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 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).
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
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.