According to the United Nations Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) 3.3 million patents were granted in 2018. However, as far as inventions go, we know the number is much higher. It is a fact that the only constant is change. Everyone over the age of 20 will tell you that this change is accelerating exponentially.
When we talk about being inventive in a COVID-19 world (unfortunately it is NOT yet a post-COVID era regardless of the level of Coronavirus fatigue we experience) we generally think of innovations in terms of business processes and the acceleration of adaptation related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We don’t always consider the inventions – the innovative gadgetry that makes these process-driven changes possible.
The US election of 2020 and, of course, how COVID-19 has been weaponised in fighting said election has collectively taken up much of our intellectual, emotional and social media space. If you looked past that circus, you would know that Europe is experiencing second waves of the scary Virus At The Forefront Of Our Minds. If you had enough energy to widen your lens even further, you would be aware of the fact that the UK is still caught up in the endless tango of its divorce settlement with the European Union and time is running out. These human dramas have kept our eyes on the West.
Let me out!
I admit that initially, I was looking for a bit of escape. I did not want this blogpost to be bogged down in only bad news and cynical navel-gazing. I thought to myself what’s wrong with a bit of Christmas virtual shopping instead? Which new gadgets found their way onto the market in 2020? How could I celebrate the inventiveness of humanity? How do I show that innovation has not ground to a complete halt in the world? How could I use this to inspire and stimulate a bit of forward-thinking?
We need cute kittens
So! I can tell you about this nifty kitty, Nybble, that teaches children about Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The developers do so by luring curious young minds who become bored with a new toy soooo quickly into learning how to write code so that their kitty can learn new tricks – a far cry from only reading about The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss!
I can tell you about the Hoversurf S3 that is advertised as a ‘quadcopter’ – a superbike that hovers above the ground at a respectable 152cm and which has been incorporated into the fleet of the Dubai Police Force. Or perhaps you would be intrigued by the latest phone gadgets – the NANO1 Stargazer – an astronomy camera that generates 25 times more light than that which is visible to the naked eye. Or the iMicro that is an effective microscope that magnifies things 800 times. Both of these clip onto your phone camera.
Christmas is around the corner – for some
As nice as it is to daydream, I realised that our exchange rate makes many of the gadgets impossible to afford. It made me think of how the world has become polarised and focussed on the individual at the expense of collective well-being. How deep the divides between North and South, East and West, rich and poor have become. As I followed the rabbit hole I wondered about inventions in and for Africa during this time of COVID-19.
How Africa gets on with it
- ‘Doctor Car’ robot, students from Dakar Polytechnic School, Senegal
This robotic ‘doctor’ is fluent in English, French, Pulaar and Wolof. It is operated by remote control via an App and moves between the isolation rooms taking patients’ temperatures, dispensing medication and delivering food.
- Automatic hand-washing machine – Stephen Wamukota (9 years old) Kenya
This structure is built completely from wood and is foot operated. It tips a bucket so that the hand-washer does not need to touch any surfaces with their clean hands. Young Stephen won a presidential award for his efforts.
- Portable ventilator – Usman Dalhatu (20 years old) Engineering student, Nigeria
This youngster developed the Respire-19 from locally sourced materials and parts. He has several projects he is working on and wants to make life easier for people.
- 3D mask printing – Nathalie Raphil, Robots Can Think, South Africa
Natalie started the Artificial Intelligence company called Robots Can Think South Africa.
She has been using 3D printers to produce a hundred masks a day for some of the main hospitals in Johannesburg.
We have seen how large networks of citizens with 3D printers have organised themselves around South Africa to print face shields for frontline workers.
- Solar-powered hand washing sink, Richard Kwarteng and brother, a shoemaker, Ghana
This ingenious invention works by activating a sensor which then dispenses warm soapy water automatically. You do not need to sing Happy Birthday to yourself twice – an alarm will sound after 25 seconds – the recommended period suggested by the World Health Organisation.
- Web-based X-ray lung scan platform, a team of engineers, Tunisia
This platform scans the x-rays that are uploaded to it for signs of lung infections. Research conducted by the National Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Tunisia shows that the tool is 90% effective in detecting the signs of probable infection.
- Police Robots, Tunisia
These ‘Robocops’ use heat sensors to detect people who are walking around the city streets during the lockdown. Trespassers must show identity documents and proof of their reason for being on the street. Cameras capture images and are verified by the police officers who are controlling the robots remotely.
- Money sanitiser, Danson Wanjohi, Kenya
A mobile money agent built this motorised device, using easily obtainable materials to sanitise paper money. It passes through a slot in the machine and the notes are then cleaned with a sanitising solution.
- Rapid 65-minute Covid-19 testing kit, Daniel Ndima and Dineo Lioma, South Africa
These tech entrepreneurs created a Covid-19 testing kit which provides results in just 65 minutes. This is a far cry from the three days prospective patients had to wait for results. The qPCR uses technology used originally to measure DNA.
- Socially distanced haircuts, barbers everywhere, Ethiopia
Lockdown or no, one’s hair keeps growing! In Ethiopia barbers constructed wood and glass booths that largely separate them from their clients, thus reducing the risk of transmission.
To these, I want to add two inventions that did not originate in Africa, but that show promising application under the trying conditions so many of our fellow Africans endure:
- Enomad Uno – portable waterpower generator
This handheld gadget is a portable hydel power generator that makes use of a small propeller to convert the kinetic energy of moving water into micro-electricity. You can use it to power your electronic devices through a USB port. It is also fitted with a LED light.
This company provides a wide range of products for outdoor, relief and emergency use. Some products operate like a straw, making it possible to drink water straight from any flowing water source. Others offer various extraction features and storage capacities. It purifies the water and kills viruses like Hepatitis A, bacteria like E.coli and Salmonella parasites, microplastics, chlorine, organic chemical matter, dirt, sand, and cloudiness.
This company sells its products at competitive, market-related rates. However, for every product purchased, it pledges to ensure that a child, a school or a community (depending on the product purchased) is supplied with a year’s worth of clean, safe drinking water. Through partner organisations, they have reached communities in Africa and around the world.
What started as a desire to escape the heaviness of these Trying Times has left me humbled and grateful for the resilience of the people of our continent. In the words of the governor of the Nigerian State of Gombe, Muhammad Inuwa Yahaya when he commended the student for his Respire -19:
“We are indeed proud of you…If we can go back to the rudiments, pursue and improve on what we have, we can be like Japan and China who utilized their local talents to achieve greatness. We have the brains and intellectual resources to become a reference point like other developed nations.”
I think it is high time that we shift the way we think about where we come from. Sometimes we deliberately need to shift our focus. This is not to say that there are not lots of problems on the Africa continent, but also a great deal of talent and resourcefulness. Are you a mindless scroller, or are you dreaming of inventions and novel solutions?