Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

African innovators, with the women in the lead

Ever since the first sessions of TED, where a number of fierce critics of foreign aid faced off against the G8, Bono and a number of concerned westerners who want to help the continent through aid and development. It was wonderful to get this debate out into the open early on in the conference, and it’s dominated debate and conversation in the hallways.

Taking the stage this morning, Chris Anderson acknowleged the ferocity of the debate and mentioned that Bono is now heading back to Europe to meet with the G8. Chris tells us that Bono will be meeting with leaders to ask them to increase foreign aid, but will “articulate the evident and passionate desire to rebrand and recharacterize aid,” supporting aid that’s more accountable and that doesn’t go as badly wrong. Whether or not that satisfies all the critics in the audience is unclear, but it’s great that we’re having this conversation on stage.


Bola Olabisi starts her talk about women inventors with a story set in London in 1998. Pregnant with her fourth child, she was bored and looking for a free exhibit or show to attend. She found herself at an Inventor’s Fair, a subject she knew little about but was rapidly fascinated by. She began talking to women at the fair, asking whether they’d invented the products they were showcasing. Without exception, they were embarrased by the question and explained that it was their husband, brother or father who’d invented the product. She marched throughout the show floor, looking for a single woman inventor… and failed to find one.

So she met with the show’s organizers and asked them to find her a single woman inventor. The organizer told her that only 3% of the show’s participants were female and explained that she was unlikely to find a female inventor.

Olabisi began researching female inventors and discovered that both male and female inventors face some pervasive problems. It’s tremendously difficult to think of truly novel ideas. Inventors often are stereotyped – they’re fanatics, mad professors who don’t take no for an answer. They’re troublemakers, people who can’t play by the rules. It’s hard to find documentation of female inventors outside of the US – you can learn about women who’ve invented the bulletproof vest or the windscreen as they’re American. But naming a single African inventor is challenging, simply because African invention is poorly documented.

Olabisi took the reins in her hands and founded the Pan African World Inventors and Innovators Conference, held in Ghana in 2005. People asked if she was really wise to focus on African invention, but she was “very proud of my fellow African sisters” as they filled every seat in the conference center. She introduces us to some amazing women inventors:

- Nella Kumato, a Ghanaian inventor who has turned waste plastic into floor tiles, creating dozens of jobs

- Tomilola Awoniyi, a Nigerian woman who invented a breakfast cereal because she was not ablt to afford it. It was a huge success, and she began packaging it and selling it locally.

- Simi Baello, a wignmaker, whose products are sold throughout the continent

- Salome, a Ghanaian inventor who found a novel way to combine a pair of scarves, making them wearable 25 different ways – the product now sells for 300£ in London high streets

These projects aren’t especially high-tech, but they’re economically important, novel and address realworld needs. To ramp up the project, Olabisi is now partnering with London Metropolitan University, launching a women innovators platform at the Europen Parliament, and launching a program at a private academy in Lagos.

Erik Hershman of White African and Afrigadget follows Olabisi with a three minute talk, introducing some of the wonderful innovations showcased on his site: a streetside nursery that uses waste water to grow plants and tilapia; homemade welding machines and car alternators; a soccer ball made from twine and garbage bags. He presents the ball to Emeka Okafor on behalf of Africa’s bloggers with all of our thanks.

One Response to “African innovators, with the women in the lead”

  1. Reading on the women above, i am totally impressed. I work for a magazine called Applaud Africa, stationed in Kenya.The main objective of the magazine is to celebrate Africa and Africans, highlighting our successes and show the positive aspects of our continent.

    In this regard, i would appreciate to get contact for Nella Kumalo- who uses plastic wastes to make floor tiles. and Tomilola Awonyi who invented breakfast cereal.

    Your assistance will be highly appreciated.

    Regards,

    Mercy Cherutich

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  1. Women Inventors and Innovators: Meet Bola Olabisi | Afromusing - [...] may remember her talk about women entrepreneurs and innovators. If not, click here for my post and here for …

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