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A Look At Africa's Innovation Foot-Print For 2013

posted 31 Dec 2013, 06:13 by Mpelembe   [ updated 31 Dec 2013, 06:13 ]

From breakthroughs in research to leveraging Africa's mobile-first information technology potential, 2013 saw the continent contribute to science as well as make the case for why home-grown solutions are the best answer for many of the region's challenges.

 KISUMUKENYA (GSK) -  After years of research and trials in parts of Africa, researchers on the continent this year welcomed some new developments in science.

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British drug maker GlaxoSmithKline got approval for the world's first malaria vaccine.

The vaccine known as RTS,S was found, after 18 months of follow-up, to have almost halved the number of malaria cases in young children in the trial, and to have reduced by around a quarter the number of malaria cases in infants and researchers.

Malaria, a mosquito-borne parasitic disease, kills hundreds of thousands of people a year, mainly babies in the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

Responding to the trial results update, the World Health Organisation said RTS,S would be evaluated "as an addition to, not a replacement for" existing methods for malaria prevention, diagnosis and drug treatment.

"Basically what we did was that one arm got the malaria vaccine and this was given at the time they were recruited after one month, after two months and then with a booster dose after 20 months. The other arm, we had those who got the vaccine at the time they were recruited, after one month, after two months, but then at the 20th month instead of being given a booster dose they were given a comparator vaccine. A comparator vaccine is really not a placebo," said Dr. Walter Otieno, a Researcher, with the U.S. Military's Walter Reed Research Unit, who took part in the research project.

Another research finding that put Africa on the map this year was the world's first digital laser - developed at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The team described it as a "disruptive technology" that could change the ways of manufacturing, communication and how electronic devices work.

The work - regarded as a breakthrough in laser technology, showed that laser beams can be digitally controlled from within a laser device to shape it in new ways.

In a conventional laser, the laser beam is shaped inside a box with two mirrors. The curvature of these mirrors determines the size and shape of the beam.

Professor Andrew Forbes, chief scientist and the leader in the National Laser Centre's mathematical optics group explained the technology behind the new laser.

"The digital laser was an idea that we had few years ago, its is basically an interception of two very disparate worlds, the one is digital holography using small LCD screens, the same screens that you would have in your house as televisions to dynamically change lights. And the other parts is the laserworld the digital laser, which is a conventional laser system and what the digital laser does differently to an ordinary laser, is that you take one of the mirrors after the ordinary laser and replace it with this miniature television sets and by changing the pattern on the television you can change the properties of the laser," he said.

In Nigeria we met a social media activist using widely used Twitter to solve Lagos' long suffering relationship with traffic jams.

The city is home to about 21 million people and with its population increasing by the day, endless traffic jams that stretch out for miles and last for several hours are geting worse.

Kaptin Idoko started the twitter handle @Gidi_traffic in 2011 to give motorists real time traffic updates on where to go and what to avoid on the roads.

By late December this year, Gidi traffic had over 90,000 followers and was also getting noticed by cooperates having signed a deal with Nokia, who developed an application for the twitter handle.

Kaptin Idoko is not the online social worker's real name, he prefers to keep his identity secret for now.

"I set it up to help people basically because I knew, I personally do not like traffic and I loath traffic a lot and I get teased by my siblings sometimes that, I mean I could go round Lagos just to avoid one spot of course due to traffic. It's same with everybody, most people do not like traffic except you're talking about the hawkers who actually pray for traffic, so I knew if I set up a service like this, it would help a lot of people to you know, I didn't know it would get to this magnitude, the magnitude which it's got to now. I just wanted to set up a service that would help people," said Idoko.

Africa's innovation narrative has grabbed the attention of investors and techies around the world. It is also the world's fastest-growing mobile phone market.

Kenya was one regional tech hub to watch, experts say. It has even been touted as "Africa's Sillicon Savannah".

To leverage the innovations potential in the country, the government has embarked on an ambitious plan to build an IT city called Konza. Authorities broke ground at the project this year and it is expected to take 20 years to complete.

Konza developers say the city will provide universities, science parks and establish a modern living facilities that cab attract high calibre professionals to the modern lifestyle that will be created there.

But players in the local technology industry say the challenge for Africa is to own the development in the sector to insist on home grown innovations.

"We don't want a situation whereby Konza city is there, there's all that real estate and there's all that infrastructure there but the people... the tenants of that city or the residents are being international companies," John Kieti a manager at a local innovations center said.

Centres to develop local talents in innovation continue to pop up around the continent.

In the Indian Ocean Island nation of Madagascar, Habaka or the Malagasy i-hub - offers free internet and an enabling environment for developing unique tech solutions.

Madagascar is relatively young in ICT and most professionals in the industry are freelancers. By working in a common space they can brainstorm on technology and business instead of working in isolation in their homes and offices.

"The goal is to share knowledge and expand the speed of information provided by the internet, because a person who is not connected to the internet will have less know-how than two people with two different sets of information and who can share it in this space," said Harinjaka Ratozamanana, executive director of Habaka.

A similar set up in Uganda - the Mara Launchpad gives young upcoming entrepreneurs an opportunity to be nurtured. They receive support through mentorship programmes, are taught leadership and management skills by professionals from the corporate world and those with viable business ideas get funding for their start-ups.

Taking homegrown solutions to a larger scale, Lagos State authorities switched on a project that would deal with a garbage menace while providing power for an electricity starved population.

In one day Africa's sprawling metropolis of up to 21 million people, according to official estimates, produces more than 10,000 metric tons (11,023 tons) of waste.

In the same day it will get barely a few hours of power, forcing many inhabitants to rely on diesel generators.

A pilot project run by the Lagos Waste Management Authority or LAMWA is working to generate power using methane extracted from rotting fruit waste and then turning it into latent power.

LAMWA plans to have a 25 megawatt capacity in the next five years. That is only one percent of the 2,000 to 3,000 megawatt that he estimates Lagosians demand, but it is a start.

"Energy is in demand, waste is a headache so there's a link between the headache and the demand so if Lagos is able to convert more of its headache into that demand then it will bring out a smart city programme because the city becomes smarter and there's a kind of resilience that you introduce in the city programme and that's exactly what Lagos is looking at," said Ola Oresanya, Managing Director of LAWMA.

Traders at a local market welcomed the project.

"I'll feel happy because you know, to make fruits so the fruits can turn to gas and bring us light, yes, I'll feel happy and will enjoy it more than... now we're buying fuel for 100 naira per litre I think this one will be better than using petrol," said Seyifunmi Kunle, a trader.

The Lagos state government plans to bury the one of its largest garbage sites - Olusosun, in dirt and transform it into a green park with grass and trees built over it in future.

Pipes in the ground will harness the methane bubbling underneath for the power plant.

Experts say innovations, information and communication technology could help Africa overcome infrastructure inadequacies, satisfy rising consumer demand, boost regional trade and diversify economies, ending reliance on raw materials.