEEE volunteer, he has coordinated EPICS in IEEE projects in the country, which include helping students develop and deploy solar charging systems for mobile phones as well as installing lightning arresters. Arresters are devices used on electrical power and telecommunications systems to protect their insulation and conductors in order to help reduce lightning-based injuries and deaths.

Herbert took some time to share with The Institute the innovations taking place inside Africa as well as what the region needs to get to the next level.

Tell us about the innovations that you’re seeing in Africa today.

Among the many are mobile phone apps that are being used by farmers, particularly in rural areas, to access information about the cost of produce, weather patterns, how to manage pests and livestock, and other important resources necessary for them to successfully grow crops and run a business.

We’re also seeing people who charge mobile phones by using the kinetic energy produced by peddling bicycles and motorcycles. In fact, the Log’el Project has supported one such venture in Uganda where we have bikes called boda-bodas  used for ferrying people from one place to another. These types of vehicles are mainly used by youth, most of whom own and use mobile phones.

Other innovations include energy-saving stoves that considerably reduce the amount of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere. Beyond technology, people find ways to use waste to make products, such as converting plastic drinking straws into bags, shoes, and jewelry.  

Notably, Africa has one of the youngest populations in the world, comprising huge reservoir of young, talented technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation enthusiasts who are more than ready to drive the continent to greater heights of development. This is an opportunity for key leaders to recognize, embrace, and support.

What are some of the setbacks you’re seeing?

Innovations in energy, biodiversity, and waste management have only reached the rollout stage, with minimal opportunities for scaling up these concepts and adopting them in different communities. This is likely due to the high costs that are required to get these types of systems off the ground. However, other areas such as mobile phone money transfer solutions have been very successful in terms of their diffusions in communities, which can be attributed to their low costs resulting in their widespread scalability and accessibility.

It is also important to note that there are many innovations taking place in Africa that, unfortunately, remain on shelves. This is due to factors like the minimal presence of entrepreneurial mind-sets coupled with dismal investments from the key public and private sector institutions. Africa’s investment in R&D is lower than 1 percent.

What is needed in order to move Africa forward?

Africa, like any other region, has needs but above all, is endowed with abundant human and natural resources. The education curriculum should be restructured in a way that promotes creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship as avenues for providing solutions to real-life challenges. On the contrary, the education curriculum in most African countries evolves around rote memory and exams. It is also imperative to increase investment in Africa’s vibrant innovations in order to gain new products and services. Strengthening the framework for intellectual property rights is also necessary to minimize the piracy of innovative ideas being developed on the continent.

Some argue that having fewer resources can make people more innovative. Do you see that taking place where you are?

Yes, innovators in Africa are able to come up with solutions for their households or communities without waiting for the government or other institutions’ permission or help. Having a vision and a need to add value to society is a key element in generating innovative ideas, products, services, and processes and can lead to sustainable development. A strong sense of resilience and the ability to face and overcome challenges are crucial for creativity and innovation.  Unfortunately, while there is an abundance of African innovators, they often go unnoticed. There needs to be more recognition and support from decision-makers in governments, entrepreneurs, and development partners.  

How can IEEE help?

IEEE and its members are strongly encouraged to apply their existing, and noble, efforts to support and collaborate on initiatives taking place in Africa. This includes helping to form partnerships with engineers, universities, and institutions as well as lobby local and national governments to allocate sufficient resources to innovation in order for the continent to be able to move forward and succeed. This can help move populations from fending for it survival to leapfrogging to sustainability and prosperity.

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