On Monday evening, Vilis and I attended a lecture at Rhodes University presented by Toby Shapshak, editor and publisher of Stuff magazine. A former Rhodian, Mr. Shapshak discussed Africa’s role in the world economy, particularly with reference to “How mobile is changing everything,” the title of his lecture. He pointed out that, despite The Economist magazine depicting Africa as “The Hopeless Continent” on its front cover fifteen years ago, present-day Africa has six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies (data also from The Economist). By the year 2040, Africa will have one billion people of working age and twenty percent of the world’s young people.

Mr. Shapshak stressed that African innovation is innovation out of necessity. In fact, in his TED talk, which I watched on YouTube after the lecture, he defines innovation as problem solving. He showed a photo of the world taken from space at night. In the photo, lower North America, Europe, the Middle East, lower Asia, and parts of South America glowed with light, but Africa was noticeably dark. To this, he commented that, “It’s really easy to see where innovation’s going on. All the places with lots of electricity, it isn’t.” He explained this by saying that where there’s lots of elecrticity, people are busy watching TV or playing electronic games instead of solving problems.

Mr. Shapshak went on to say that more people in Africa have access to a cell phone than to electricity; thus, mobile communication has become a cornerstone of the African economy and has led to innovations such as pay-as-you-go SIM cards first introduced by Vodacom, and M-Pesa, a mobile money transfer. In rapid-fire sequence, he mentioned a number of other African innovations, created out of necessity because this continent faces unbelievable challenges. Those innovations are now employed around the world.

One of these stood out for me because it’s something Vilis and I saw the day we arrived in Africa, and see every time we drive to Port Elizabeth. It’s a geometrically shaped cement block called a dolos (plural dolosse)In Port Elizabeth, a long line of dolosse piled on each other forms a breakwater at the harbour’s edge. The dolos was invented by an East London harbour engineer after a huge storm wrecked the South African port town’s harbour. Its design was allegedly inspired by watching a child play with toys called dolosse (similar to jacks) made from oxen bones. The cement blocks’ complex shape dissipates the energy of ocean waves better than a flat surface.

Dolosse at Port Elizabeth, South Africa (© Magi Nams)

Dolosse at Port Elizabeth, South Africa (© Magi Nams)

Mr. Shapshak stressed that he believes that Africa’s economic potential no longer lies in underground gold, but rather, in aboveground, human gold. He concluded his lecture by stating, “I have faith in our people.” In a continent beset with major difficulties providing basic services (witness the electrical load shedding for hours at a time that we’ve experienced in Grahamstown), his optimism struck a wonderfully positive note.

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