Meet Africa's brightest young inventors

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Alex Makalliwa on the site of his proposed workshop in Kisumu Kenya, where he hopes to convert tuk-tuks to electric-power. © Brett Eloff/Proof Africa

‘When you call 999, it doesn’t go through to anyone,’ laments Edwin Inganji. The 22-year-old Kenyan survived an assault by armed robbers in Nairobi on his way home from school, in late 2014. ‘People just accept this – but it is not acceptable.’

I am a human being with a brain. I live in an environment where there are real problems, therefore it falls on me to really step up and push a solution’ - Alex Makalliwa

Edwin is one of 16 engineer technologists in contention for The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. He and other shortlisted entrepreneurs assembled in Shoreditch, London in November, eager to share their stories and discuss the complex mosaic of challenges they face.

Leaning in, in a challenging environment

Edwin has developed a mobile app – Usalama – which offers a distress-call function to users in areas where crime rates are high, by way of a solution to Kenya’s non-functioning 999. By shaking your smartphone, family, friends and local support services can pinpoint your location and respond. Kenya’s mobile penetration is 88 per cent and rising and 1 in 4 own a smartphone, but Edwin’s ambitions reach further.

‘Our plan is that if someone doesn’t have the app or a smartphone, if they trigger a distress signal it will be sent as an SMS,’ he says.

Edwin Inganji has developed a mobile-based application called Usalama, that is able to quickly connect its users to effective and efficient emergency services.

Brett Eloff /Proof Africa

Edwin is far from alone in grappling with security concerns. The dream of mechanical engineer James Van der Welt is to bring the ‘Green Economy’ to South Africa’s off-grid rural communities. His focus on crime crystallized during visits to 12 rural schools, of which 11 had had their solar panels stolen.

James van der Walt with his ‘SolarTurtle – an off-grid electrification solution in a box.

James Oatway/Proof Africa

He has invented the ‘Solar Turtle’, a small, mobile power-station inspired by traders who use containers as metal safes in Johannesburg – which James describes as ‘the crime Capital of the World’. The ‘Solar Turtle’ is a shipping container that houses solar panels that fold out during the day and retract securely at night, charging batteries stored inside recycled bottles.

People can collect their battery-in-a-bottle from the Turtle and plug it into their home system. Once it’s run down, they can buy a charged-replacement.

Both investors and communities have warmed to Usalama and the Solar Turtle as innovations that can operate in high-crime areas.

James van der Walt’s Solar Turtle batteries are created using recycled bottles.

Laurence Ivil

Playing the private market

Listening to these innovators, it would be easy to acclaim the technological revolution sweeping Africa. But everyone is clear that their solutions will not fly without investment and support, which is not easy to come by.

Many African innovators are hampered by a lack of funding and a surfeit of crime, corruption and political instability. In the absence of government buy-in, many inventors are trying to harness the private sector to help power their social innovations.

Related: What will it take to bring electricity to Africa’s poor?

Peter Miria’s E-con wheelchair is a good example. His creation, assembled from electronic waste, can climb stairs, go off-road and allows users to stand upright, while moonlighting as a data-mapping tool.

Peter Miria with a small-scale prototype of his stair-climbing E-con wheelchair.

Laurence Ivil

Peter hopes his invention will help Kenya’s 1.5 million registered disabled to integrate in the workplace and combat stigma.

But he has not given up on the idea of getting the E-con chair out to ordinary people. He plans to seek backers for a high-end version, which will subsidize the standard product for the wider community.

Edwin has made a similar compromise with his app Usalama. After bureaucracy and corruption stymied efforts to involve the Police and county authorities, his team has partnered with the well-connected trades association Protective and Safety Association of Kenya (Prosak) to gain access to security firms.

Like Peter, Edwin hopes that, in time, his application will be available to poor people and the vulnerable. ‘Once we have the private security firms on board,’ he says, ‘we’ll have a strong base from which to convince the government to adopt the platform.’

Changing the system

Another Kenyan shortlisted is Alex Makalliwa. A soft-spoken man with a bold vision, he plans to revolutionize the tuk-tuk industry – an important part of Nairobi’s transport ecosystem – with a new fleet of electric vehicles powered by a network of solar-powered, off-grid charging stations.

A selection of models and devices created by The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation contestants.

Laurence Ivil

‘We have found that our tuk-tuks are going to be between 30-70 per cent cheaper to operate on a day-to-day basis than conventional tuk-tuks,’ says Alex. ‘The premise of Kuza Automotive is to make sustainable transport more accessible.’ While Kuza doesn’t yet have the capacity to mass-produce the electric tuk-tuks, it hopes that the cost of purchase will drop as demand increases.

One of the main problems posed by electric tuk-tuks is charging time. The required 6-8 hours is a luxury that drivers in the informal economy cannot afford. Alex’s solution is simple. ‘When someone is approaching their last few miles they’ll be able to pull into a Kuza charging station, give us a depleted battery and we’ll install a fresh, new, fully-loaded battery for them.’

Alex concedes that wide-scale uptake of E-travel is uncertain when ‘connectivity to electricity is a huge, huge problem in Africa.’ Nevertheless, he is optimistic that people will embrace change with the right support.

‘We’re only a little start-up. Educating people is where the government comes to play. In places where governments have come out explicitly in favour of not just sustainable transport, but green technology in general, that has moved things forward in leaps and bounds.'

‘It falls on me to step up’

None of the contestants hold any illusions about the pressing challenges facing their communities. They acknowledge that without local buy-in, government support and a broader sustainable mindset, many of these innovations will falter.

Yet for Africa’s young entrepreneurs, hostile environments and patchwork infrastructure are no barrier to technological creativity.

As Alex summarizes, ‘there’s this metric that people put on countries, where some are perceived as “developed” and some as “developing”, this often creates the narrative that there is a group that leads and a group that follows.

‘But I am a human being with a brain. I live in an environment where there are real problems, therefore it falls on me to really step up and push a solution.’

Related: Flip through our May 2016 magazine: Technology as if people mattered

The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering, encourages talented sub-Saharan African engineers, from all disciplines, to develop local solutions to challenges in their communities.

The Prize selects a shortlist of innovators from across the continent and provides training and mentoring to help turn engineers with incredible ideas into successful entrepreneurs.

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