Every year, the Royal Academy of Engineering goes looking for the best inventions and most innovative engineers on the African continent, and awards a prize to the very best. In 2018, the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation was won by Uganda’s Brian Gitta and his team at Matibabu, who figured out a way to use lasers to test for malaria — making it far cheaper and faster for doctors to make an accurate diagnosis.
This week the Academy announced its shortlist for the 2019 prize. Each of the 16 engineers on the list will receive training and mentorship for the next eight months, after which a winner will be crowned. “The shortlist has come to represent the most talented engineers on the continent,” said Rebecca Enonchong, a Cameroonian entrepreneur who is on the judging panel.
Smart Havens Africa
Anne K. Rweyora — Uganda
“There’s no reason housing should be so unattainable. There are plenty of appropriate, affordable technologies,” says Anne Rweyora. She would know - for the last three years she’s been building cheap houses that are also durable, sustainable and come with all mod cons. Her houses are also a showcase for local innovations, including brickmaking that uses less material, designs that reduce temperatures in the hot Ugandan climate, custom biodigesters, and solar water and electricity installations to keep utility costs down.
Beth Koigi — Kenya
Beth Koigi and her team have figured out a way to harvest water from the air - a potential godsend in communities affected by drought and climate change. Their all-in-one system harvests, stores and then dispenses water, functioning almost like an ATM. The idea is currently being piloted in Kenya and South Africa, and if it works could provide a much cheaper alternative to existing ‘water ATMs’, which are typically supplied by an expensive reverse osmosis process.
Chukwunonso Arinze and Princess Oti — Nigeria
Sending money across borders is rarely a hassle-free process. It usually involves long lines, obscene transfer fees and lots of red tape. But it doesn’t need to be this way, thought Chukwunonso Arinze. So he built an app that facilitates peer-to-peer money transfers across borders, both within and outside Africa. “We want to do for international money transfer what peer to peer systems like mobile money has done for domestic payments,” he said.
Collince Oluoch — Kenya
The Kenyan government administers vaccines to children as a matter of routine, but thousands of children miss out due to flaws in the system: maybe parents lose the vaccination card, or clinics are too overworked to fill out the exhaustive amounts of paperwork involved. Collince Oluoch understands those flaws better than most, having worked as a vaccination volunteer, and he has designed an online system that helps parents and healthcare workers keep tabs on the entire vaccination process. It is currently in its pilot phase.
Elizabeth Kperrun — Nigeria
“We really wanted a way to share African stories with more kids, and to have children learning in their own language from early on.” And so, while pregnant with her own daughter, Elizabeth Kperrun built a series of apps to do exactly that. Teseem is for toddlers, and teaches words and numeracy in vernacular languages including Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba and Swahili. When those toddlers get a little older, they can download Afrotalez, a storytelling app based on traditional African folklore.
George Chege — Kenya
Many Kenyans supplement their income by raising chickens — but it can be a labour intensive process. Not any more, if George Chege has anything to do with it. Chege has built an automated chicken coop that controls heating, measures temperatures and humidity, and alerts farmers when they need to be there in person. Chege’s biggest challenge now is not to perfect the system, which is up and running in several commercial units around Nairobi, but to convince sceptical farmers that Kenyan technology can be as reliable as expensive imported solutions.
James Ochuka — Kenya
JuaKaliSmart is an online store designed to connect Juakali - a kiSwahili phrase meaning ‘under the sun’ that is commonly used to refer to informal artisans - to their customers. “There are so many talented artisans in Kenya who only sell to their immediate community, or through profiteering third parties. JuaKaliSmart connects them directly to thousands of customers without any mediation or profit share,” said founder James Ochuka.
Kenneth Guantai — Kenya
Hand carts are everywhere in Kenya: loaded with goods at markets, carrying bags at airports and bus stations, and moving medicines and sometimes even patients inside hospitals. Kenneth Guantai has figured out a way to power hand carts with batteries that are recharged by the rotation of the hand cart’s own wheels. “We want to make the lives of all the hard-working vendors and workers across Kenya – and the world – easier, by using the energy they’re already creating to ease their load,” he said.
3-D-3-P Industrial dryer
Professor Ayodele Sanni — Nigeria
Grains and cereals need to be dried before they can be processed. Farmers who can afford it use expensive industrial dryers, while others rely on leaving their harvest out in the sub. Professor Dele Sanni has come up with another, much more affordable solution. Based on the same principle as heating grain in a pan over fire, he rigged together three heated drums through which the grains travel, propelled by rollers that make sure nothing burns.
Hybrid five-axis machine tool
Dr Lukas du Plessis — South Africa
Five-axis machine tools are incredibly expensive machines that allow users to precisely shape, cut, grind and shear metals and other hard materials. For the last decade, Lukas du Plessis has been working on ways to make these tools more affordable, using deceptively simple design innovations to cut down costs while maintaining maximum precision and agility. “There’s so much manufacturing in South Africa that could be greatly improved if small and medium-sized businesses could afford machining tools like this – and my hope is to change that,” he said.
Baby Delivery Kits
Muzalema Mwanza — Zambia
In Zambia, prospective mothers are often told to bring their own equipment to hospital before they give birth - equipment that includes basic items like a scalpel, sanitary pads and cotton swabs. Muzalema Mwanza has put together a kit that contains all the necessary items, and now sells thousands of these kits every month to both mothers and midwives.
Pelebox Smart Lockers
Neo Hutiri — South Africa
Accessing chronic medication can be time-consuming - a burden on both patients and healthcare facilities. The Pelebox is designed to change this by automating the process. Developed for the South African healthcare system, the Pelebox consists of a wall of lockers controlled by a digital system. Healthcare workers stock the lockers, and patients can access their medication by typing in a one-time PIN. “The public healthcare system is so often under strain, and Pelebox can take a lot of pressure off clinics who fill repeat prescriptions for regular patients,” said Hutri.
Dr Obi Igbokwe — Nigeria
WellNewMe is an assessment tool that helps predict non-communicable diseases like cancer, diabetes and hypertension. Users provide data on their lifestyle, genetics and environment, and WellNewMe feeds that into its algorithms and comes out with a reading. “WellNewMe aims to give people more control over their own health, letting them make decisions that reduce risks they otherwise may not have known they had. It’s a simple solution that can make an enormous impact,” said founder Dr Obi Igbokwe.
The Vertical Farm
Paul Matovu — Uganda
From a farmer’s perspective, there is a lot of wasted land in cities. Paul Matovu’s invention intends to capitalise on that. It is a farm-in-a-box that can be set up on any vacant patch, no matter how small, and comes with its own nifty composting system. It is optimised to grow the leafy greens that are used in many home kitchens. “So many young people don’t know much about farming – and yet struggle to afford healthy food in the cities. We wanted to change that,” said Matovu.
Roy Allela — Kenya
Roy Allela’s invention could revolutionise communication for speakers of sign language. Sign-IO is developing a glove that is connected to a mobile app. Hardware in the glove can detect hand movements, and the app translates these movements into speech in real time, using an internal database based on American Sign Language. Users can even set the tempo, pitch and gender of the voice that represents them. “We’ve learnt so much from working on this – from how to individualise the voices to creating gloves that kids will wear, and using machine learning for a language that is very emotive. And we’re seeing amazing results that make it all worthwhile,” said Allela.
Safiatou Nana — Burkina Faso
A water pump that runs off solar power would be a god-send for farmers in the Sahel, where low water tables and a chronic shortage of electricity make irrigation almost impossible in the summer months. SolarKoodo does exactly that - plus it is relatively affordable and mobile, so farmers’ collectives can purchase one together and share it easily between themselves. The device can also be used to electrify homes.
Story compiled by Simon Allison. Microsite produced by Kiri Rupiah.