Engineering a continent: David Sengeh on why we need a new generation of creative innovators


Newly selected TEDFellow David Sengeh, a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, invents next-generation, low-cost, wearable mechanical interfaces that improve prosthetic comfort for amputees in the developing world. His innovations feature magnetic resonance imaging, computer-aided design and 3D printing technologies. Sengeh is also president and co-founder of Global Minimum Inc. (GMin), an international NGO that develops platforms to foster innovation and learning through making – with a focus on high school students in Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa. GMin’s main project, Innovate Challenges, is a mentorship program and set of workshops where youth can get help in transforming their ideas into tangible solutions. In this piece, Sengeh discusses the importance of valuing making as a skill for both Africa’s youth and leaders. 

Recently, a friend asked me, “How can Africa bring large numbers of its people out of poverty through innovation?” This is a difficult question to answer, especially because Africa is making great economic strides.

McKinsey reports that Africa’s growth is due to the end of armed conflict, improved macroeconomic conditions and microeconomic reforms, coupled with significant natural-resource export and commodities. However, widening economic inequality and an increase in unemployed youth who make up the continent’s billion inhabitants means that a shift to an innovation-driven economy for Africa must be at the forefront of every country’s agenda.

Many people have likened African countries’ economic growth to China’s, whose rise as an economic powerhouse in the last 25 years was largely fuelled by innovation. The majority of China’s exports are machinery, transportation and electrical products. These exports are linked to major economic powerhouses in the world (USA, Germany, UK) and the majority of African economies revolve around the export of natural resources – but “innovation” is merely a buzzword used by many of its leaders.

The contrast in professional training of African leaders compared to China’s is striking. In the past 25 years, all three presidents and nearly 12 vice presidents in China studied and practiced engineering and/or mathematics. In Africa, at least 17 current heads of state have a military background. Another 17 studied law, public policy or economics. Fewer than ten African countries have leaders who studied science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM).

For Africa to continue succeeding, its leaders must have some first-hand experience in science and innovation. They must be problem solvers and understand that a technical workforce is needed to compete in the global economy.

In the way that literacy and numeracy are competencies to be learned, so too is making. To think outside the box about a challenge, develop a plan and build a prototype – while learning throughout that entire process – is required for anyone who is solving the compounded challenges in our communities. Unless politicians have hands-on learning experience, it would be harder to appreciate the importance of technical training for their citizens.

China has supported quality technical training for not only its citizens but also for many students from Africa. The phrase “MIT of Africa” is not one used fairly to refer to any technical African institution. MIT itself continues to reinvent itself as an innovation leader. A survey of living MIT alumni found they have formed 25,800 companies that generate global revenues of $1.9 trillion a year.

To build an institution, there needs to be capable staff with the required technical training and leadership that understands that importance. The African Union and all benefactors of Africa will do the continent justice by creating state-of-the-art institutions to train the young.

Finally, young people must be given the creative freedom to think about the challenges in their communities and be provided with the resources (cash, mentorship, networks) needed to solve them. It is a myth for politicians to think that they can create jobs for young people, who account for about 60 per cent of Africa’s unemployed. Youth need to develop their creative confidence and in the process provide for themselves many more jobs for others.

Our organization, Global Minimum, Inc, facilitates innovation challenges for the youth in Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa by providing them with a comprehensive platform to learn through innovation while solving tangible problems in their community. Why not innovate Africa?

Innovation is a certain path towards sustained economic growth for Africa. We need leaders who have creativity, and are not afraid to get their hands dirty, as well as a generation of young people eager and ready to take the opportunities to create.