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Notable innovations by Africans in 2023

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Africans innovate— a lot. To a large extent, it’s because their environments are dysfunctional enough to spur improvisation. When improvisation becomes culture, innovative outliers often emerge. Those outliers, like The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, permanently move the needle in their communities and, in some cases, the world.

The world seems so busy with the AI hype train. It’s great, but it could make us miss out on the many innovations around us. In 2023, Africa was home to some of the most remarkable and inspiring innovations in various fields, from health to energy and even artificial intelligence. Some of them got recognised, while others are still underhyped. Here are seven innovations from Africa we’re excited about this year.

FlexiGyn (South Africa)

FlexiGyn is a handheld device that enables gynaecologists to examine and treat the uterus without using anaesthetic. Edmund Wessels, co-founder of Vas MedTech, built the device to work even in remote areas without health infrastructure. Wessels is a biomedical engineer and PhD student at the University of Cape Town.

He created FlexiGyn to address reproductive healthcare problems for women in places where they still use old and ineffective devices that cause discomfort. Anaesthesia is rarely used for hysteroscopies in Africa.

Most hysteroscopy systems used to inspect the uterus are stiff, causing a lot of discomfort to patients. They also need big extra equipment for visualisation. Wessels solved this by putting these large-equipment features in a small, flexible device. This way, the procedure is more convenient for both the examiner and the patient. FlexiGyn is battery-powered and can be operated with one hand.

Also, current devices need to be sterilised after each use or have single-use camera scopes. But FlexiGyn has a disposable sheath for the reusable device to avoid sterilisation and increase efficiency. The sheath has channels that enable the connection and flow of saline solution to expand the uterus.

WAGA Power Pack is a portable device that uses recycled laptop batteries to supply power for electric bikes, power banks, solar lights, businesses and homes. It’s the brainchild of Gibson Kawago, a Tanzanian electrical engineer.

He created the WAGA Power Pack because of Tanzania’s unstable electricity. To make this device, he recycles batteries from informal waste collectors in five regions in Tanzania. First, he charges and tests them after two to four weeks to see if they still have a charge that meets the manufacturer’s standard. Batteries with low voltage or corrosion are sent for electrochemical recycling.

Then, he uses nickel strips to join the battery cells and connect them to a battery management system with sensors that track performance and changes in temperature, current and voltage. Once coupled, the WAGA Power Pack consists of lithium-ion battery packs with 12, 24 and 48 volts of power, depending on the application, such as lighting, heating and appliances.

IFIOK (Nigeria)

“Good things come in small packages,” they say. And Uyai Bassey, a young Nigerian inventor, seems to have taken that statement personally. She made IFIOK, a low-priced futuristic smartphone.

IFIOK (Ibibio word for ‘Wisdom’) does not have a screen. Instead, it uses a holographic display. Rather than swipe and click, users will interact with a voice-enabled AI Assistant.

The smartphone can also detect people’s locations using their phones’ IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) numbers. There’s also an in-built lie detector.

Arguably the most interesting part of IFIOK is its price. Uyai Bassey is selling each unit at N3500 ($2.86). That’s less than 12% of Nigeria’s minimum wage.

Kumulus (Morocco)

This startup produces water out of (literal) thin air. So, even if you live in the driest deserts, Kumulus can help you access clean water. The Moroccan startup, founded by former Airbus engineer Abderrahmane Ait Ali, produces drinking water from the air using solar power and a patented technology.

The Kumulus, which looks like an amphora, weighs 60 kilos, is easy to transport in a pick-up truck, and is easy to install. It produces 20-30 litres of fresh, drinkable, mineralised water each day. It can be connected to an electrical grid or solar panels.

The startup aims to provide a sustainable and affordable solution for remote communities without clean water sources. It sells its machines to local partners, such as NGOs, cooperatives, or municipalities, who then distribute the water to the end-users at a low cost. It also offers a pay-as-you-go model, where users can pay for the water using their mobile phones. The startup claims that its water is cheaper and cleaner than bottled water. It also says its machines have a low environmental impact, as they use renewable energy and do not generate any waste.

Kumulus has won several awards since its inception, including the first Vivatech prize for startups in the water sector. The startup has also raised ~$1 million and has expanded to include more computer developers, mechanical engineers and operations managers.

Kubik (Ethiopia & Kenya)

Kubik transforms recycled plastic waste into interlocking building materials, including bricks, beams, and columns. But before you say “That’s not new, I’ve seen it before”, here’s the difference: it’s (actually) affordable. Most people turning plastic into building materials don’t scale significantly. Many operate as non-profits relying on donor grants, while others focus on exporting to Western markets. Why? Their end products turn out too expensive for African consumers.

However, Kidus Asfaw and Penda Marre, Kubik’s founders have built an innovative business model that enables it to sell at scale. This way, it can tackle the two elephants in the room: Africa’s housing deficit and waste problems. In Ethiopia, where it recently started operations, there’s a housing deficit of around 1.2 million units, requiring 381,000 new units annually. In contrast, only 165,000 units are produced each year.

A classroom built using recycled plastics

Kubik makes the business profitable by keeping a lean model. Firstly, they don’t collect waste directly. Instead, it focuses on incentivising collectors to sell their plastic waste to them. They also focus on plastics that are not in high demand by other recyclers. Then, it sells its finished products primarily to real estate developers. This way, Kubik sells these building materials for over 40% less than traditional cement bricks. Now, it removes 45,000 kg of plastic waste from landfills every day. The startup has won several awards, including the Global Startup Awards in April. In June, the company raised $3.34 million in seed funding.

Medbox (Ghana)

We often talk about how telemedicine is vital to saving African healthcare. There aren’t nearly enough hospitals to cater to residents (we have ~1 hospital bed per 100,000 people). Yet one (obvious) limitation often stares us in the face: several diagnoses cannot happen over the phone. That’s why Emmanuel Ofori Devi made MEDBOX, a healthcare monitoring system which records a patient’s vitals and immediately transmits them to healthcare professionals.

Devi aims for MEDBOX to save chronically ill people from having to spend time and money travelling to receive medical attention or collect their pharmaceuticals by using the device in the comfort of their homes.

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