TEDGlobal 2007 Session 7: Tales of Invention

Posted by: June Cohen

Day Three of TEDGlobal began with a series of pointed questions …

“Where are the women inventors?” Bola Olabisi asked, as she walked around an international inventors fair, where she’d come on a slow afternoon in London, while pregnant with her fourth child and in need of distraction. She walked the hall all day, and failed to find a single woman inventor. Distressed, she approached the organizer to ask why no women were represented. “If you can find them, let me know,” he said. And this sent Olabisi on what became her new life’s mission, to encourage innovation and invention among women, and African women in particular.

“There was a lack of acknowledgement, recognition or even awareness of any African inventor or innovator.” So along with founding the Global Women Inventors & Innovators Network she developed a Pan-African network for women inventors as well. And while there were many doubters (“Women inventors in AFRICA? have you thought about this carefully?”), every seat in her first symposium was full, often with designers of low-tech inventions — floor tiles, wigs, household appliances, children’s toys — who may not have otherwise considered themselves “inventors.”

The question, “Where are the African inventors?” echoed through the next talk as well, as Moses Makayoto called on young African scientists and engineers to stand up and be counted. An inventor and chemist himself, Makayoto invented the popular Mama Safi detergent, produced cheaply using local resources, and is now doing R&D into naturally developed malaria treatments and bio-pesticides, which can, for example, prevent malaria by attacking mosquitoes at the larval stage, and which can be created from raw materials found anywhere.

From Dr. Seyi Oyesola, a different question: Where are the well-trained African doctors? Answer: Overseas. Where they’re better paid, better treated and enjoy modern hospital settings. In contrast, most hospitals on the continent lack vital equipment, and woefully fail to uphold sanitary standards. So “where do generally healthy Africans go if they need to be treated for things besides malaria, TB or HIV?” Oyeseola asks.

Distressed by the conditions in a Nigeria hospital where he came to perform a dozen open-heart surgeries (equipment was held together by duct tape; floors were dirty; X-rays were taped to windows for lack of a light table), Oyesola resolved to find a portable solution for bringing modern medicine with him. He co-developed the “Hospital in a Box” — a pop-up, portable, plug-and-play system for off-grid medicine. Its environment-tolerant anesthesia makes surgery possible even in deeply inhospitable regions (or deeply ill-equipped regional hospitals).

His portable invention aside, the charismatic Oyesola stressed the importance of developing a strong non-emergency health care system throughout Africa. Emphasizing its economic significance, he quoted TEDster Hans Rosling: “You get wealthy faster if you’re healthy first.” (Watch Rosling’s TEDTalk on TED.com)

The session’s final question was asked by the entire audience, silently, to ourselves: “How on EARTH did he do that?” Chris and Emeka asked one of the TED Fellows — 17-year-old William Kamkwamba from Malawi — to the stage. A natural inventor, he built a fully-functional electricity-producing windmill from spare parts, working only from a photo in a magazine. After reading about Kamkwamba in a local African newspaper, TEDGlobal Conference Director Emeka Okafor spent several weeks tracking him down and invited him to join us here in Arusha, as part of our sponsored Fellowship program (There are 100 Fellows here). From the stage, William explained to TED Curator Chris Anderson that the windmill now powers 4 lights and two radios in his parents home. His dream? To build a larger version to help with irrigation, and go back to school. I have a feeling the next question for is: “How can we help?”

For more extensive descriptions of each talk, see Ethan Zuckerman‘s real-time posts on Bola Olabisi, Moses Makayoto and Dr. Seyi Oyesola.

Watch for these talks on TED.com beginning midsummer 2007.

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