12 October 2018

Africa: For the Next Big Thing in Tech, Look to … Africa?

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From a young age, Phatwa Senene knew he wanted to be an inventor.

He got his start at age 11, he said, when he attached a DC motor to a fan. He then attached the fan to a drill and proceeded to drill holes into his bedroom wall. His invention worked, he said: The fan blew away the dust from the drilling.

“That was my first invention that I can recall,” he said, laughing. “My mom didn’t like it at all.”

He nearly hit a figurative wall years later, when he tried to go to university, but found he couldn’t afford it. His family was poor, he said, and he grew up in a Johannesburg township.

But the now-33-year-old plowed ahead, coming up with innovative inventions, like a data-collecting, 3D-printed solar-powered streetlamp, that have caught the attention of South African municipalities and companies.

Two of his new streetlamps, which are capable of tracking data like noise levels and air quality, are being piloted in inner city Johannesburg.

Toybox for inventors

It’s that creativity and innovation that have also caught the attention of African technology innovators, who are hoping to turn this unique idea into profit. Senene is a member of a new Johannesburg tech innovation hub, called Toybox, that gives inventors, artists and tinkerers room to work, a community to work with, and business support to get their inventions off the drawing board and into the real world.

Co-founder Arlene Mulder, who previously started WeThinkCode, an institution that teaches young South Africans about coding and software engineering, says Africa is often overlooked as a source for ideas and invention. She wants to change that, by supporting local inventors and giving them room to grow.

“We’ve been seeing, over the last couple of years, incredibly talented inventors coming up with incredible inventions, but they are struggling to bring these inventions to life,” she tells VOA. “So we are creating this ecosystem and platform for them to come together, and we provide access to the global world.”

In exchange for its services, the hub gets a portion of the revenue the inventors end up making. There are similar places operating elsewhere in South Africa as well as Kenya and Rwanda.

Welcome support

Senene says he appreciates the support. It was hard to get ahead flying solo.

“You can be an inventor all day, but you still need to eat, you need to run a business,” he said. “So, as an inventor, I had to go through the process where you learn about business. And all of that for me was self-taught. There’s no one in my family who would set a path for me, there was no one who guided me, so, trial and error, I learned the hard way.”

Toybox co-Founder Kanina Foss says Africa is an ideal springboard for innovation, with its rich artistic talent and traditions.

“Some of the cool stuff our fellows are doing include leveraging the intersections between technologies and the creative disciplines, so that we can use artists to really push the barriers on what tech can do,” she said.

Senene, the inventor, says his inspiration comes from some unexpected places. One of his recent innovations is a “tombstone tracker,” a tool meant to find stolen grave markers, which has been a problem in South Africa.

“What inspires me is my environment,” he said. “So many of my devices have been inspired by the places that I’ve lived in, especially the problems. So, I’m very sensitive to negativity, to horrible things, and that allows me to identify them, and I have an ability to try to come up with a solution.”

If he finds a solution, places like Toybox will be ready to help him develop and market the idea.

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