Africa’s new and best young inventors

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Africa’s new and best young inventors

Laurence Ivil writes about wheelchairs which go up the stairs, electric tuk-tuks, and their inventors.


Alex Makalliwa is planning a workshop in Kisumu Kenya, where he hopes to change tuk-tuks to electric-power. © Brett Eloff/Proof Africa

‘When you call 999, no one answers the phone,’ says Edwin Inganji sadly. He is 22 and from Kenya. Robbers attacked him on his way home from school in 2014. ‘People accept this – but we cannot accept it.’

Edwin Inganji is one of 16 engineer technologists who want to win The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. He and others came to Shoreditch, London, in November 2016 to tell their stories and talk about the problems they want to help.

New ideas in dangerous places

Edwin made a mobile app – Usalama. It has a distress-call function for people in places with high crime rates. This is to solve the problem of Kenya’s 999 call, which no one answers. You can shake your smartphone and family, friends and support services can find you and come to help you. In Kenya 88 per cent of people have mobile phones and 1 in 4 has a smartphone. But Edwin wants to do more.

‘Our plan is for people who don’t have the app or a smartphone. If they make a distress signal it will send as an SMS,’ he says.


Edwin Inganji made a mobile app called Usalama. It can get help quickly. Brett Eloff /Proof Africa

Edwin is not the only engineer who is looking for answers to the problems of security. Mechanical engineer James Van der Welt wants to bring the ‘Green Economy’ to South Africa’s rural communities. He wanted to help problems with crime after he visited 12 rural schools. Criminals stole the solar panels from 11 of the schools.


James van der Walt with his ‘SolarTurtle’. James Oatway/Proof Africa

He invented the ‘Solar Turtle’. It is a small, mobile power-station. It is a shipping container with solar panels inside. They are out during the day and inside safely at night. It charges batteries in recycled bottles. People can take their battery-in-a-bottle from the Turtle and plug it in at home. Then they can buy a new charged battery.


James van der Walt’s Solar Turtle batteries use recycled bottles. Laurence Ivil

Finding help in the private market

Listening to these innovators, it is easy to think that these inventions are a part of a technological revolution across Africa. But their inventions will not do really well without money and support, which is not easy to find.

Many African inventors are finding it difficult without money and with so much crime, corruption, and political instability. Without government support, many inventors are trying to find help in the private sector.

Peter Miria’s E-con wheelchair is a good example. His wheelchair is made from electronic waste. It can climb stairs, go off-road, and users can always stand up.


Peter Miria with a model of his stair-climbing E-con wheelchair. Laurence Ivil

Peter hopes his invention will help Kenya’s 1.5 million disabled people to be in the workplace and fight stigma.

But he wants ordinary people to have the E-con chair. He plans to find money in the private sector for a more expensive wheelchair, which will help to pay for the first wheelchairs for the wider community.

Edwin tried to involve the police and local government in his mobile phone app, Usalama, but corruption and very little support made this impossible. So now he is working with security companies.

Like Peter, Edwin hopes that poor people will have his mobile phone app. ‘With the help of the private security companies,’ he says, ‘we can ask the government to use the app.’

Changing the system

Alex Makalliwa is another inventor. The tuk-tuk industry is an important part of Nairobi’s transport. He plans to change the tuk-tuk industry with new electric tuk-tuks with solar power.


Some of the inventions for the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. Laurence Ivil

‘Our tuk-tuks will be 30 -70 per cent cheaper,’ says Alex. He wants to make it possible for more people to have sustainable transport. He can’t mass-produce the electric tuk-tuks yet but he hopes that the tuk-tuks will be cheaper as more people want them.

One of the problems with electric tuk-tuks is the 6 - 8 hours charging time. Alex’s answer is simple. ‘In the future when someone has only a few more miles, they can go to a charging station, give us the empty battery, and we will give them a new charged battery.’

Alex understands that the future of E-travel is uncertain when just having electricity is a very big problem in Africa. But he hopes that people will welcome the change with the right support.

‘We’re only a small new company. Educating people is where the government can help In places where governments support sustainable transport and green technology, there is good progress.’

‘I must help’

All of the inventors know that without government support and a welcome for green technology many of their innovations will not succeed.

But for Africa’s young inventors dangerous places and problems with electricity do not stop their new ideas.

As Alex says, ‘People think that some countries are “developed” and some are “developing”, and that there is a group that leads and a group that follows. But I am someone with a brain. I live in a place where there are real problems, and so I must help and find answers.’


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).