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Low-tech high-tech: African innovations

Across Africa, innovative thinkers are coming up with unique, frequently low-tech solutions to high-tech challenges such as energy, communications and transport. The Guardian even has a name for it: bushpunk (as opposed to steampunk).

africa-william-kamkwambaBits and bobs wind power

Take, for example, the “boy who harnessed the wind”: William Kamkwamba of Malawi. Just 22 years old, Kamkwamba was forced to quit school at the age of 14 when a drought left his farming family without enough money to send him to school. So he turned to books borrowed from a community library to teach himself and discovered one text that inspired him to design a wind-powered generator. Using parts of a broken bicycle, shock absorber, tractor fan blade and other bits, he created a turbine that could power four light bulbs and allow neighbours to charge their mobile phones. Since then, he’s also moved on to work on other projects: solar power, clean water and malaria prevention, among others.


Inspired by a contraption he came upon at an agricultural fair outside of Johannesburg, South Africa, veteran advertising exec Trevor Field came up with the idea for the PlayPump® water system. The system uses a child-powered merry-go-round to not only provide fun for youngsters in rural areas, but a way to pump clean drinking water up out of the ground. PlayPumps International aims to have 4,000 such systems installed in 10 countries across Africa by next year.

africa-charcoal-briquettesCharcoal briquettes from dust

A public-private partnership in Senegal has found a locally affordable way to produce cooking fuel from charcoal dust. While charcoal itself is hard to get and expensive, charcoal dust is readily available and can be pressed into briquettes. The process not only provides a source of both fuel and jobs, but removes polluting dust from the environment.

africa-dominic-wanjihuSun-powered drying and cooling

Dominic Wanjihu of Kenya uses a bare minimum of materials to build evaporative coolers for transporting milk and food dryers for preserving food. The designs are both simple and effective, and use long-lasting but readily found elements like corrugated metal sheets and sacking material.

africa-radioFrom-scratch radio stations

AfriGadget features a trio of inventors from Accra Polytechnic who built a fully functioning radio station (101.7 FM) for the first-ever Maker Faire Africa (sponsored by Make magazine). Held earlier this month in Ghana, the Maker Faire also highlighted such creations as a bicycle-turned-to-bellows, “Afrobotics” and a universal machine tool called the Multimachine.

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