What will it take to unearth Africa’s next great innovator?

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Innovation

Africa is full of innovators representing a potentially rich rewards for anyone willing to invest in them. Finding them hasn’t always been easy but, given the right tools, it’ll become much easier.

According to Marlon Parker, founder of social enterprise movement rLabs and founder and CEO of social communication tool JamiiX, Africa is already innovative by nature.

It’s easy to see what he means. At Nigeria’s recent Maker Faire, four teenagers showed off a generator that runs entirely on urine power.

Then there’s Richard Turere, a teenage boy who rigged his homestead with lights timed to flash to mirror the patterns of people patrolling with torches.

Probably the most famous of these cases is Malawian William Kakwamba. As a teenager, he built an electricity-generating windmill for his family. After he caught the world’s attention, the young innovator was able to finish his high school education and is currently enrolled at Dartmouth University.

If you’re noticing a pattern, it’s not accidental. “Africa’s youth are key to innovation,” says Parker. They’re curious about the world and not afraid to try new things. One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) recently revealed that illiterate Ethiopian children had managed to hack a Motorola Xoom tablet, re-enabling features that had been disabled.

It’s a matter of opportunity

Thing is, those kids would never have been to hack the tablet if they hadn’t been given the opportunity to. And the likelihood is that even if those girls had managed to build their urine-powered generator on their own, we probably wouldn’t have heard of them if Nigeria’s Maker-Faire hadn’t given them a platform to showcase their invention.

The point is, anyone looking for Africa’s next big innovation can’t just sit around waiting. They have to provide opportunities for people to innovate too.

That doesn’t just mean throwing money at the next good idea to come from Africa either. It means providing infrastructure, support, and communication. Even just giving people the ability to transact where they couldn’t previously helps them innovate.

There are already a growing number of innovation hubs (Kenya’s iHub is probably the most famous) across the continent. But people are still hungry for more.

Parker says that on his visits to innovation centres in Sierra Leone he’s met young people who walked three hours to be there.

Willingness

The people willing to make those three-hour walks are the kind you want to invest in. If someone doesn’t feel the need to make sacrifices for an opportunity, they probably won’t feel the need to innovate.

The problems innovators try to solve often come from a place of need but they still have to have the desire to address that need that works for them and the people around them. If Turere had access to truly lion-proof fencing, he would have needed to fix up his light rigging. On the other hand a whole load of his neighbours didn’t have fencing either and none of them came up with a similar solution.

Digging

Ultimately, what this shows is that anyone looking for Africa’s next great innovator should be looking in places where no one else is. “Diamonds always come from the rough,” says Parker.

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