Celebrating Inspirational Entrepreneurs Building Tech that Matters for Africa

Bernard Chiira, AMREF Health Africa
May 13, 2020

Exactly a year ago my career took a right turn and I found myself working at the intersection of innovation and disability. The journey has been exhilarating, worth every mile of the way and rewarding. I am grateful to have received two incredible awards; 50 Most Fabulous Innovative Leaders Award from the World Innovation Congress and top 100 most influential young leaders in Kenya from Avance Media! This article, however, is not about me, rather a personal recognition to a bunch of some the most incredible people I have met along the way!

Brian Mwenda-CEO and Founder at Hope Tech

Brian has made it his life mission ever since high school to make life for blind people better. What’s amazing about Brian’s story is the power of inclusion! He went to a high school that accepted persons with disabilities. Seeing how brilliant some of his blind school-mates were but the number of barriers they had to overcome to be at equal terms with their seeing counterparts sparked an ambition that turned out to be his career and life mission. He founded Hope Tech Plus, a startup that is reimagining mobility and navigation for the blind. With already 1,000 plus users under their belt with the 4th eye, a gadget that helps blind people avoid obstacles above the knee level. Hopetech has gone on to design, build and test what they believe to be the first Assistive Technology to replace the whitecane. They will unveil the 6th sense to the world on demo day.

Sylvia Nyagah and Sharon Simiyu Co-Fonders at Syna Consultancy

Sylvia recently and Sharon recently graduated from University. The two brilliant ladies studied engineering with specialisations in water and sanitation. They have been concerned for a long time about the undignified and inaccessible toilets that persons with disabilities, especially those with severe mobility challenges have to endure to make a basic call of nature. Across Africa, in most low-income households and settlements, the only available toilet option is the pit-latrine. Syna has developed Utu Luv, a mobile toilet commode that can be used in places with inaccessible toilets e.g. pit-latrines in villages or for bedridden persons at home or in hospital. Having been able to move from prototype to minimum viable product, Syna is now trialling Utu Luv for the market.

Anthony Karimi and David Chudhi, Co-Founders at Toto Sci

I have come across some brilliant techies in my life but these two are special. There commitment to using tech for good is simply remarkable. And not just any tech, Anthony, who’s had a person for tech since 13 years old and once built an IOT solution to help the mom know when the household water reserve was full or empty, has a special interest in IOT. The duo has tested and continue to do research on how IOT could be used to improve security for white cane (walking stick for the blind) users. They have developed AlexCane, an IOT solution that helps white cane users share their location, request for help or connect with other users automatically at the touch of a button. They aim to ensure that blind people and those who care about them have peace of mind and a fast and efficient way to keep in touch when apart. Think of it like sharing your trip and location in real-time when you take an uber.

Lincoln Wamae, Founder and CEO at Linccell Technology

Some times life gives you an opportunity to meet a rare or special breed of humans whom you know deep down that you probably will never meet any such any time soon. Such is Lincoln. His story is fascinating. Not only is he a self-taught engineer, but he also did it in a remarkable way. Lincoln has always been fascinated by technology and built his first drone in 2012. He went on to build and test a drone sophisticated enough to cary him or his equivalent weight then of 55 Kgs. Unfortunately, the drone crashed with his equivalent of deadweight into Mt. Kenya forest where it has never been located to-date as he forgot to put in a GPS tracker. His approach to innovation has always been learning, solve a problem and make an impact. His drone project was out of frustration of not getting a job and not being able to afford a flight! So he decided to build a personal aircraft to fly out of Kenya! As funny as that may sound, there is nothing funny about what he considers his most passionate project-helping persons with disabilities, specifically wheelchair users move effortlessly, affordably and safely. In Nairobi and largely most African cities, wheelchair users do not have access to public transport. They are forced to move long distances and expend bodybuilder-type effort just to get about. In the case where they can’t push the chair themselves, they rely on help. This is worse in slum areas or the countryside where the terrain is uneven and rough! Linccell Technology is leading in the electric personal mobility industry in Africa and putting wheelchair users at the front of this revolution. They have designed, build and sold more than a dozen electric wheelchairs across Kenya. Linccell Tech wheelchairs are designed and tested to withstand the toughest off-road conditions in Africa as well as convenient indoor use. All the while leveraging on Lincon’s incredible lithium-ion battery configuration that delivers more speed, range and safety. The one thing that get’s me going about Linccell is that not only are they making wheelchair users the pioneers of personal electric mobility in Africa, they are also having a great positive impact on the environment by recycling lithium-ion batteries while creating jobs for the youth across the Linccell technology value-chain across manufacturing to last-mile delivery!

Ronald Mukanga and Maureen Mukabane, Co-Founders at Vision Vijana

Now, some of us may take for granted the ease of access to eyeglasses and eyesight testing, that is readily available in our cities and malls. However, its a totally different story altogether for millions of people in rural and urban settlements across Africa. Some of these people are engaged in sources of livelihoods that directly depend on good vision, e.g. truck drivers or tea pickers. Ronald has an amazing story of how he overcame the challenges of being unemployed and a refugee in Europe. That experience shaped his resilience for entrepreneurship and mission to create job opportunities for the youth in Kenya. Today, he leads Vision Vijana a startup that is building and training a network of youth to make vision testing and eyeglasses accessible at scale. Vision Vijana has done vision testing and eyeglasses fitting for 8,000 people in Kenya. What’s special about their approach is rather than relying on the rare and practically scarce optometrist services in Africa, they use technology to test for low, short or long-sightedness, fitting and assembling eyeglasses on the spot! One of their amazing stories is how they tested 3,000 truck drivers in Mombasa and found a third of these with eyesight problems that affected their vision on the road. More than 1,000 were fitted with eyeglasses.

I have never come across a group of entrepreneurs that are more passionate about what they do! These brave and impact-conscious entrepreneurs give me so much energy and inspiration to continue supporting founders in Africa tackling real-life problems especially those affecting persons with disabilities!

Our amazing heroes from cohort 1.0 will be pitching and sharing incredible stories of change and progress in an invite-only virtual demo day on the 4th of June! A special mention to team Hope Tech that has also chosen the day to reveal the 6th Sense device a breakthrough technology that could totally replace the walking cane for the blind! You don’t want to miss this! (Contact me if you are interested in getting an invite to our demo day).

With our 1st cohort almost coming to a finale, I am so proud to announce that the call for the second wave of Africa’s most innovative and brilliant entrepreneurs and founders in the field of Assistive Technology is now officially on!

Innovate Now (iN)-Africa’s pioneering Assistive Technology Accelerator is now receiving applications for cohort 2.0, in the first thematic call by iN in the field of AT. The primary theme is Bridging the access gap to Assistive Products and Services using mobile technologies. In cognisant of the current global crisis of Covid19, we are also accepting applications for our secondary theme: Bridging access to information, services and resources for persons with disabilities in times of national and international difficulties such as pandemic

In a rapidly digitising continent, mobile technology has not only transformed the lives of people in Africa but also provided the backbone for entrepreneurs to re-write the rules of the game in how people access goods, services and information.

There is compelling evidence that mobile technology has great potential to help persons with disabilities access assistive technologies or act as an assistive technology itself. The Global Disability Innovation Hub identifies mobile as a powerful tool in improving the capacity of personnel involved in AT development and provision, as well as being a mode of new AT delivery (Assistive Technology Scoping report). In a study by GSMA (Understanding the mobile disability gap) it's noted that although persons with disabilities are less likely to own a mobile phone than non-disabled persons, those with access to mobile devices perceive the handsets to be useful for accessing features such as education and financial services.

Compounded by the current global Covid19 pandemic that is affecting individuals, communities and economies globally in radically life-threatening ways, the need to give persons with disabilities equal access in society, especially to Assistive products and services has never been more apparent.

I am therefore thrilled to invite innovators, entrepreneurs and startups across Africa developing solutions that leverage on mobile technologies, that can improve the wellbeing, functioning independence of persons with disabilities to apply for our second cohort of Innovate Now Accelerator at atinnnovatenow.com/apply.

We have a brand new shiny website too! For more details about the programme and to find out more about the support we provide, please visit. atinnnovatenow.com

Connect with Innovate Now Cohort 1.0 websites below to learn more about their solutions:

1. Linccell Technology: https://www.linccelltechnology.com

2. Hope Tech:https://hopetechplus.com

3. Toto Sci (AlexCane):https://alexcane.totosci.com

4. Syna Consultancy:https://syna.co.ke

5. Vision Vijana:http://www.vijanareloaded.com/#challenge