In Africa today, a lot of emphasis is placed on software-based innovations and inventions. This is seen in numerous code fests, boot camps, and accelerator programs that focus on software, while you will hardly hear of any mechanical engineering startups.

This is understandable based on many factors. When it comes to hardware, a constraint of resources is encountered for any innovator while software requires minimal tools. Hardware involves equipment and materials that cost, requires money for every single step, and advanced manufacturing systems to scale. It is for this reason we rarely see many hardware-based startups showing up.

It is also an effect of the 4th Industrial Revolution, where cutting-edge technology today is data-driven. Anything that is 4IR related carries the day.

Africa's development challenges

However, a big number of the serious problems facing Africa today require innovations that are hardware-based, and this is why Africa needs to ensure that the technicians and engineers and are equipped to solve the most challenging problems facing Africa today.

One initiative aimed at solving this challenge is the recently concluded American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) regional Innovation Showcase (ISHOW) in Nairobi. This annual event was held virtually this year and brought around innovators from across Africa, with the eight finalists from Kenya, Nigeria, and Egypt showcasing their products.

The ASME Innovation Showcase (ISHOW) is a global competition held in Kenya, India, and the US, which seeks to showcase innovative hardware solutions that will have a positive social and environmental impact. It is run by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers - a professional body that seeks to promotes the art, science, and practice of multidisciplinary engineering and allied sciences around the globe. The winners from the regional show will share $30,000 in seed grants and receive technical support to help bring their design innovations to the market.

Promising hardware technology solutions for Africa

The winning innovations at the ISHOW Kenya included Ari which is an β€˜ATM’ for dispensing sanitary pads to schools, Cipher which is a tool that enables diagnosis and detection of cerebral malarial retinopathy with a smartphone, and a Solar Cooking Boiler for school which stores heat in repurposed oil tank with waste engine oil.

Others who participated in the show include:

  1. Ina Lite, a portable thermoelectric generator that harnesses heat energy to generate electricity which is accessible from a USB power port.
  2. Eco Food dehydrators, which enables farmers to turn crop surpluses that usually go to waste into powdered food, thus avoiding waste.
  3. Styro-plastic densifier, which turns waste plastic littering the streets and landfills into durable and affordable building materials.
  4. Halisi Trolley, a transportable solar-powered street food vending trolley.
  5. Kuniokoa Turbo Stove, a forced draft biomass stove that can burn agricultural waste briquettes, wet wood, and dry wood faster, cleaner, and more efficiently.

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All the above innovations are trying to solve major problems in society today which need a lot of attention. Take the example of the Sanitary Pad Dispenser which helps adolescent girls in schools to get sanitary pads. With many girls missing school every month due to lack of sanitary pads and thus lagging behind in studies, the benefit of getting them the pads is almost immeasurable.

We need to see more programs enabling hardware innovations in Africa.

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