The Observer has brief, but broad, list of 15 technological innovations with development impacts in Africa. These are my favourites:
The ‘Hippo’ Water Roller:
Two out of every five people in Africa have no nearby water facilities and are forced to walk long distances to reach water sources. Traditional methods of balancing heavy loads of water on the head limit the amount people can carry, and cause long-term spinal injuries…
The Hippo roller can be filled with water which is then pushed or pulled using a handle. The weight of the water is spread evenly so a full drum carries almost five times more than traditional containers, but weighs in at half the usual 20kg, allowing it to be transported faster…
Around 42,000 Hippo rollers have been sold in 21 African countries and demand exceeds supply. Costing $125 each, they are distributed through NGOs… Nelson Mandela has made a “personal appeal” for supporting for the project, saying it “will positively change the lives of millions of our fellow South Africans”.
They could have added that fetching water prevents thousands of children going to school.
The ‘iCow’ App:
Small-scale dairy farmers often living in remote areas don’t have access to valuable information about latest prices of milk or cattle, and they may not keep accurate records of important details such as their cows’ gestation periods or their livestock’s lineage – often resulting in inbreeding and disease.
Created by Kenyan farmer Su Kahumbu, iCow is an app that works on the type of basic mobile phones farmers own. Each animal is registered with the service, which then sends SMS reminders to the farmer about milking schedules, immunisation dates and tips about nutrition and breeding or information about local vets or artificial insemination providers…
“By the time you have used the app and adhered to all the instructions, your cows end up healthier, bigger and stronger. They can easily fetch you more money in the marketplace,” a small-scale farmer based in the cental highlands of Kenya told Forbes magazine.
I’ve heard of farmers receiving price information by SMS, but actually helping people to farm better seems ambitious and - given that the app was generated by a rival farmer - altruistic all at once.
Portable water pumps:
Only 6% of Africa’s cultivated land is irrigated, limiting the volume of crops that can be grown out of season, but increased access to irrigation systems stands to increase food productivity by up to 50%. Kick Start, a not-for-profit organisation that specialises in irrigation technology, is making portable water pumps accessible to farming communities across Africa – most significantly in Kenya, Tanzania and Mali. These cost anything from $35 to $95 but…
Kick Start told The Atlantic that, since 1991, their pumps have lifted 667,000 people out of poverty, helping to “create an entrepreneurial middle class, starting with the family farm”. They have pumped new revenues equivalent to 0.6% of the GDP in Kenya alone.
I don’t know if I buy that figure, but nonetheless, Kick Start’s pump seems effective and not overpriced (though it would be great to get the price down). In the long run, of course, improved irrigation will just accelerate the depletion of the water table unless declining rainfall is addressed.
Orange Sweet Potato:
More than 3 million children in Africa suffer from blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency; in Uganda it is estimated that 28% of children are deficient. Currently aid agencies combat this problem by giving children vitamin A supplements, but addressing this issue with a locally grown food would be more sustainable.
A new strain of sweet potato was conventionally bred which contains between four and six times as much betacarotene as a regular sweet potato – betacarotene is converted by the body into vitamin A. The OSP (orange sweet potato) was distributed to 10,000 farming households in Uganda; at the end of the two-year study vitamin A deficiency in non-breastfeeding children aged between 12 and 35 months fell from nearly 50% to 12%.
Nutritional breeding is an idea whose time has come. And on the subject of growing things:
Ethanol cooking oil:
Forests in Africa are being cut down at a rate of 4m hectares a year, more than twice the worldwide average rate. Some of this is fuelled by demand for wood and charcoal, which the UN estimates is still used in almost 80% of African homes as a cheaper option to gas. The smoke from cooking using these solid fuels also triggers respiratory problems that cause nearly 2 million deaths in the developing world each year.
CleanStar Mozambique, a partnership between CleanStar and Danish industrial enzymes producer Novozymes, has opened the world’s first sustainable cooking-fuel plant in Mozambique…One-sixth of the final yield comes from locally harvested cassava, which requires farmers to plant in rotation with other edible crops to keep the soil fertile. A Sofala Province-based plant transforms the products into ethanol, which is sold on the local market along with adapted cooking stoves also produced by the company.
The plant aims to produce 2m litres of fuel annually, and reach 120,000 households within three years.
Locally produced, sustainable, low-carbon cooking oil with public health benefits? There’s got to be a catch.
Perhaps the innovation with the most potential, though, is the least high-tech by far.
Farmer-managed natural regeneration (or “careful farming”):
Senegal is suffering its third drought of the decade, resulting in reduced crops and inflated food prices. The World Food Programme assisted more than 9 million people in the Sahel region of West Africa this year, including 800,000 in Senegal.
Attempts to tackle the resulting problem of soil fertility have largely flopped so far. Trees planted as part of reforestation schemes have seen only a 5% success rate and fallowing is not an option, with 80% of African farmers owning under two hectares of land, which need to be utilised year in, year out. This puts the emphasis on reinvigorating the stumps of nitrogen-fixing trees, which were formerly cleared to maximise crop space. Farmers are thus encouraged to prune the stems and branches of trees like Faidherbia albida, giving new life to the vegetation already there.
FMNR is an inexpensive way for farmers to make improvements with the resources they already have, increasing millet harvests from 430kg to 750kg a hectare, and saving money on fertilisers, with restored trees producing leaf litter (forming humus) and giving shade to livestock (for manure).
Agricultural yields on small family plots are the technical development challenge of the next few decades. A simple, chemical-free success story is something to be celebrated.