Thursday, March 14, 2013

African 'techpreneurs' leave their mark on innovation front

For years, Africa has been viewed as a technological dumping site with sophisticated gadgets and other advancements only hitting the market long after reaching their peaks in the more lucrative western markets.

Many of the accessories and computers that have been available within the continent were for decades considered inferior to those used in Europe and North America.

But in the last five years this has been changing, in part due to aggressive marketing in booming markets of Africa by profit-hungry telcos.

The inventor of the first hand-held tablet to rival the iPad and similar western inventions, Verone Mankou, shows his tablet on January 31, 2012 in the offices of his company, VMK, in Brazzaville.PHOTO/AFP

But a more exciting factor has also been at play: Young African innovators have been delving into the technological world to come up with devices that can compete with those made abroad - at least in the regional market.

After American technology icon Steve Jobs invented the iPad, African techies enthusiastically hit the innovation labs to come up with custom made solutions for Africa, and which are pocket friendly.

Most recently last December, Congolese entrepreneur Verone Mankou launched his smartphone and tablet that were specifically designed by his VMK Company for Africa.

Both devices, which run on the popular Android software, are designed in Congo but manufactured in China for cost reasons.

His tablet, branded Way-C, is taken from one of the numerous Congolese dialects to mean the "light of the stars".

Mankou described the innovation as being affordable without being cheaply made and “designed as a low-cost computer to bring Internet access to as many people as possible”.

The tablet is smaller than the iPad though it has a storage capacity of 4GB internal memory and supports Wi-Fi.

It has however not been all rosy for the entrepreneur who has come under sharp criticism for mass producing in China despite his maintaining that all engineering is done in Africa.

Nigerian Saheed Adepoju’s tablet INYE was first introduced into the market in 2010 and since then it has undergone several upgrades to improve the experience of users.

His invention of the INYE tablet perhaps caused the most ripples within the continent’s technological circles.

The launch of an upgraded Inye2 in 2011 went to reinforce the young innovator-entrepreneur’s decision to fully delve into African ‘techtoys’, drawing his inspiration from the Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Several other African innovators have also come up with their own custom made mobile internet devices in a bid to bridge the continent’s yawning digital divide.

Adaptable applications

Nigeria-based web design company Websoft, in January 2012 made public its first ever tablet PC called Vantium V1. It later released an upgraded version, Vantium M1, in June.

The upgraded version combines the advantages of a phone, laptop and tablet in a single device, and unlike Inye2, Vantium M1 includes DStv, Microsoft office and Skype as some of its key applications though it is smaller in size and costs a bit more than Inye.

Vantium tablets run on Android’s Gingerbread operating system which allows the download of applications from the Android store or those made by third parties.

Websoft also announced recently that is seeking to provide a platform for African-made applications that are hidden or lost in the Android market.

Another Nigerian manufacturer, Debonair, also launched its Bamboo D300 tablet in April 2012 in Ghana and that was said to target only men.

This followed the release of Bamboo D180 and Bamboo D280 versions in 2011.

The main edge over other tablets in the market is its dual core CPU that makes it faster than many other innovations by competitors.

Bamboo D300 has been touted as the ultimate gadget and the company in its launch said that it was developed to celebrate a man’s success.

The tablet has been described in the media as easy to use even for people who do not know how to operate computers.

Fasmicro’s Ovim and Ovim Plus tablets have also rocked the Nigerian market.

The Ovim Plus tablet which was released in 2011 is said to be a perfect mix for work and play having adequate applications for both.

The sleek tablet comes with a 10.1 inch display and like other Android tablets, allows people to download applications from the Android market. It also comes with an inbuilt 3G module saving the user the hustle of acquiring an external modem in addition to its front and rear cameras.

It is not just in West Africa where such things are happening. Innovators from other parts of the continent have also come up with noble creations.

The South African market has been able to purchase the low cost WISE TOUCH 1 tablet produced by a local IT and telecoms company.

The seven-inch device also runs on Android 2.3 and comes with extra applications custom made for South Africans and that are clustered in the Wise Shopping Mall, the Wise Business Park and Wise Education Centre.

With time, African innovations are becoming adapted to a particular use.
Take for example the touch screen medical tablet that was unveiled in September 2012 made by a Cameroonian engineer.
Twenty-four-year-old Arthur Zang’s Cardiopad enables heart examinations to be made in rural locations and the results of the test transferred wirelessly to specialists who can interpret them.

The cardiopad comes with inbuilt software that allows the doctor to give computer-assisted diagnosis and is expected to go a long way in preventing rural patients from having to travel to urban centres to seek medical assistance.

The gadget that is likely to positively impact the healthcare sector not only in Cameroon but Africa is however yet to be commercially produced as Zang is currently looking for venture capital.

Better comprehension

The Kenyan eLimu tablet is another such invention that is custom made to boost learning in primary schools.

The eLimu tablet contains revision content from all subjects examined in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education and comes complete with graphics to allow better comprehension of content among students.

It is Internet-enabled to facilitate a forum of question and answers with teachers though it lacks a browser as a precautionary measure to prevent the misuse of internet connectivity.

The initiative, which is currently being run on small scale in selected schools in Nairobi, is set to expand to schools in other parts of Kenya later this year.

Many of these innovators, however, have come under fire amid allegations that their products are not genuinely made in Africa.

Most of them like Way-C and Encipher are designed and developed in their African countries but assembled in China.

The Zimbabwean tablet Maestro produced by Nhava in 2010 failed to take off in the African market mainly because it was accused of selling rebranded Chinese products.

The innovations whose brand names are still young in the market have to compete with well established brands like the Apple iPad, the Samsung Galaxy Tablet and the Blackberry Playbook.

Despite these advancements in African technology, many sceptical consumers tend to prefer the foreign gadgets over their local counterparts despite the decreased price with confidence in the brands playing a major role.

With the current 15.6 per cent internet penetration rate in Africa and only 167 million users according to the 2012 internet world stats website, there is room for more innovative mobile devices that make internet access much easier.

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