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Africa innovations breakthroughs shine in 2012

posted 26 Dec 2012, 05:30 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 26 Dec 2012, 05:31 ]

An innovations revolution is unfolding in Africa and 2012 was full of stories about young people creating new technologies and applications that are driving the continent's growth and turning around its global image.

NAIROBIKENYA  (REUTERS) - The ideas and innovations born at the iHub, a shared working space that started in Kenya's capital Nairobi two years ago, are changing the world.

With a good idea, an entrepreneurial spirit and an interest in all things tech, young people from all over Africa are finding that their skills are extremely valuable.

IHub manager Tosh Juma says brilliant minds have never been in short supply inKenya, but the channel to develop the ideas and help them grow into successful businesses has been a long time coming.

"There was an existing small community of techies, software developers, web developers, designers in general. The problem was, when they eventually met, they worked on ideas in those few minutes or few hours they were together but when they went back home, everyone went to their bedrooms, there was no physical space - a nexus point for people to come back and do stuff together, collaborate on projects," said Juma.

There are simillar spaces across Africa like MEST in Ghana, Co-Creation Hub in Lagos, and IceAddis in Ethiopia -- all harnessing the potential the world's fastest-growing mobile phone market.

Africa will be home to 738 million handsets by the end of this year, according to an industry survey done in 2011.

And through mobile phones and otehr devices, social media is changing how Africans do almost everything.

According to a report by the market research company Portland GroupKenya produced 2.48 million tweets in the last three months of 2011, behind South Africa who produced around 5 million tweets in the same time. Nigeria was third with 1.67 million tweets.

In Kenya it has become a vital tool in monitoring and participating in governance issues.

"I think it's absolutely critical that Kenyans are now amongst the most intense users ofTwitter and Facebook on the continent of Africa. Its changing the way we communicate with each other, it's changing our understanding of what government means and its moving us from a civil society to into a civic society where every person is empowered by these tools to enable them to engage with the government and its systems on their own," said John GithongoKenya's well-known anti-corruption whistleblower.

In Uganda social media enthusaists used social media to raise funds and collect aid materials for victims of a mudslide caused by heavy rains in the east of the country that killed at least 30 people in June.

"It is actually overwhelming because it started slowly like a joke but it picked on so fast, people showed a lot of interest, they became very serious about the whole idea and they started donating," said Maureen Agena, a Ugandan social media activist.

In Brazaville the capital of the Republic of CongoAfrica's very own tablet computer market contendor was invented and created by 26-year-old Congolese student, Verone Mankou whose dream is to bring cheap technology and internet connectivity to the masses.

The Way-C, with 4GB internal memory and 512MB of RAM compared to iPad's 1GB, was created under Mankou's company, VMK and went on sale for the first time this year inCongo at 300 US dollars.

At the beginning, the idea was to come up with a computer tablet that wasn't expensive, to allow as many people to have access to internet. Over the years, the computer has evolved and is no longer just accessible in the office. So our project also changed in 2007, and we moved towards making a computer tablet. After years of research and technology, as well as financing for the project, we managed to finish the product in 2011, we then presented it, and it has been on the market since January 2012," said Mankou, who has also created a smart phone.

At Kampala's Makerere university, three Ugandan students built a prototype robot that they say will be able to detect and disarm and dispose of bombs.

Made of aluminium pieces and powered by an electric motor, the robot sends messages to a control computer through

wireless bluetooth signals that can travel over a 20 meter radius.

The functions of the robot are similar to the Dragon Runner military robot which is used by US marines to get into

inaccessible areas in combat or insecure situations.

In South Africa a young entreprenuer was busy finding ways to avoid taking a bath and in the process became the country's youngest patent holder.

Ludwick Marishane, a student in Johannesburg, invented a water substituting gel - DryBath that can be used to clean the whole body. When applied on the skin and rubbed, the gel creates a thin protective layer of foam which carries off dirt as it evaporates.

Marishane said his main goal is environmental, "The average bath consumes 18 litres of water. DryBath is 25 ml of water just once a week, our goal is to get 10 percent of the world's population to skip a bath even if they don't use DryBath to skip a bath once a week and just save that valuable water."

Innovations were big busines for one developer in UgandaAbdu Sekalala, an IT student became a self made billionaire after creating mobile applications that have rivaled some of the world's most popular platforms in downloads.

Uganda Theme app available on Nokia's Ovi store was by far his most succesful internationally. Locally, his dating app is also doing well.

"The Uganda theme for Nokia: I published that app late last year like in December and the first time in the first week of its launch it became number three in the the most downloaded things in the world, that is when I felt like this is my number one of everything that I developed, this is it, this is what is going to make my mark," said Sekalala.

In Kenya a 13-year-old Richard Turere's flashing-lights invention is keeping lions away from domestic animal enclosures in close proximity with Kenya's Nairobi National Park, the only park in the world located within a city.

Clashes between humans and animals straying from the conservancy have seen many domestic animals mauled to death, several people injured and dozens of lions killed by angry herders.

Turere, whose innovation earned him a scholarship keeps the lions away using night lights strategically placed around cattle pens.

"When someone wakes up at night and moves with a torch, the lions are afraid of the lights because they think it is a person coming. So I had to make bulbs which are flashing because the lions are afraid of something which is moving, he said.

Applications also made their mark in healthcare. Ghanaian innovator Bright Simons is trying to curb the

rampant trade of counterfeit prescription and over-the-counter drugs through a free text-messaging service known as mPedigree, which helps consumers verify the authenticity of the drugs they are buying against a central database.

"The biggest challenge is how we align with the governments existing mandates to make this service more widely available. The next job is going to be to get the pharmaceutical companies to undertake those processes that they need to undertake for the platform to integrate into their manufacturing systems," said Simons.

And harnessing the power of pee, four Nigerian schoolgirls invented a generator powered by urine. They are hopeful their invention will provide an environmentally friendly counter to the country's chronic power shortage.

And like all worth-while inventions, theirs came after a great deal of trial and error and at least one near disaster.

"When we first … made the device, the project, the electrolytic cell exploded because the hydrogen oxygen gas backfired from the generator into the electrolytic cell and that caused the explosion," said said 15-year-old student Bello Eniola.

With so many insightful innovations in 2012, it will be exciting to see what next year has to offer and where Africa's technology revolution will lead to.