Toby Shapshak’s Frugal Tech Innovation

Photo: supplied/NAF

There is a technological revolution on this mighty continent. It’s happening while the rest of the so-called “developed world” debates the pros and cons of its overuse in our daily, personal lives. ICT guru Toby Shapshak challenges this first-world outlook by talking about the impressive outcomes of “frugal innovation” at his Creativate lecture series.

Shapshak, co-curator of Creativate, believes that innovation is about solving problems. Shapshak believes that there is also a stark difference in how Senegal and the Silicon Valley solve problems.

In his talk, How Innovation is Better in Africa, he confidently assures audiences that Africa has surpassed and defied the first world idea of what it can be as a continent. Shapshak believes that the doomsday predictions and naysayers were firmly defeated as Africa rose from the ashes of colonialism and took charge of its economic destiny. “…This new myth of ‘Africa rising’ was not put out. It is a continued narrative,” he says.

Toby Shapshak, co-curator of Creativate, talking about inspiring innovations in Africa. Photo: Yoav Dagan

Pointing to Hans Rosling’s prediction of Africa’s population, which is expected to be 22% of the world’s youth population, Shapshak asserts that we are about to become the most sought after technological market in the world. Is this not simply a utopian fantasy? Well, this assertion comes with an unmistakable sense of optimism when Shapshak relates technological advances and the prevalence of social media to the diverse uses African innovators put them to.

“Frugal innovation” is one ear-catching mantra. Put simply it stems from how Africa’s problems are overcome using the simplest technologies from the brightest and most proactive minds. For example? The talk showed slides of Zipline, a Rwandan drone delivery system designed to deliver blood to rural clinics.

Equally impressive was Malawian innovator William Kwamkwamba, who took charge of solving the problem of electricity by generating a windmill by repurposing ordinary materials. These are just some of the examples Shapshak inspired the audience with, while praising Africa’s unique ability to overcome resistance to change in technologies. This, he says, is because people in Africa don’t have to compete with what they knew about “legacy” technology like the rest of the global North had to. His answer to everyday problems in Africa? “When we solve them in Africa, we solve them for the rest of the world”.

Such confidence comes from how people in Africa have repurposed “first world” technology and solved far greater real-world problems in the African contexts through African innovators rather than the other way around.

Throughout his talk Shapshak referred to how the human brain, although excellent at learning to solve problems, does also enjoy some complacency once said problem has been solved. This is the source, he says, of resistance to change in the world. “Once we learn something we stick with it, and sometimes in an unhealthy way. So when something challenging and disruptive comes along, we don’t move,” he says.

In Africa, he firmly believes that we’re quite good at adapting to new technologies and creating them for our contexts instead of letting the technologies create all the context we use them in.

In the end he advised “…if you don’t disrupt yourself, you will be disrupted.”

By Shraddha Patnala