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Njideka Harry: Lessons for Africa from an Innovation Hack

Njideka Harry Youth For Technology Foundation
May 14, 2015
Hacking and open innovation models are helping developing economies in Africa and elsewhere make the most of limited resources.




In Africa, there is a vibrant culture of young people creating things. Having worked in this field extensively over the last 15 years, I see that innovation often comes from the unavailability of resources and pure necessity. There simply aren’t enough jobs to go around, so innovation is born from constraints. For many young people growing up in Africa today, there are a few options: improvise, adapt, or overcome.

This culture has bred a generation of problem solvers and innovators — a generation of young people who are faced with challenges, but still find solutions that work. To help support this mentality, collaboration between corporations and entrepreneurs in developing countries is helping to create an entrepreneurship ecosystem. Young entrepreneurs benefit from this ecosystem, as do the companies, who gain access to creative ideas while being able to offer employees meaningful opportunities to apply their expertise and have a social impact.

Within these ecosystems, there are several innovation models that are especially well-suited for constrained environments in Africa and elsewhere.

Hacking Our Way to Innovation

Hacking spurs innovation by focusing limited resources to quickly develop ideas and solutions. In developing countries, such practices can help spur accelerate development, providing an opportunity to not only catch up — but lead.

Take the recently launched FirstBuild microfactory in Louisville, Kentucky, a partnership between GE and Local Motors that provides open community space for makers, students and engineers to co-create smart products for the future. My organization, the Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF), which works in low-income communities in the U.S. (including Louisville’s West End) and in rural communities in the developing world, recently participated in FirstBuild’s very first hackathon.

Makers, techies, engineers and artists worked overnight to come up with the home of the future. They had access to any tool you can think of — 3D printers, laser cutters, water jets, CNC mills, welding and hand power tools, soldering stations, woodworking equipment and more.

Teams worked around the clock to create cool products with actual utility — a sensor-enabled water faucet that detects the length of time for hand washing, a kitchen cabinet greenhouse and a Wi-Fi-enabled crock pot were some of our favorites. They hacked something that was already there — existing appliances — to make new ones that vastly improved the customer experience. Entrepreneurs in developing countries can take this same approach, hacking their serious structural challenges to leapfrog right to solutions that not only solve them, but invent something better.

Lifting Up Ideas

The best way to learn about a problem is to build a solution. Open innovation is another model that allows people who have a passion for a certain problem to come together to create a workable solution. YTF knows that open innovation can work mostly because you are tapping into a very different group of people, those who normally don’t think about engineering challenges.

Solutions from open innovation stem from asking the right questions. Ten-year-old Jazmine had the opportunity to suggest two of her project ideas, including taking apart Necomimi cat ears, robotic cat ears that respond to brainwaves, just to understand how they work.






Another key component to taking innovation into action is using microfactories. Microfactories place emphasis on localization, giving companies an opportunity to move certain products to larger-scale production with less risk since they are tested on a small and localized platform first. Microfactories allow companies to innovate faster and introduce products consumers want when they want them.

It’s not hard to imagine a microfactory like FirstBuild’s — not just in Louisville, but anywhere, especially in developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. A place where people can come to learn, innovate and share. A place where girls feel safe and where “making” is cool. We know it will take all hands on deck to make this work and help incentivize this as the future of technology, but we know it’s worth it to help bring about the innovation we yearn for.

(Top GIF and video: Courtesy of FirstBuild)



Njideka Harry is Founder of Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF).