Why We Should All Be Students Of East Africa’s Informal Innovators

What’s the first word or image that comes to mind when you think of Kenya, Nairobi, or sub-Saharan Africa?

For many in the US, these place names conjure up ideas about international development at best—or conflicting images of violence and poverty at worst. I recently joined presenters at Boston Trinity Academy for their January Term investigating Africa, and in my presentation on Informal Innovation in East Africa, I challenged Boston Trinity Academy students to revise their associations with East Africa: to think of trade rather than aid or an innovation culture that the world is beginning to sit up and pay attention to.

What is Informal Innovation?

Informal innovation happens outside of formal institutions of research and development, like universities, or companies with research departments. The accepted working definition,“innovation that is not explicitly planned and budgeted and therefore remains largely hidden,”only hints at the informal economy where such innovations take place.

East Africa’s informal economies are vast, complex systems. In a recent blog post, Adam wrote about his work mapping the matatus of Nairobi—a network of private buses that carry an estimated 1.5 million passengers every day. These buses operate outside of the public sphere, and the ways in which individual drivers have adapted to the transportation needs of a city of 3.5 million is an excellent example of informal innovation.

Informal innovation is context – and often that means scarcity – driven. You may have heard of William Kamkwamba, the Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: his home-made windmill in Malawi, which he built to power electrical materials in his family’s home, started a journey that has led him to Dartmouth University, where he is now a student.

“Invention As a Means to Proving African Ingenuity”

Kamkwamba participated in the first annual Maker Faire Africa, in Ghana in 2009. There are Maker Faires all over the world, where DIY enthusiasts gather to showcase their inventions. Maker Faire Africa, which brings together varied inventors/inventions such as a bicycle-powered cellphone charger or urine-powered generator built by school children. The Maker Faire Africa’s Maker Manifesto declares, “we will show the world how sexy African manufacturing can be,” and “we will see challenges as opportunities to invent, and invention as a means to proving African ingenuity.” These informal innovators see an opportunity to prove that Africa has the technical ingenuity to solve many of the world’s problems.

When I presented this case study, the Boston Trinity Academy students had a lot of questions about scale up and sustainability. What does it take to bring an invention made with found materials to scale, to become a viable business? Are there African investors, they wanted to know, or are these inventors looking for another type of foreign investment?

A Community Where Innovation is the Norm

The second case study I presented was on the iHub in Kenya, the “unofficial headquarters of Kenya’s tech movement,” and a place where Atlas Workshops co-founder Adam White has been working with local techies for years. iHub Kenya is a membership based co-working space in Nairobi: to-date, its membership is over 13,000 strong, and over 50 companies have their origins in the iHub. While there are many spaces like this in the US, this was the first such space in Kenya.

 For a number of social and historical reasons, Kenya has a much more advanced technology development scene than Uganda. The culture of informal innovation is very much alive in Uganda, however, and for a third case-study on this type of innovation, we turned to Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains.

How Good Can African Coffee Get?

Although Uganda produces high quality coffee, the beans are exported for roasting and processing. The founder of Good African Coffee, Andrew Rugasira set out to keep the entire coffee value chain in country. He saw an opportunity to use coffee to improve the livelihood of coffee farmers in the Rwenzori Mountains, and has banded together over 14,000 small farmers—a feat which required great patience and perseverance of Rugasira, who needed to work within existing structures to win the trust of the farmers. He taught them how to improve their coffee harvests, and then set out to market his product, called Good African Coffee to major supermarkets across the world.

He recounted for the NY Times his first meeting with a grocery store in the UK, where he realized the enormity of his task in marketing his coffee abroad:“I’m an African businessman. To counter the preconceptions, my etiquette, my preparedness, must be perfect. What general perception do people have of Africa? Corruption, H.I.V., genocide, celebrities fighting for dying children. I have to be an ambassador to turn the perception around. There’s no room for error.”

Rugasira made it: he was able to scale his innovation globally. Good African Coffee was founded in 2003, and today their product is available in the US, the UK, South Africa, and all leading supermarkets in Uganda.

So – Who Are the Informers of Emerging East Africa?

This summer, Adam and I will be leading a custom trip to visit different businesses in Kenya and Uganda, to learn about informal innovation firsthand. We will travel from Nairobi through the Masai Mara and Kisumu in Kenya, and then to Jinja and Gulu in Uganda. We will meet with and learn from different small and medium-sized African-led businesses, from tech startups to a Masai-led ecotourism company. We will draw out lessons from each entrepreneur we visit, documenting our findings each night through photography and writing on a trip blog. At the end of the trip, we will showcase all of the case-studies, ideas and inspirations at our ‘Innovation Expo,’ which we will host for the public in Kampala.

– Jenny

Do you want to learn more about all of these incredible case studies? Watch these videos!

Check out an AWESOME video of the latest Maker Faire Africa, in Lagos:

Maker Faire Africa 2012 in Pictures fromWhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

Watch William Kamkwamba’s TED Talk:

Learn how Andrew Rugasira took Good African coffee from an idea–to the shelves of your supermarket: