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Currently much smaller than the software startup sector, the hardware sector in Africa is poised for massive growth, writes Anna Lowe who is co-Founder of Kumasi Hive – a makerspace and innovation hub in Ghana. The conditions are in place that make it likely this is where the true breakthrough technologies will come from in the next 5-10 years. This article explains why.
Because in Africa, you can’t just ‘app’ your way out of problems like you can in the West
Even if someone has a smartphone, a new app isn’t going to help them get reliable energy access and clean drinking water. Remember that more than 600 million Africans still aren’t connected to grid electricity. Meeting the twin challenges of climate change and the energy deficit are not going to be solved by software. I’m not talking infrastructure building here, I’m talking technologies that enable economies to leapfrog the need to put heavy fixed infrastructure in place. Drones to deliver medicines in rural areas, anyone?
Because of Agriculture
There are half a billion smallholder farmers in Africa. There have been some huge successes in recent years for services that provide them with information (weather forecasts, market prices). When you combine connectivity and big data with hardware, the possibilities become truly transformational. From soil sensors that allow remote recommendation of specific fertilizer types needed (check out Kenya’s Ujuzikilmo) to smart drip irrigation (one of our own projects at Kumasi Hive), innovation is happening right across the continent, right now. The need is urgent and the opportunity is huge. I don’t know of a riper sector for investment.
Because the fourth industrial revolution is upon us, giving Africa a ‘leapfrog’ opportunity
Breakthroughs in industrial technology, from 3D printing to biotech processes for food production, are allowing smaller scale facilities to operate economically. Interconnected, distributed manufacturing networks are becoming a reality. The economics of long supply chains and centralized factories are changing. It becomes feasible as well as desirable to process raw materials close to source and make finished goods close to consumers. Africa can lead the way. Just think about the value it adds to an economy, being able to process or make your own products instead of exporting raw materials and importing finished goods.
Because it’s getting attention now
Makerspaces that lower the barriers to hardware innovation are opening up. Hardware-focussed incubators and accelerators are starting. International programs for hardware startups are looking at Africa too. VCs are starting to sniff around. All this activity gives a boost to startups already in this space, making it more likely they can succeed, and also inspires more aspiring entrepreneurs to turn their attention to businesses in the hardware space. The sector appears to be in the early stages of what I believe as well as hope will be an explosion in value.
Because it taps into the African spirit of inventiveness
As a foreigner I find it a bit uncomfortable to make a generalisation like this – but it is one of the top reasons my friends from Africa and in the diaspora give for predicting that the hardware innovations that come out of Africa are going to be world-changing. Having seen the incredible array of uses to which everyday objects can be put in any African village, I have to agree. Watch this space. Or better still, invest in it.
Anna Lowe is a co-Founder of Kumasi Hive, a makerspace and innovation hub in Ghana. She is a mentor on the Royal Academy’s Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, Village Capital’s Hardware Africa 2015, and Startupbootcamp’s upcoming Internet of Things cohort as well as running Kumasi Hive’s incubator program. Kumasi Hive is currently crowdfunding and the rewards include some privileged access to invest in new hardware startups.