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Taking a look at hardware innovation in Africa (Part 1)

Last year we posed the question: Is there a market for homegrown hardware solutions?

At Afrinnovator, we tend to focus a lot on the software side of innovation, perhaps because there’s a lot of it happening. And that’s no surprise really since getting into software has much lower initial costs and potentially larger and quicker returns on investment. hardware is a totally different ballgame. It takes quite a bit to successfully develop and market a piece of hardware. Particularly in terms of cost.

But alas, innovation knows no bounderies and so over the past year or so, we have heard of innovations from different area of Africa, particularly in tablet manufacturing – Nigeria-made Encipher Inye, VMK Congo’s tablet, and most recently in Kenya, the Noris Kaboo tablet.

Erik Hersman recently posted a blog titled ‘Manufacturing our Future‘ in which he reminisces on his childhood when he and his friends would collect parts to build little mechanical contraptions. Many African boys perhaps can share similar memories. In his article, Erik makes mention of the  Shanzhai culture in China and how pervasive it has become.


(Spot the difference)

In Kenya, there is an informal manufacturing industry called ‘Jua kali‘, the same concept exists in many African countries. Jua kali (swahili literally ‘hot sun’) industry basically manufacture non-tech products usually artifacts that can be made from scrap metals and other cheap and easy to come-by materials and provides employment for many Kenyans. What if the same concept could pick up at a higher level of sophistication but at the same scale?

Jua Kali

Image courtesy of The African Executive

The World Bank estimates that the Informal Economy generates 40 percent of the GNP of low-income nations and 17 percent of the GNP of high-income ones. In Africa, the informal economy contributes significantly to the Gross National Income (GNI), to income generation of the majority of citizens. This is in addition to its contribution to the formal economy. According to data from the World Bank work on bench-marking business regulations, the size of the informal economy as a percentage of gross national income (GNI), ranges from under 30 percent in South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, to almost 60 percent in Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The average size in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is 42.3 percent. It contributes to enlarging the middle class in the Continent.

There are two initiatives we are aware of in East Africa that exemplify the potential of this that we are going to look at in subsequent articles following this one. The Nairobi University FabLab in Kenya and the Fundibots. We can also consider the effect and influence of such events as the flagship do-it-yourself event, Maker Faire.

In the mean time,  what are your thoughts on hardware innovation in Africa? What do we need to do to get us there?


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