'Frugal innovation' Africa's ticket to green development

Taking simple local solutions to larger scale could drive climate-smart development and jobs on a continent that needs them.

28 April 2021 | Economics

Government is effective sometimes when they get out of the way. - Bright Simons, a Ghanaian entrepreneur

Laurie Goering - Cash-short Africa will need "frugal innovation" based on simple, local solutions to deal with serious and growing problems, from climate change to a surging youth population and a lack of jobs, African entrepreneurs and officials say.

The good news is Africans "have frugal reflexes. They have been doing frugal innovation a long time", said Fatima Denton, director of the UN University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, based in Ghana.

But sparse research funding, government restrictions, a cultural under-appreciation of entrepreneurs and a focus by many governments on large-scale industrialisation as the way ahead are holding back efforts, she and others said.

Tackling such barriers could help Africans create millions of new jobs, find ways to deal with climate threats and spur development, they told an online event during the recent Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.

"We're really kidding ourselves if we think all the solutions for the Global South will come from the Global North," said Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, a Nigerian entrepreneur who co-founded Andela, a company that trains software engineers.

"The amount of money that typically goes into building infrastructure that will guard the future is billions of dollars, which Africa will not have for a long time. So we will have to pursue frugal innovation," he said.


Africa has already seen its share of bootstrap-style innovation, from the rapid spread of smartphones across a continent with few landlines to apps that can help climate-hit farmers adapt crops in response to seasonal weather forecasts.

Bright Simons, a Ghanaian entrepreneur, has developed verification technology to help buyers detect fake seeds, medicine and other products, a big problem across Africa.

He said African governments could spur more innovation by identifying "moonshots" - thorny problems they want solved - then stepping back to let entrepreneurs try and fix them.

"Government is effective sometimes when they get out of the way," Simons said.

But a dearth of research funding from governments, businesses and other bodies is a serious impediment to testing and scaling up grassroots innovation, he added.

Today, Africa as a region contributes just 1% of global scientific reports and other research "goods", Denton said, largely because it is poorly resourced.

A surge in innovation, particularly in terms of taking small ideas to market, won't happen unless that changes, Simons said.

"Rebalancing that equation is critical to letting frugal local innovations see the light of day," the Ghanaian noted.


Africa has already missed some opportunities, Aboyeji said.

The idea for ride-sharing giant Lyft developed in part after co-founder Logan Green visited Zimbabwe and noticed widespread ride-sharing there due to a lack of public transport and private car ownership, Aboyeji said.

Now that company is bringing in billions, while Zimbabweans still struggle to get around.

"We don't know the value of what we have," Aboyeji said. "Lyft could have been a billion-dollar African company."

But other opportunities are plentiful, he said.

African entrepreneurs are looking into how to eliminate power-sucking condensers in air conditioning and refrigeration equipment, which could slash energy use and make cooling more widely available on a fast-heating continent, he said.

Many African farmers also by default grow organic food, because they can't afford expensive chemical fertilisers and pesticides, Simons said. Hooking them up with organic-hungry buyers in Europe could pay dividends for both.

And in a continent that will have half the world's working-age population by 2035, finding innovative ways to educate children could have a big payoff in the long run, Aboyeji said.

"How do you educate people on a continent where you have another 400 million children coming and an existing 30-plus million kids already out of school?," he said. "Clearly, the old infrastructure cannot work."


Denton said Africa was in a good position to benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution, focused on a fusion of digital, physical and biological advances.

A 2019 study by her institute found that of the 63 essential elements needed for that revolution and new low-carbon technologies, 42 are found in Africa, particularly rare minerals.

On a continent that has long seen its natural resources harvested to build wealth elsewhere, "how do we make sure this time we are much more savvy and ahead of the curve, and not open to predation?" Denton asked.

Too many African leaders remain focused on industrialising their countries by building steel factories and other heavy industry, when greener and potentially more lucrative alternatives are available, she added.

In an era of growing concern about climate change, "we have a huge responsibility to see how we can develop otherwise", she said.

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