Malawi: Switched On - Malawian Innovators Get a Helping Hand From Science University

Gabriel Kondesi was 21 years old in 2009 when the police arrested him for running a radio station without a licence. The school dropout had constructed the station himself three years prior, using three small transistor radios, car batteries, TV aerials, wires, and a radio cassette player. Now, he's one of several young people honing skills thanks to a scholarship programme at a technology institution.

The police were following the law but people were outraged at his arrest, believing the young man was genius and needed to be promoted rather than punished. He received overwhelming public support including finances to settle the fine.

More than a decade later, Kondesi's passion for electronics has received a boost, albeit in a slightly different direction. He is one of the five local inventors to receive a scholarship at the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST) where they will be mentored by experts at the institution.

"One key issue is that the innovation ecosystem is not only managed by universities," says David Mkwambisi, the director of MUST's institute of industrial research and innovation, which is striving to radically change the way natural talent is handled.

"The key significance of this programme is that we'll create jobs but we're also going to add value to their own innovation which will allow these innovations to compete at international level," he explains to RFI's Africa Calling podcast.

The first round of mentoring features five innovators, including Kondesi, who will work on studio speakers.

Other projects include a hands-free automatic water faucet, an auto quake switch that can protect transformers or buildings during adverse weather, while others are building a fertiliser-spraying drone.

One innovator is working on bluetooth technology to charge electronics, while another is working on a revolutionary nebuliser which could deliver drugs and vaccines traditionally given by injection.

Local talent in southern Malawi

One young man has created a method to get electricity in his home, made a prototype for a cooking stove, and has even invented a doorbell.

Despite not having a university education, George Kalichero, 20, of Mulanje district in southern Malawi, took an idea introduced to him by a teacher in primary school and went a step further.

The teacher explained how a windmill can be used to generate power. He took this idea and made it work, using a collection of scrap metals, bicycle parts and a used car battery.

He created this out of necessity, when his family was struggling to light their home during the night and he could not afford to pay to charge his phone.

Before making the windmill, he was using two candles a day which cost about 200 kwacha, spending 10,000 kwacha (10 euros) for lighting and 5,000 kwacha for charging phones.

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Constructed from iron sheets and hoisted up 30-metre wooden poles, the fan-like structure rotates when the wind blows. The fan is connected to a motor which produces current, passing through the regulator before going into the battery from where the power lights the house and charges the phones.

Inside the house, the current is turned into usable power through the devices which Kalichero invented. Pointing at the knob wires, he explains what it takes before he starts using the electricity.

"I designed this regulator, which converts current from alternative to direct current," he says, adding that he determined the capacity after looking at the amount of battery needed and the energy produced by the windmill.

Combating forest destruction

His cooking stove is just as innovative and efficient, too, using less firewood--only two to three pieces per day.

"You light the fire and go to the board behind the stove which consists of a solar panel and batteries. After switching it on, it gives pressure and the wood catches fire faster and the cooking is faster as well," Kalichero says.

'I came up with that stove to fight against destruction of trees," he adds.

The cooking stove could be an answer to the growing problem of cutting down trees for charcoal and firewood, says Kondwani Chamwala, an environmental education expert based in the district.

"Creating a windmill which solves energy issues at his home and the cooking stove which allows one to use fewer sticks to cooks is also thoughtful," says Chamwala, adding that residents are battling with charcoal issues around the Mulanje Mountain area.

"This young man is a genius at his age... he should be promoted," says Chamwala.

"There are a number of innovators in the country but what is most lacking is how to motivate them, how to boost them from where they're at to a certain level," he says.

Mkwambisi of MUST said the community innovation programme started after observing that a lot of inventions are not being well-managed at country level.

"We're losing such innovation, maybe people are picking them to go outside Malawi. We've noticed that the university system does not have a proper education programme to handle such innovative ideas," he said.

The programme hopes to harness those innovative minds and help create jobs by assigning each participant with a mentor who is familiar with the field they are working in.

Mkwambisi hopes that these inventions can be fast-tracked and commercialized in three to five months.

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