Innovation Lab Africa

In the nineteenth century, colonial powers sent unproven technologies to their African colonies for testing.  The colonies had lower usage needs and blank slates in terms of exising infrastructure, so why not try things there before bringing them into general use in Europe?

Portuguese colonists tested the world’s largest agricultural steam generator on the northern banks of the Zambezi River, and a new narrow-gauge railway connecting their southernmost province with British possessions over the border.  In this way, Africa has long served as laboratory, and its many geographies as petri dishes, for global innovation.

A Roadside Image from Nampula, Mozambique

Innovation carried on after colonial powers left.  In South Africa the economic and commercial isolation of the apartheid regime meant that people there needed to create homegrown inventions to keep ahead of their neighbors and the Cold War that it perceived as an imminent threat.  South African companies copied and improved upon Mercedes-Benz and Magirus Deutz trucks, pushed the frontiers of modern mining techniques, and even conceived a new kind of deep-water fishing reel.  More broadly, with the economic decline seen in so many former colonies in the decades after independence, African citizens began to innovate creatively on a local level.  Instead of factory-made spare parts, self-made mechanics improvised with bits of rubber and wire, keeping vehicles on roads far longer than would be expected elsewhere.  A trip to a curio shop anywhere on the continent will reveal a skill for recycling that northerners can hardly lay claim to.

Today, Africa is developing, but much must be done over, or created for the first time.  Large swaths of Africa lay outside the footprint of colonial development initiatives, and many of the latter lay in ruins after decades of neglect.  A real question for today should be how Africa can leverage this situation to benefit from innovation that the rest of the world wants, but may not be ready for.  As an example, when can we hook up a remote African town to solar-panel charging stations and a fleet of compact electric cars like those made by GEM, a Chinese company now owned by Polaris?  While American roads and drivers would need major adjustment to the size and speed of these vehicles, they could be perfect for a small town like Kayanza in northern Burundi, where the roads are few and of hard-packed clay, the sun shines brightly year-round, and the population clamors for better transport?

It would take planning and oversight to ensure that these projects would not end up like white elephants of the past (I should add here that one of the few survivors of both Mozambique’s decades-long civil war and the devastation of recent floods is almost the entire steam train fleet, shacked up in a roadside shelter in Xai-Xai, functional but unused.) but instead as opportunities for the future.  If GEM used an African town as its testing facility, investments there would boost the local economy and create some jobs.  It would not be a temporary arrangement, but a permanent one encouraged by local policies.  The products could be tested by real people in everyday situations, such as collective transport applications for GEM’s people movers, and GEM would benefit from a quicker learning curve then in the sterile conditions of a Canadian

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4 Responses to “Innovation Lab Africa”

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