Made in Africa: Turning adversity to advantage in true innovative style!

As we begin the IPA 2016 outreach, Cameroon was my first destination in Africa… but as the plane took flight, little did I know that I’d discover yet more creative ways to carve Africa into its rightful place on the innovation frontier. Even before I jumped off the plane, my mind was abuzz with questions. The solutions were staring right back at me in my face … they were home-grown and authentic, all underpinned with the “Made in Africa” mark … read on!

What’s wrong with listening to a French businessman talking about his profitable timber business in the Central African Republic (CAR), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Cameroon, and how he has been doing this since the 1980s? Speaking proudly, he related his experience in buying the timber and shipping it to France, Italy, Germany and some Asian countries for more than 20 years. He then complained about the difficulties he is experiencing shipping the timber from Cameroon and applauding the CAR for making this process easy for his business.  It seems nothing is wrong, especially so when he intelligently explains the whole theory about the need to cut down big trees so that the smaller ones can get light – an important factor for the whole photosynthesis process!

My head was spinning whilst seated next to him on the plane, listening carefully, wondering if in fact he is cutting ONLY the big trees to allow the small ones to grow… Then what about the whole deforestation issue and climate change? Just in case this is true, I’m then questioning why in the 21st Century, citizens of the CAR, Cameroon and the DRC can’t lead their own timber export businesses anyway! I couldn’t begin to imagine how much he purchases the timber for, who is cashing the money, and the profit made after exportation to other countries! Of course, I happened to be listening to this particular guy, but he is not the only one “helping small trees in Africa grow”; the Chinese have also joined the party! In fact, this was his other complaint… the Chinese!

You might be wondering why one should bother about TIMBER? After all, there are other pressing challenges that Africans have to deal with. Well, for me, it comes down to all those lost opportunities for African innovators and entrepreneurs! Imagine if African timber businesses were well regulated and led by African entrepreneurs whilst also taking into consideration environmental factors. Imagine all kinds of things Africans can make if they had world class manufacturing facilities to process the different types of timber available on our beloved continent. Here, I recalled how a friend of mine who worked for the International Finance Corporation (IFC) in CAR told me, a few years ago, that he had to buy his office furniture in Italy because he could not find any local suppliers! Do you follow this? This is the same country where a French businessman is buying the finest timber and shipping it to Italy, among other places.

The linkage between this TIMBER issue and innovation was brought home for me during an “Organisation Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle”[1] (OAPI) meeting in Yaounde. The subject of OAPI’s institutional consultation meeting was about how to add value to African innovations and promoting innovations that respond to the needs of African people.  To illustrate the lack of innovations relevant for Africa, an example was given highlighting how Cameroon has an abundance of fine timber but still imports toothpicks from China – often of poor quality. So, Cameroonian timber is exported to China and then China makes toothpicks and exports to Cameroon at a cost which is not even reflecting the quality! Imagine a different scenario where these entrepreneurs use available timber to make toothpicks (and other products) in Cameroon which they can then export to other African countries at a competitive price, given that they might get the local timber at a good price! Results: many jobs will be created, skills will be learned, the economy will grow, entrepreneurs and innovators will have a space to experiment and innovate – and the innovation cycle will flow.

This sounds easy, right?

Of course, as we all know, African innovators are already creating solutions that respond to real needs in Africa. Whilst in Yaoundé last week, I was privileged to spend a few hours with a past Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) nominee, Mr Faustinus Njokikang. He is working hard to provide affordable environmental housing solutions to all Africans. Faustinus is concerned about the current housing boom we are witnessing in Africa which is far from environmentally friendly. This is why he established Novatech Construction Systems, a company that focuses on innovativeness in the use of local human and material resources for more affordable and eco-friendly housing. Novatech does not deal with a single product or technology, but is a synthesis of numerous elements involved in the construction process.

Faustinus illustrating how the brick press machine works The making of the bricks

Image 2. The making of the bricks

 

Image 1. Faustinus illustrating how the brick press machine works.

According to Faustinus, “the housing deficit in Cameroon stands at one million homes and is rising faster than the purchasing power of the population”. He also indicates that the needs across Africa are immense. He established Novatech to address this challenge by making affordable and environmentally friendly interlocking bricks. The Novatech flagship product is a manual brick press that has the capacity to produce 3000 interlocking bricks per day (see images). This machine produces hollow interlocking soil blocks with the ability to maintain a balanced room temperature despite it being hot or cold outside. This means there is no need for an air conditioner or heater when using Novatech’s blocks.

IMG_3242 IMG_3246

Image 1: Finished Bricks                      Image 2.Bricks makers together with Faustinus and I  

Faustinus has already built a few houses in Cameroon and is currently having discussions with UN Habitat to construct housing in the South of Sudan. He is also looking for investors who are interested in scaling up his innovation in the different regions of Cameroon and beyond. Feel free to get in touch with me (p.mujawamariya@africaninnovation.org ) if interested in supporting or learning more about Faustinus’ innovation.

Meeting movers and shakers …

I also had the privilege of meeting other movers and shakers whilst in Yaounde. Olivia Munkam, the founder of Harambe Cameroon invited me to her incubation center where I met some young entrepreneurs she has been working with to transform problems into business opportunities. Harambe’s goal is “to inspire and engage a new generation of young leaders and entrepreneurs who see problems as opportunities in need of solutions, and have the poise and wherewithal to engage others to make long-lasting socio-economic impact”.  The organization provides support to young entrepreneurs in areas of Business Development and Coaching; Business Plan Competitions; Seminars and Networking; Social Business Bank; and Project Incubation.

With Olivia and the young entrepreneurs who created businesses by focusing on real problems

With Olivia and the young entrepreneurs who created businesses by focusing on real problems

These young entrepreneurs are true problem solvers and clearly future leaders who see problems as opportunities, and want to do something for their communities. Two of these young entrepreneurs established a start up focusing on African games to tell stories, known as Kiro’o Games.

Another entrepreneur has created an outsourcing platform known as 1 TASK 1JOB which allows anyone from anywhere to post a job offer and receive bids from talented young freelancers. What they all have in common is the spirit of innovation and CAN DO ATTITUDE. Listening to them just reminded me about the raison d’être of why we do what we do. I left hoping that the innovation virus can spread to all our young sisters and brothers across Africa!

While the timber tale made my head spin, it was an eye opener too. This trip to Cameroon reminded me once again that innovation is no longer a mere option for us, and that young people must be at the center of innovation; they are our hope! We might have millions of problems, but as the young entrepreneurs I met at Harambe demonstrated, these problems are also opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs!

People like Faustinus are devising solutions to serious challenges… their stories are inspiring, and I hope they can be shared from North to South, East to West, and beyond our continent so that the spirit of innovation can be nurtured  across Africa, and we can start buying more things MADE IN AFRICA BY AFRICANS!

By Pauline Mujawamariya, Innovation Prize for Africa Director, African Innovation Foundation

Find us on: The Internet: www.africaninnovation.org and Innovation Prize for Africa

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