Necessity is the mother of innovation

22nd March, 2010

Nested in the luxurious Henga Valley of Northern Malawi is a remote village so beautiful they called it twice, Nchenachena. Blessed with rich soil and a flowing river, most of its inhabitants eek a meagre living from the land. Modern technology is slowly coming to this rural populace, hot pink and luminous green logos of Zain and TNM painted across shanty shops make a sharp contrast to the lush vegetation and thatched huts. In these shops, locals come to recharge their Chinese made cellphones because ESCOM’s rural electrification program only benefitted the very few who could afford.  Not to be hard done by this, a farmer took matters into his own hands and developed a biogas toilet that provides electricity to his office, charges his phone and operates his homemade fan.

Waiting by his smart red brick house in a tidy swept compound, I watched him approach from a distance. Barefoot with a hoe hanging over his shoulder, his  sturdy stature speaks years tilling the land. His hair is shaggy from a morning out in the field, his polite posture and wide smile of jotting and absent teeth welcomes us.

Mr. Frederick Msiska, Malawian science innovator

Mr. Frederick Msiska dropped out of school in Grade 5 when his family could not afford his school fees. His lack of formal science education  has not stopped him from building a biogas toilet,  a mobile phone charger,  a fan,  or a  handheld chemical sprayer. When asked what motivated him, he says “I looked around and I found that certain things were missing in my life so I studied very closely things that the government supplies. I made them myself through trial and error. I just kept trying, trying, and trying until they eventually worked.”

And worked it did. Frederick is a science hero, an innovator who used as much as possible local materials to produce a handheld chemical sprayer, a biogas toilet that lights his office, charges his mobile phone and operates a fan. His biogas toilet amongst other things uses a branch from the mululuzga tree, half a spoon of tea, maize bran, and an empty box of chibuku! (If anyone knows the English translation of a mululuzga tree – please let me know it apparently produces acid).

Standing by his biogas toilet

Handheld chemical sprayer (battery operated)

Mr. Msiska is also a lead farmer, appointed by government, he trains people in the area on good farming practice. His office is a smart small thatched building detached from his main house. Inside his tidy office is a rickety table covered with tatty exercise books and a well used bible.  Carefully packed away in the corner are the remains of his past invention attempts. The walls are plastered with large posters listing the names of local farm clubs and information about seeds, pesticides, and fertilizer but at the bottom of one poster something catches my eye

Poster on the wall, Zinchito Mu 2008 (Work in 2008) “Kuzenga office (Build office) Kupanga Luso ( Make things with my skills) Kupanga Sipuleya (Make a sprayer) Kupanga fani (Make a fan) Kupanga magetsi (Make electricity) Bio-gas light”

He proudly shows off his inventions, delighted to have an interested audience to demonstrate his creations. Our conversation was not only jovial, it saddened me when he said “ Farmers do not contribute to national development, it is only those who are educated who contribute to development.” I was dumb struck and short of words in my limited Tumbuka to say, although education is important,  even without it, you are still a valuable member of society and can still make a significant difference to your family, your community and the country.  I was even more distraught when he told how he had dismantled his biogas toilet for fear of imprisonment. He had heard of young boy, a grade 7 drop out, in the south of the country who had from scrap materials set up a community radio station and was later arrested. What Frederick had failed to understand was that this boy was arrested for operating a radio station without a license. The boy, Gabriel Kondesi,  was eventually released and it was not long before the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) recognized the brilliance of this young boy and awarded him a license. (….few weeks later the Director of MACRA was suspiciously reassigned – reasons for this are unknown). Gabriel Kondesi is another perfect example of a science hero, someone who overcame the odds, and made a scientific contribution that impacted positively on the lives of his community. His radio station used an old cassette player, a simple Nokia cellphone, capacitors, two aerials and transistors.

Gabriel Kondesi became a household name in Malawi so much so that when I was in Malawi and I randomly asked people in town to name a scientist they had heard of, they often mentioned his name. The innovation of Frederick Msiska, Gabriel Kondesi  and William Kamkwamba (the Malawian boy who built a windmill) are to be recognized, promoted and supported – locally, nationally and regionally. Although how best to support these talents is open for discussion.

They are testament to the saying “necessity is the mother of innovation” and I will add invention! In a contest on creativity and innovation, pitting the urban populace vs. the rural inhabitants in Africa, my experience so far suggests that the rural population would win hands down…by a long mile… And a majority of the African scientists that I interviewed echoed similar statements, that a rural and or a less privileged environment compels people to be more resourceful.  In town, if you need something, you save up and then buy it, out there in the countryside when you need something you make it yourself. Now if only we could support and harness this creative resourcefulness, steadfast determination, and imaginative innovation in a meaningful way that can make the lives of even just a few more people in Africa that much better. And by this I don’t mean a massive large scale project but something that will encourage, sustain and support such innovation to benefit communities.

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31 thoughts on “Necessity is the mother of innovation

  1. I keep saying the rural folks are brilliant. They do a lot to sustain life. One major setback is the media. We don’t tell our own stories, stories that can build faith in ourselves. (See some enteries on http://www.mzatinkolokosa.blogspot.com).

    How many times has the story of Kamkwamba been told? How beautiful was it? Or consider the earthquake in Karonga. Most of the stories were on donations from companies, religious institutions and others. Did we hear anything about local heroes who saved lives long before government officials and other instititions came to Karonga?

    What is the role of the media in a developing country like Malawi? This is the question that is bothering me. Sadly, it does not bother any other journalist I know.

    • Mzati, you are in wonderful position as journalist to publicize this…And if you are doing any teaching then you inspire upcoming journalist to think differently. I think it would be great if TVM could profile heroes and positive stories about Malawi

    • The problem I see is that our media are busy appeasing politicians instead protecting the people who own the votes.

  2. Great post. As a scientist – really admire these grass roots ‘scientists’, they are really great and inspiring examples of African science heroes. What I like the most is that their inventions are genuinely practical to solve a challenge that they know and experience themselves. Sometimes it seems that although it is great to see the technology and ideas that come from really established and reputable international Universities – the ideas just don’t seem to have that practicality. I agree, the rural population would probably win hands down – like you say theres no Peoples Cash and Carry or Shoprite. Supporting projects like this would be a step in the right direction – better to be producers rather than just consumers.

    Like Mzati said.. I hope the media will tell more of these homegrown stories to help build peoples confidence in themselves.

    Are there any more of these heroes across the continent?!?

    • Run into this other farmer in rural lilongwe who is very creative in his own ways. Managed to have some video clips that I can upload for you to appreciate and see if his story is anything that can be shared and publicised!

  3. Gus, you have a point….we need some way of identifying these talents…i know in Kenya their Research Council has some kind of innovation award that allows people like Frederick Msiska and William Kamkwamba to invent, produce, create things…

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  5. I have a feeling that there is a lot more innovation taking place in the rural areas that goes unnoticed. I guess folks like Mzati and other journalists on the ground can help unearthing these amazing stories. I am sure it will also be much easier to secure funding for such kind of journalism. The pro-Malawi digerati will always be happy to promote such stories on our blogs, twitter, facebook, digg etc.

    • Have you heard http://www.afrigadget.com/? Could the Nation, Daily Times, TVM have a regular column for Innovation. I remember a few weeks back reading an article about two Malawian guys who had made fish tank pumps. There is also a guy who runs a maize mill using water. I wonder if there are women doing anything out there?

      • Yes. I am aware of Afrigadget.com. I subscribed to their RSS feed a few years ago. Actually, I initially read about this story from their blog. It would be great if Nation, Daily Times and TVM would have regular columns and programs for Innovation. Some of us are more than ready to promote such stories on line.

        About women involvement in tech, you may find this post interesting: /2010/02/women-solar-engineers-in-malawi-villages/

        Are you back in Malawi now?

    • Great story Clement! Reneweable energy is really the way to go especially with Temporary Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi TESCOM. Women are great at adopting new technologies but it would be nice to see them innovate. Apparently CNN is looking to commission a series of stories similar to William Kamkwamba but I would be more interested to see more local media with such stories. I came to Malawi very briefly in Feb that is when I met Mr.Msiska.

  6. As much as I agree with all comments above, I am very much worried with lack of follow up on these innovations. I would very much like to see a scenerio where when such innovations take place, the educated joining to polish up and complete the projects.

    I think just publishing will not be enough. POLISH-UP AND COMPLETE THE PROJECTS

    • That’s true, Limbani. But you will agree that with increased publicity, it becomes easier to find experts or donors who are willing to help. For in stance, after William Kamkwamba’s story appeared in one of Malawi’s dailies, one blogger wrote about it and it was read by some folks out there. The boy was invited to a TED conference in TZ and that was it. The rest is history. As I write, they are helping him to develop a solar energy system for his primary school in Wimbe. Gabriel Kondesi also benefited from publicity.

      Sooner or later, you will hear that some experts or donors are working with Mr. Msiska to improve his inventions due to the same publicity.

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  10. Hi Mzamose!
    I’m Kone Dogniwa from Ivory Coast. I’m very proud of you for this article and your efforts for sciences in africa. I’m always amazed and sad at the same time while seing some africans inventing but never get support to develop their inventions. Actually I’m in India for a management traineeship and I’m impressed with the way indians support innovations. But before coming here and now I plan to establish an organisation, after my studies, to support and promote any person inventing/innovating in Ivory Coast to start and then in Africa. I’ll follow your blog from now and know more about your activities. Thanks! Kone

  11. salut madame il y beaucoup de chose pareilles dans nos villages africains mais sans accompagnement il ne peuvent pas grand chose vraiment.

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