Creative, unconventional use of technology and raw materials helps Africa “leapfrog” product cycles and traditional stages of development.

“Africa is already bypassing traditional means with technologies such as wireless, satellite bandwidth and frugal mobile technologies that have relatively lower physical infrastructure requirements and investment costs,” says Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa.
Lopes calls Africa “a breeding ground for frugal innovation and resilient entrepreneurs who can literally make treasure out of trash, from tools to grass-cutting machines to water pumps.” Examples:

Off-grid solar and alternative energy. Crowd-funding website SunFunder is bringing cheap power and light to African homes, schools, businesses and communities. It provides short-term loans for solar home systems, micro-grids and commercial solar projects in rural Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia. SunnyMoney sells and distributes solar lights in Africa to replace kerosene and paraffin lamps. LEDsafari shows people how to make their own $2 solar lamps. Solar Wind East Africa is building solar-powered stations to pump water and generate electricity for livestock farmers in Kenya. Sun and biogas are being used to fuel refrigeration systems and cool milk in Uganda and Mozambique. Crop residue is converted into biogas as part of efforts to set up small-scale, low-carbon, energy efficient plants for communities in Kenya’s Rift Valley. A byproduct of the process is liquid fertilizer.

Mobile technology. Mobile telecoms have grown faster in Africa than anywhere in the world. Subscription penetration is expected to reach 97% by 2017. Less than 2% of households have traditional landlines. Safaricom’s M-Pesa pioneered mobile banking and payments in Kenya. It has been widely imitated across Africa with mobile services expanded to allow users to pay taxes, utility bills, taxi fares and to pay for goods in stores. Soko is an e-commerce platform that allows craftswomen and micro-manufacturers to sell globally using mobile phone SMS messaging. Namibia used mobile phone data to identify and map malaria hotspots and organize the response by health workers.

Irrigation. Inexpensive, lightweight, human-powered MoneyMaker pumps offer the ability to irrigate cheaply and have increased small farmers’ incomes by 200% through higher yields. The pumps, developed by KickStart International, allow farmers to irrigate up to two acres a day, pulling water from depths of seven meters and distributing it through hand-held hoses and nozzles. KickStart also has developed two hand-operated presses. One creates building blocks from soil-cement mixtures that are half the cost of concrete or stone. The other allows users to start businesses that turn sunflower, sesame and other seeds into cooking oil.

Genetically modified crops. Burkina Faso, South Africa, Sudan and Egypt are the only African countries growing transgenic crops, mainly insect-resistant cotton, according to the Brookings Institution. Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda are conducting promising research. On the horizon in Uganda are bananas with enhanced vitamin A and resistance to a bacterial wilt. In Nigeria, the focus is on insect-resistant blackeyed peas.

Bamboo bicycles. In Ghana and elsewhere, small manufacturers import Asian-made gears, brake parts and other bicycle components for installation on strong, vibration-dampening frames made from renewable African bamboo. The result is a cheaper, more durable made-in-Africa bicycle that can increase the income of a poor, rural family by up to 35%, according to the Bamboo Bike Project.

Manual distribution centers (MDCs)

In Tanzania and elsewhere, Coca-Cola maps clusters of sales outlets within a two-kilometer radius. It recruits and trains local entrepreneurs to maintain 24-hour distribution and replenishment of those outlets using pushcarts, motorbikes and pickup trucks.

Mobile power sources. GE’s 616 diesel engines are “power plants on wheels” capable of providing enough energy to power 33,000 Nigerian homes and to supply power to industrial users. GE has modified smaller diesel locomotive engines into standalone mini power plants that can power 6,600 homes.