Three huge innovations from CES that could transform Africa [CES2014]

Makerbot’s largest 3D printer yet, the Z18, and the Waka Waka solar charger made their appearance at CES this year — read our review — but while their implications for an emerging market is more obvious, there were some other announcements focused squarely on the US market, that ironically, could have a major impact in an African context.

We sifted through the madness that is CES and found three (or four) innovations that can make a real difference in Africa.

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Take a look.

The first personal thermal imaging device for consumers

Unveiled last night at CES, the FLIR One transforms an iPhone 5 or iPhone 5s into a compact, easy-to-use, thermal imaging device. Once clipped onto the phone — like you would attach a protective case — the device will display a real-time thermal image of the world right on the phone’s screen.

The implications for crime on the continent is significant, especially in South Africa, which still has one of the highest crime rates in the world. The latest crime statistics for the period between April 2012 and March 2013, indicate a rise in key crime categories which include murder, sexual offences, attempted murder, violent, armed house robbery and carjacking.

While murder and sexual offence statistics increased only sightly, house robberies by 3.6%, attempted murder rose by 6.5%, and carjackings by 5.4%. Drug crimes shot up 13.5% and truck hijackings rose by 14.9%.

FLIR One gives users unprecedented ability to “see” in an array of conditions, including complete darkness. Originally developed for military night vision, this game-changing technology has revolutionised modern law enforcement,search and rescue, security, and surveillance. Now, consumers can apply the power of FLIR One to home improvement, outdoor recreation, but perhaps most importantly in the African context, security and safety.

While the hefty $350 retail price and the iOS exclusivity hampers its impact, it’s a start — imagine being to able to scan for heat signatures when pulling up to your driveway at night.

Power efficient, affordable OLED lighting

OLED stands for “organic light emitting diodes” — an ultra-thin layer of organic film that emits light in response to an electrical current. Today, OLED lighting products are hard to find, extremely expensive and relatively unknown to the general public. A company called ALKILU (al-ki-loo) is hoping to change all that.

Unlike LED, incandescent and other forms of lighting, OLEDs generate and emit light by passing electricity through thin organic layers. They are both eco-friendly — mercury-free, with no UV emissions — and energy-efficient — cool to the touch, with almost no heat generation.

“There are currently no online storefront businesses that manufacture and sell affordable OLED lighting devices,” says ALKILU founder Alex Khayat. “By working with a number of very competent OLED manufacturers around the world, we are able to produce high quality, efficient and cost-conscious products that fit the everyday needs of consumers,” he adds.

While ALKILU’s products can be transformed into interesting form factors — they can be transparent and flexible, perhaps their most compelling attribute, is energy efficiency.

In the United States, lighting currently consumes over 23% of the total electricity generated, says Khayat. “OLED lighting is going to play a major role in reducing that number by changing the way we light our world,” he adds. The company hopes to make the technology accessible to everyone — and that includes Africans.

Khayat says that the company is in talks with solar electricity companies in South Africa to bring about cheap, energy-efficient lighting solutions to informal settlements in South Africa.

This is big.

Fatal candle fires are a far too common occurrence in South Africa’s informal settlements. While there has been progress in providing electricity subsidies to South African households, reliable, cheap electricity remains an issue of contention. Power boxes in townships often become overloaded, as residents take it on themselves to fast-track electricity delivery — both an illegal and dangerous practice. When outages inevitably occur, households congregate around candle or paraffin light sources, which can cause the tragic fires that make headlines.

Imagine combining ALKILU’s OLED lights with something like Waka Waka’s solar charger for a cheap, renewable, safe energy solution.

Beyond ALKILU’s current product line which includes camping lights, bike lights, night lights and makeup mirrors, private or government-backed projects that combine OLED and solar solutions could change things in a big way.

ALKILU’s products are currently available for pre-order, with shipments beginning in April/May of 2014.

The Star Trek-like medical tricorder

The World Health Organisation estimates that for every 1000 people in sub-Saharan Africa there are only 2.5 health care workers available to them. Consider that this tiny workforce has to deal with about 25% of the worlds total disease. Now think about the regions extreme poverty, cost of medical devices and how hard it then becomes to hang on to good doctors.

Scanadu, the personalised health electronics company that recently secured US$10.5-million in series A funding from Relay Ventures, Tony Hsieh and Jerry Yang, showed off the Scanadu Scout and the ScanaFlo at CES.

Scanadu Scout is a vital sign monitor that analyses, tracks, and trends your vitals — things like temperature, respiratory rate, oximetry, ECG (heart health), systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and stress — in 10 seconds.

Beyond learning about your own body’s health, like Spock in Star Trek, you can quickly figure out what’s going on with an ailing parent or sick child.

Additionally, the ScanaFlo is a low-cost tool that uses your smartphone as a urine analysis reader. Designed to be sold over-the-counter as a disposable cartridge, ScanaFlo will test for pregnancy complications, preeclampisa, gestational diabetes, kidney failure and urinary tract infections. For pregnant women, ScanaFlo will be the first to provide a healthfeed throughout the duration of a pregnancy.

The Scanadu Scout will cost US$200 and the estimated delivery date for its Indiegogo supporters is around March this year.

The implications for sub-Saharan Africa is staggering. For those who can afford it, the device will allow for accurate self-diagnosis, decreasing the load on doctors, and for medical staff faced with tight budgets, Scanadu’s devices can be a massive asset.

Going by the success of Scanadu’s, crowdsourcing campaign, which was filled 1600%, the world is ready for a change.

Bonus: DIY file servers with the Transporter Sync

We might never see computers in African classrooms, but we what about mobile devices? Africa is considered the mobile nation, after all. While Africa’s education system largely lacks behind developed nations, we have seen improvement at the hand of digital tools. The problem is that even with the improvement, schools are being overwhelmed with new, hungry minds.

Despite some setbacks, the private sector looks poised to lead the way. Samsung with its mobile school in South Africa, eLimu (“education” in Swahili) in Kenya with its tablet-based digital textbook project, and Ushahidi’s with its utterly brilliant mobile router comes to mind.

Combing these three technologies — a mobile classroom, cheap, mobile computing decices and robust internet access — with a fourth innovation from CES this year, could make for a complete education solution.

The Transporter Sync creates a private cloud network which can sync files to multiple devices — it’s like a private version of Dropbox. The innovative US$99 device does this by converting any USB flash drive into a Wi-Fi enabled network storage device. Unlike online cloud storage solutions, there is no monthly cost.

Students can easily share and keep their digital textbooks up to date.

The Transporter Sync is available now.

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