Inventing the Future in Rural West Africa

5 Inventions from an African entrepreneur so simple they might just change the world

We met Mr. Kabré outside of his Koudougou workshop, about 100km from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in West Africa. As daily Burkinabé life passed by outside, Mr. Kabré’s story slowly unfolded like a modern day Ben Franklin. His five innovations (with a sixth on the way!) have mingled with unexpected struggle, success, heartbreak, and determination- a story to warm your heart and rekindle your faith in humanity.

1. Battery Charging System

For a country with little rural electrification, you’d be hard pressed to find a Burkinabé who doesn’t own a cellphone. The lengths that a person in a rural area would have to go to to make sure this economic and social lifeline remains functional could mean traveling dozens of kilometers to a place to charge a phone. Mr. Kabré’s cellphone charging station transforms a motorbike motor and a board of outlets into a well of energy that a community can draw from, and selling charges becomes a micro-enterprise for the owner of the system. Charging a cellphone in one of these stations will cost you about $.20, charging a car battery (which can then be used to watch television or even use a computer) costs about $1.

2. Ice Chest

An ice chest that keeps ice frozen for 12 hours with no electricity changes the way that women operate micro-enterprises involving food sales. Burkinabé women often bring in extra income (to send children to school, to buy medicine, etc.) by selling food throughout villages or along roadsides. Often they sell chilled products like ice cream or a traditional yogurt, and these require ice to keep cool. Women might have to walk 10 kilometers or more to the market to purchase ice, so the ability to keep ice cold is critical. This ice chest is affordable for women, has wheels for easy transport, and has led to some incredible stories.

Mr. Kabré described a woman, a complete stranger, who called him to order an ice chest. She didn’t have enough money, so he worked out a financing plan with her. Over the next six months, she earned enough using the ice chest to completely repay the cost and to buy a second ice chest for her daughter. This product is so successful, local restaurants and marquis have started to get rid of their electric refrigerators for these ice chests, as they save enough money on electricity to make the deal worthwhile.

3. Moto-Riding Tiller

This moto (motorcycle or motorbike) is attached to a plow or wagon to reduce the job of tilling a field even further. Basically a riding tractor, it reduces the labor required and increases the efficiency dramatically, plowing that would take days with a donkey or a hand tiller can be reduced to hours.

4. 100kg Tricycle

A tricycle that allows a person to carry almost 200lbs of weight with only the power of their legs is a simple and yet incredibly transformative technology. In the lower-income, rural areas of Burkina Faso where gasoline, let alone anything to put it in, is almost impossible to come by, reducing the strain of moving supplies, livestock feed, or other materials means changing the way that people move around. Increased mobility means better lives.


5. Mechanized Seed Sower

An innovation that Mr. Kabré is still working on is an automatic seed sower that reduces the time and effort required for planting seeds dramatically and causes less disturbance to top soil.

Though Mr. Kabré’s inventions were impressive and his story inspiring- he’s faced setbacks. Lack of from the Burkinabé government (and from international organizations like the World Bank, from whom he received a prize for one of his innovations), one of his inventions was stolen by a Chinese automotive company. One of Mr. Kabré’s designs was for a Moto-Wagon, basically a truck bed on a moto that would convert a moto into a car for transport purposes. Mr. Kabré took this innovation to an innovation fair to get the word out about it, but due to a lack of resources, was unable to patent his product first. When he saw a man ride by on his invention during the interview with another company’s name on it (the moto truck is common throughout in Burkina Faso)- his eyes turned glassy with disappointment.

(Mr. Kabré hands the keys of a motorized tiller to the proud new owner.)

And yet Mr. Kabré story is still one of passion. He describes rushing to his workshop in the middle of the night to try out an idea (with only a fifth grade education, he cannot write down his ideas) and agreeing to personally finance the sale of his inventions because he believes in them so deeply. Despite his lack of education, Mr. Kabré teaches mechanics at a local school, and his students have very high success rates when sitting for professional certification. He runs a successful shop, has several patents, and wins national awards for innovation.

We learned early on in our research that, in general, people go into entrepreneurship because of their lack of education not in spite of it, but I go that sense that nothing could stop Mr. Kabré from inventing, not a college degree, not a stolen idea, not all the money in the world. Mr. Kabré loves Burkina Faso, he loves it’s people, and that alone drives him. Everything else is just gravy.

I wrote this story while doing research on agricultural entrepreneurship with some phenomenal entrepreneurs in Burkina Faso. If you’re curious about other projects that are being fueled not by foreign aid dollars, but by innovative folks in the developing world, check out my post on women feeding Burkina Faso. Sarah Mock

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