Frugal Innovation during the COVID-19 crisis: Examples from East Africa

Dr. Elsie Onsongo is Hub Manager of CFIA (Centre For Frugal Innovation in Africa) Kenya. She has a PhD in 'Economics of Innovative Change', a programme jointly offered by Friedrich Schiller University Jena and the Max Planck Institute of Economics in Jena, Germany. She has worked at Strathmore University in Kenya in various teaching, research and administrative capacities, and was a visiting fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), University of Sussex, UK.

It is now two months since the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 as a global pandemic. Incidentally, Sub-Saharan Africa so far has among the lowest expected reported cases and deaths from the pandemic relative to predictions. This has been attributed to the aggressive restrictive measures that countries in the region rapidly put in place to control the spread of the virus. However, these measures - among them, closing of international and regional borders, closing of schools and universities, dusk-to-dawn curfews, social distancing restrictions, business closures, etc - have had adverse effects on local economies and social structures. These effects have been felt most among low income households in informal settlements and rural areas, and lower-middle income households in cities.

Innovating amidst increasing resource constraints
Amidst the emerging health, social and economic challenges, the continent has seen a new wave of innovations. Efforts to innovate are occurring in informal settlements, rural areas, local governments, enterprises and universities, all of which currently face increasing resource constraints due to the crisis. It happens that the restrictive measures to control the pandemic also control the flow of capital, materials and even human resources across borders at the municipal, regional and country levels. Therefore, any innovative endeavour must employ a frugal mindset. In other words, innovators—big and small—must figure out how to use the resources currently within their reach. This may entail recombining existing materials, knowledge, skills in creative ways, or repurposing existing technologies to cope with the crisis. As a consequence, the emerging innovations are frugal in nature.

Frugal low-tech grassroots innovations
The most visible and prevalent low-tech frugal innovations on the continent address basic hygiene requirements for combating the pandemic, i.e. sanitisation and face coverings. Examples include the local manufacture of hand sanitisers and soaps using locally available, affordable materials at the grassroots level. Mechanical and automatic water and soap dispensers are being built and installed in public stations. They use pedals or thermal sensors to minimise human contact with sanitisation equipment (see more examples in Tanzania and Uganda). A burst of entrepreneurial activity has also emerged from the small-scale manufacture of face masks using for instance, kitenge fabric and other locally available materials. To distribute them, vendors are using informal supply chains to ensure they reach the grassroots.

Repurposing existing technologies and business models
Frugal innovation in the hygiene space is not limited to individual and small-scale actors. Large companies are adapting existing manufacturing capacity to produce and distribute sanitisation and other medical supplies. A pertinent example in Kenya is the partnership between Haco Industries and East African Breweries Limited to manufacture and distribute hand sanitisers. Similarly, a coalition of leading technology firms in Kenya formed Safe Hands Kenya together with community groups and other organisations. They are now using their digital platforms and supply chains to distribute sanitisers, surface disinfectants, soap and face masks among targeted vulnerable communities especially in densely populated informal settlements. These efforts piggy-back on capabilities and business models that have optimised how to cost-effectively reach customers in challenging business environments.

Ashit Shah and Job Mathenge explain how the PumuaIshi 2.0 ventilator works to Industrialisation Cabinet Secretary Betty Maina and CAS Lawrence Karanja on 21 April 2020. Photo by Sila Kiplagat, Nation Media Group.

In the healthcare space, local manufacturers are making frugal medical equipment so as to address demand gaps in public health facilities. For example, automotive companies linked to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers’ (KAM) have developed a portable, robust, compact and economical ventilator dubbed the PumuaIshi 2.0. This ventilator can be used by untrained medical personnel and can operate off grid for up to four hours.

Medical and engineering students from various universities in Kenya have also collaborated to build portable ventilators using mostly locally available materials (see examples here and here). A variety of mobile phone-based e-health applications have emerged in other parts of Africa to, for instance, help individuals assess their COVID-19 risk category through a digital triage tool, run interactive COVID-19 FAQs via WhatsApp-based chatbots, and create public awareness through text messaging.

We also see efforts by government agencies to innovate during the crisis. The Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) has begun to manufacture COVID-19 Point of Contact Rapid Test kits. KEMRI has further repurposed existing diagnostic machinery and knowledge developed during the HIV-AIDS, tuberculosis and Avian flu epidemics to further address gaps in mass testing for COVID-19. Ugandan researchers at Makerere University have similarly developed a low-cost rapid test kit prototype. Personal Protective Equipment are also being manufactured by Kenya’s Kitui County Textile Centre (KICOTEC) and Shona Export Processing Zone, both of which have reengineered their processes to supply goods that would otherwise have been imported from China and other places overseas.

Kenya Medical Research Institute Deputy Director Matilu Mwau explains how the Cobas 880 automated testing machine works in Nairobi on 8 April, 2020. It is capable of testing 5,000 Covid-19 samples in a day. Photo by Evans Habil, Nation Media Group.

In the consumer goods sector, frugal electronic commerce models - which were previously associated with the middle class consumer - have started up, begun to scale up, or been adapted. Individuals who are quarantined in their homes or neighbourhoods can remotely purchase and receive essential goods such as groceries, toiletries and pharmaceuticals at their doorsteps. These ecommerce models run on mobile apps, cashless transactions supported by fintech solutions such as mobile money transfer, and motorcycle taxis repurposed into couriers and delivery services. An example is the Ugandan Market Garden app that has connected female fruit-and-vegetable vendors to their customers. Similarly, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers has created a digital directory that micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises can use to source for raw materials.

Digital technologies have also been a game changer for frugally delivering online education to fill the gap created by school closures. High-end private schools and universities have adopted popular video conferencing platforms such as Zoom for teaching. Educators of underprivileged learners in poorer households, on the other hand, have to think out of the box. They are self-organising to restructure curricular for delivery through mobile phone-based media that are more readily available, e.g. through mobile apps, or using platforms such as YouTube and Facebook live. Examples include the mobile app Kisomo SmartLearn in Tanzania, and the SAIDE Community Library in Kenya which runs a makeshift video recording studio that teachers from the region can use to deliver their content.

Lessons for the future
In recognition of the latent innovative capacity of individuals, students, communities and enterprises revealed by the crisis, African governments have now formulated innovation challenges to harness these capabilities. The temporary closure of borders, and thus, slowdown of international trade and importation of goods has stimulated local innovation in a new and even surprising way, thus injecting a new dose of confidence in local capabilities.

The examples above are only but a few cases of innovation and creativity to address the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the continent. These cases reveal that innovative endeavours during a crisis need to be contextually relevant, i.e. robust, adaptable, affordable and accessible given existing resource and infrastructural constraints and opportunities. While many of these innovative endeavours are local responses to short-term impacts of a global pandemic, they may have longer terms impacts that build resilience in communities. However, they do not obscure the need for structural changes in the delivery of basic services such as healthcare, clean water, energy and education towards more equitable and sustainable access.

Finally, it is also evident that different countries in the region are busy inventing the same wheel. They face similar issues, and their solutions are largely similar. We also see efforts in Europe to develop frugal innovations in healthcare using the same mindset. Looking ahead, there is an opportunity for collaboration, learning, scaling up of innovations locally and reverse innovation. However, contextual peculiarities must be taken into consideration in these processes.

This post was originally published by the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa, in which the African Studies Centre Leiden participates. 

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Top photo: Hand washing machine by Joseph Sanga Taifa - Twende, Tanzania.


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