Category: Tech

Maasai women lead a solar revolution

(Pic: Green Energy Africa)
(Pic: Green Energy Africa)

Not long ago, dusk was a time of unease for the people of Magadi, a village in Kenya’s Kajiado County.

As the sun set, farmers began worrying about their cattle, easy prey for hyenas and leopards. Children lit fires to finish their schoolwork, filling homes with smoke.

Now as darkness falls, lights flick on across this sleepy hamlet, thanks to the efforts of more than 200 Maasai women at the frontline of a solar power revolution.

The women, trained in solar panel installation, use donkeys to haul their solar wares from home to home in the remote region, giving families their first access to clean and reliable power.

“For us, the impact of solar technology is unparalleled,” said Jackline Naiputa, who heads the Osopuko-Edonyinap group, one of the five women’s groups leading the alternative energy charge in the area.

Renewable energy developer Green Energy Africa provides the group with solar products – including solar panels, lights, and small rechargeable batteries – at a discount. The women sell the products at a profit of around 300 shillings ($3) each, which goes into the group’s account to buy more stock.

Naiputa, who in 2014 lost 10 goats to wild cats, said her teenage son used to spend cold nights in the cattle enclosure to guard their herd. Now, with solar lamps hanging around her homestead, Naiputa and her four children can sleep soundly in the warmth of their home.

“The light scares the hyenas away, so we don’t have to worry about losing our animals at night,” she said.

Women entrepreneurs
The Women and Entrepreneurship in Renewable Energy Project (Werep), an initiative by Green Energy Africa, aims to turn Kajiado County to solar power by training women as solar installers and encouraging them to market the clean energy concept to fellow pastoralists.

The solar energy drive began in around November 2014, and so far about 2 000 households in the country have adopted solar technology. Barely seven months into the effort, the area has jumped from zero solar energy consumption in 2006, according to estimates by the government’s Arid Land Resource Management Project, to 20 percent today, energy experts say.

Compared with kerosene and firewood, the cost, convenience, and health benefits of solar are proving hard to resist.

“The nearest market where one can charge a cell phone or buy kerosene is 15 kilometres away, and it is only held one day a week,” Naiputa said.

Before going solar, her household used to spend 40 Kenyan shillings ($0.40) a day on kerosene and over 100 shilling ($1) a week charging the two family cell phones.

As well as saving villagers money, the switch to solar could help slow down the destruction of Kajiado County’s trees, which now cover just 1 percent of the area’s land, according to the National Environmental Management Authority.

And as more villagers choose clean solar energy over wood and coal to light and heat their homes, fewer will suffer the effects of inhaling the smoke that comes with their nightly fires. According to a 2014 World Health Organization report, household smoke was responsible for 1.6 million deaths worldwide.

Solar potential
Edwin Kinyatti, the CEO of Green Energy Africa, said the uptake of solar energy was likely to continue “since it is affordable to most Kenyans,” even though cultural barriers, low literacy levels and difficult terrain had all presented some obstacles to the Kajiado County effort.

Even as the country’s middle class continues to grow, access to electricity remains low, with 68 percent of the population either too poor or too remote to connect to the national grid.

“Kenya has great potential for the use of solar energy throughout the year, thanks to its location near the equator,” said Lamarck Oyath, an energy expert and managing director at Lartech Africa Limited, a technology and consultancy firm. “Yet so far, the country gets less than 2 percent of its energy from solar power,” he said.

For villagers like Naiputa, however, solar is proving a big benefit – and not just because of the clean power it provides.

“Our community customs do not allow women to own any property,” she said. “But now women here own the solar technology, and it is something we are very happy about.”

Leopold Obi for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers humanitarian news, climate change, women’s rights, trafficking and corruption.

3D printers get Ugandan amputees back on their feet

An orthopaedic technology specialist assembles a 3D-printed artificial limb at the Comprehensive Rehabilitation Services Uganda (CORSU) in Wakiso. (Pic: AFP)
An orthopaedic technology specialist assembles a 3D-printed artificial limb at the Comprehensive Rehabilitation Services Uganda (CORSU) in Wakiso. (Pic: AFP)

Doctors amputated Ugandan schoolboy Jesse Ayebazibwe’s right leg when he was hit by a truck while walking home from school three years ago.

Afterwards he was given crutches, but that was all, and so he hobbled about. “I liked playing like a normal kid before the accident,” the nine-year-old said.

Now an infrared scanner, a laptop and a pair of 3D printers are changing everything for Jesse and others like him, offering him the chance of a near-normal life.

“The process is quite short, that’s the beauty of the 3D printers,” said Moses Kaweesa, an orthopaedic technologist at Comprehensive Rehabilitation Services (CoRSU) in Uganda which, together with Canada’s University of Toronto and the charity Christian Blind Mission, is making the prostheses.

“Jesse was here yesterday, today he’s being fitted,” said Kaweesa, 34.

In the past, the all-important plaster cast sockets that connect prosthetic limbs to a person’s hip took about a week to make, and were often so uncomfortable people ended up not wearing them.

Plastic printed ones can be made in a day and are a closer, more comfortable fit.

The scanner, laptop and printer cost around $12 000, with the materials costing just $3.

Ayebazibwe got his first, old-style prosthesis last year but is now part of a trial that could lead to the 3D technology changing lives across the country.

 Life-changing technology

The technology is only available to a few, however, and treatment for disability in Uganda in general remains woeful.

“There’s no support from the government for disabled people,” said Kaweesa. “We have a disability department and a minister for disabled people, but they don’t do anything.”

There are just 12 trained prosthetic technicians for over 250 000 children who have lost limbs, often due to fires or congenital diseases.

The 3D technology is portable and allows technicians to work on multiple patients at a time, increasing the reach of their life-changing intervention.

“You can travel with your laptop and scanner,” said Kaweesa, adding that the technology could be of great use in northern Uganda, a part of the country where many people lost limbs during decades of war between the government and Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, who specialised in chopping off limbs.

A picture taken on April 24 2015 shows lower-limb prostheses of a disabled child at the Comprehensive Rehabilitation Services Uganda. (Pic: AFP)
A picture taken on April 24 2015 shows lower-limb prostheses of a disabled child at the Comprehensive Rehabilitation Services Uganda. (Pic: AFP)

After receiving his first 3D socket Ayebazibwe was overjoyed. “I felt good, like my normal leg,” he said. “I can do anything now – run and play football.”

The boy’s 53-year old grandmother, Florence Akoth, looks after him, even carrying him the two kilometres to school after his leg was crushed and his life shattered. She too is thrilled.

“Now he’s liked at school, plays, does work, collects firewood and water,” said Akoth, who struggles to make ends meet as a poorly-paid domestic worker caring for five children.

Sitting on a bench outside the CoRSU fitting room were three young children and their parents.

“This is her first time walking on two legs,” said Kaweesa, pointing at a timid young girl who lost both her legs in a fire.

“Because they’ve seen other kids walking, playing, they realise they’ve been missing that,” he said “Once you fit them they start walking and even running.”

5 apps making life easier for South Africans

As smartphone penetration increases in South Africa, mobile apps are increasingly in vogue. Aside from game, photo and music apps, there are some that are genuinely making life easier for people and changing the way they go about things. We take a look at five of the best.

Vula Mobile

Developed by Dr William Mapham in 2011 in response to problems he experienced while working in rural Swaziland, Vula Mobile allows health workers in more rural areas to conduct a basic eye test and relay the results to a specialist elsewhere. A messaging platform incorporated in the app then allows any defects to be identified and the right course of treatment determined.


The beauty of Vula is that it tackles the problem of a lack of skilled medical practitioners in rural areas, and the delays often occasioned by having to send information to more urban areas for analysis. The app also allows the rural healthcare worker to capture basic patient information and take photographs. The developers plan to roll it out into other fields of healthcare once they obtain funding.


OurHood is an app for neighbours. It has been built on the proviso that people only use the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp to communicate with their local communities because of a lack of other options rather than what a good job they do. The aim of the app is to offer users private local neighbourhood networks with information specifically relevant to them.

Designed to facilitate conversations between neighbours, the app is broken down into sections providing easy navigation to the information people actually need. Sections allow users to report criminal activity, with members sent SMSs notifying them of anything posted, while a neighbourhood trading post allows users to buy or sell items locally.




Arranging a courier in South Africa is a tricky and expensive business. Not on WumDrop. The Uber-style app allows users to request a courier from their mobile phone. Once a driver accepts, they collect and deliver the requested item, with users able to track its progress on their phone.

At the cost of just ZAR7 per kilometre, WumDrop is cheaper than more traditional courier firms, and allows users to be totally aware of when their package is going to be delivered. Meanwhile, in allowing students to take on part-time roles as couriers, it is also offering a handy form of employment in a country where youth often struggle to get work.





An app tackling unemployment in a more direct way is Giraffe, which is looking to help South African jobseekers access employment opportunities in an easier fashion. The app assists a jobseeker in creating a CV, which is then added to the app’s database. Employers submit requests for staff of a certain skillset, and Giraffe will then identify the most suitable candidates and schedule job interviews.

Jobseekers and employers alike love it. According to Giraffe, within a few months of its launch, and with very little marketing, it had already sent job opportunities to over 1 000 jobseekers.



Do you struggle to keep track of your spending? Then use Bsavi. The app is a spend management tool allowing users to input regular and fixed expenses and see how much is left for daily pocket money once those have been accounted for. It was developed with the fact in mind that people generally rely on mental accounting skills while budgeting between pay cheques. With Bsavi’s “Daily Available Cash” feature, they no longer have to. More features are on the way.



Tom Jackson is a tech and business journalist and the co-founder of Disrupt Africa

African startups expanding abroad must pick the right markets

umkani has developed an early warning system to reduce the damage and destruction caused by the spread of shack/slum fires in urban informal settlements. (Screenshot:
Lumkani has developed an early warning system to reduce the damage and destruction caused by the spread of shack/slum fires in urban informal settlements. (Screenshot:

Talk to African startups these days and all you hear is “expansion, expansion, expansion”. It comes in all shapes and sizes. A Cape Town-based company immediately plans to expand to Johannesburg. A Kenyan company always has Uganda and Tanzania on their hit list. And, in rarer cases, there are those African firms that are thinking of taking their product outside of the continent.

This talk of expansion has been louder in the last couple of weeks. Kenya’s M-Changa, which allows community fundraising via a mobile app, is set to launch operations in Tanzania. Ghanaian mobile event app Suba has its eyes set on Nigeria, as well as the more ambitious destinations of Miami and Rio de Janeiro. South African fire-detection startup Lumkani is looking to go nationwide, but also has global ambitions.

Suba is a kind of family photo album for mobile, allowing multiple people to contribute and save their favourites for safe-keeping. (Screenshot)
Suba is a kind of family photo album for mobile, allowing multiple people to contribute and save their favourites for safe-keeping. (Screenshot)

Startups generally expand because – apart from perhaps feeling it is something that everyone must do – they need to reach new, bigger markets. This is very often the case in Africa, as populations are generally small and the proportion of the population with adequate spending power to sustain a business even smaller. Yet seeking a bigger market does come with its difficulties.

Some companies can scale to other markets too early, when they lack the necessary resources to properly launch in a new destination. Launching anywhere for the first time is an expensive effort – it needs bodies on the ground, marketing, and technology to be built. You need enough capital.

But you also need an awareness of the market you are expanding into. Suba, for example, is a great idea, but does its team know for sure that it is an idea that will be welcome in, for example, Nigeria? What are the different market dynamics? What is the competition there? What cultural differentiators are there? Is there a political situation? Are there different legal frameworks? In some cases, even aspects as basic as language can be an issue.

Recruitment is a major factor should a startup decide it wants to launch in another country. You’ll need quality people on the ground that understand the local market, but does a CEO trust them to run the show entirely? If the CEO decides to temporarily relocated, who takes charge back home. If recruitment is essential during the very early stages of a startup’s life, it is just as important when it comes to overseas expansion.

In general, the easiest scenario is to pick a market that is much like your own. Kenya as a market is vastly different from Nigeria, but more similar to Uganda and Tanzania. The latter two, then, would seem to be more likely targets for expansion, as they undoubtedly offer a significant growth in market size as well as fewer pitfalls. East Africa, in fact, is undergoing an integration process currently that will make it easier for startups to expand within the region.

At the recent Connected East Africa event in Kenya, this economic integration to ease trade and regional expansion was top of the agenda. East African countries are expanding the One-Network-Area – which allows for lower roaming charges on calls and SMSs between Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan – to data and mobile money. Other non-tariff trade barriers look set to be removed, while transport links are being improved and the region is becoming more interconnected.

This integration offers companies in the region opportunities. A startup with a market limited to 45 million Kenyans can now more easily think about expanding their product availability to 49 million Tanzanians or 37.5 million Ugandans. The making and receiving of payments will also get easier, thanks to the expansion of the One-Network-Area and the gradual move towards mobile money interoperability. The improvement of transport links and internet connectivity will ease logistical issues.

This regional integration makes expansion – at least to neighbouring countries – a little easier for East African startups. The same is not necessarily true elsewhere. Expansion is a way of life for any startup that wishes to be successful. But the most important decision will be choosing where to do that.

Tom Jackson is a tech and business journalist and the co-founder of Disrupt Africa

Giant rats sniff out TB in Mozambique

This picture taken in March 2005 shows one of nine rats who helped Mozambique sniff out landmines. (Pic: AFP)
This picture taken in March 2005 shows one of nine rats who helped sniff out landmines in Mozambique. (Pic: AFP)

Giant rats may strike fear and disgust into the hearts of homeowners worldwide, but researchers in impoverished Mozambique are improbably turning some of them into heroes.

At Eduardo Mondlane University in the capital Maputo, nine giant rats are busy at work – sniffing out tuberculosis-causing bacteria from rows of sputum samples.

These are no ordinary rats, as they have undergone six months of training in Tanzania. Their most distinguishing asset is their impeccable sense of smell.

Placed inside a glass cage, a rat darts from sample to sample, then stops or rubs its legs, indicating that a sample is infected with a TB causing bacteria.

Once the task is complete, it is given a treat through a syringe for a job well done.

“Within 30 minutes, the rat can test close to a hundred samples, which normally takes a laboratory technician four days,” said Emilio Valverde, TB program director at APOPO, the organisation leading the research.

The project, which started in February 2013, has brought hope to thousands of TB sufferers who sometimes receive false results and test negative using the standard laboratory system.

In 2006, tuberculosis was declared a national emergency in Mozambique, with 60 000 people in 2014 said to be infected, according to the ministry of health.

That number was a 10 percent increase from 2013.

Samples delivered to the university for testing are collected from 15 health centres across Maputo.

Rats in training

Belgian group APOPO is planning to expand the program to other parts of the country, while working on getting the system approved by the World Health Organization.

The organisation claims rat testing is more cost effective than other conventional methods.

Each rat costs around $6 700 to $8 000 to train, with a six-to-eight-year life span.

The cost is lower compared to rapid diagnostic test GeneXpert, which costs up to $17 000 per device, setting the state back between $10 and $17 per test.

The kitten-size rats are also used by APOPO to detect landmines by sniffing out explosives.

They are light enough to cross terrain without triggering the mines, and are followed by de-mining experts who reward the rats with bananas.

The rats weigh up to 1.5 pounds and are said to be “easier to catch and train” – according to Valverde.

Samples pointed out by the rats to contain TB bacteria are then sent for further tests using fluorescence microscopy, a more sensitive laboratory technique.

The results are sent back to health centres, allowing patients to start treatment early.

Although TB is a treatable disease, in underdeveloped countries like Mozambique it can be deadly if left untreated and is particularly harmful to people living with HIV.

Mozambique is one of the countries worst affected by TB and 1 in 10 adults is HIV-positive.

With World Tuberculosis Day being marked on Tuesday, the Mozambican Ministry of Health said it was cautiously monitoring the APOPO work.

“This technique has to be compared to others that are available and already WHO approved, such as GeneXpert or LED microscope,” said Ivan Manhica, who heads the national programme for tuberculosis at the health ministry.

According to the WHO, TB killed 1.5 million people in 2013.