At a time when Ebola in West Africa blankets the news, and shapes many perspectives of a continent, it is important to remember that there are also other African stories worth telling. Despite the horror of this epidemic, many African countries are going through an economic boom and technological renaissance.
If we look at the growth from textile to electronic manufacturing in Asia over the past forty years is arguably one of the biggest creators of economic development in history having moved many millions of people from the poor to the middle class. The growth of the Japanese, South Korea, Taiwanese, Thai, and Chinese economies have grown nearly in parallel to the growth of the manufacturing industry in these nations. As manufacturing moved from the USA and Europe to Asia, starting with textiles, then basic electronics and climbing up the ladder to appliances, TVs, computers, and then cars, their economies flourished and jobs were created. Fifty years ago few Americans would think of buying a Japanese car; now Toyota has made the top selling car (the Camry Sedan) in the US for twelve years running. Twenty-five years ago Americans rarely bought a South Korean made TV; now they are the world leaders in LCD screen manufacturing.
As these companies move up the manufacturing ladder, they create room on the lower rungs; so what's next? We are beginning to witness a massive growth across Africa that is just getting started. Last year economist Charlie Robertson gave a TED talk on Africa's Next Boom, pulling from his book "The Fastest Billion", about how Africans will be the fastest billion people in history to develop. He outlined how secondary school enrollment, foreign direct investment amounts, and basic needs in many countries in Africa are at the same percentage of population that they were in Asia, Turkey, or Mexico just before their economies spiked upwards due to a growth in manufacturing. He points to the demographics to show that over the next decade in China men age 15-24 will reduce by 20-30%, while it will continue to grow across the African continent, doubling by 2050. Earlier this year David Brooks wrote in the New York Times about the need for people to recognize "The Real Africa" (the op-ed's title) the one where nations continually post 5-10% GDP growths, and where school enrollment has increased by 50%. He points out that the west's perspective of Africa as "the dark continent" and the reality are no longer aligned.
African tech companies are beginning to appear ion international markets. For instance, BRCK (for whom I work), a hardware company based in Nairobi, Kenya that creates tools for a more reliable Internet, was listed on CNN's top 10 startups of 2014 (the only non-American company). BRCK is a redesign of a modem and router that works in infrastructure poor places, so that if you're coding from Nairobi you can stay online, or teaching in a school in rural Nigeria, you can access the wealth of information on the web. The BRCK product connects people to the web, but as Robertson points out, BRCK Inc. will also create jobs.
BRCK and other hardware companies can help build the foundation for the manufacturing revolution that Robertson foresees. On the BRCK box it says "Designed in Nairobi, made in the USA." All of the prototyping, testing, and engineering for the BRCK was done by the team in Nairobi. It was hard; the tools such as a milling machine or a 3D printer don't exist in Nairobi, parts were help up in customs for weeks, the design cycles could take months longer than it would in the USA. Unfortunately the final manufacturing can't be done in Kenya yet because those tools and factories just are not available today, but tomorrow they might be.
So a couple of the Kenyan hardware companies came together with support from the Lemelson Foundation and others to build a prototyping facility in Nairobi, so that their inventions can be tested with their intended clients, users, and target markets. We call it Gearbox, and it's focus is to help support and seed the next inventing and manufacturing industry in East Africa. Gearbox's real paradigm shift is giving the tools to create solution to those who intimately live the problems. "We see the key to Gearbox's future success is that the need for such a facility has been defined by the local companies leading its launch. These companies have seen first-hand the need for a design and prototyping space like Gearbox," said Carol Dahl, Executive Director of The Lemelson Foundation. "We are optimistic that this facility will not only spur the launch and success of more invention based companies in East Africa, but also ensure that great products are created to meet the needs of the local population." When you build a product you start with a prototype first, and then move on to a manufacturing line. Gearbox is applying the same philosophy to trying to build a manufacturing industry in East Africa by starting with a prototyping.
The humanitarian sector still serves an important role filling the many essential needs that are still not met in Africa. But there is still "The Real Africa" that is quite ready to take on the next challenges. What is exciting is building manufacturing capacity in Africa might be one of the biggest opportunities for pulling millions of people out of poverty.