What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa?

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a book review by ADERAYO SANUSI, Princeton University

What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa?
Edited by Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga
256 pp, MIT Press


"Imagine a positive Africa—creative, technological, and scientific in its own way." (1)

Several countries in Africa are in a critical period of expanding tech entrepreneurship and foreign investment. Innovation hubs are proliferating, following decades of rapid local adoption of mobile phones and digital platforms. And in the past three years, top Silicon Valley executives like Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey have visited the continent to meet emergent developer communities and learn about new products and ventures.

As these developments are documented on various media platforms and business school case books, an emerging group of scholars, practitioners, and activists have begun to critique what they characterize as incorrect, harmful discourses about the technological contributions of Africans. They are typically represented merely as consumers of Western technology; relatively fewer sources detail the innovations that have originated from the continent. What do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa is a timely and insightful corrective. Contributions from influential STS scholars of the region propose new conceptual frameworks as well as ethnographically informed accounts that highlight precisely how African technologists have been innovative producers and the distinctive sociotechnical systems within which they operate.

Scientific Africans, Technology in Africa

To ground readers in the long legacy of science and technology in Africa, the book opens with accounts of indigenous technological practices. Authors describe the familiar example of mummification in Ancient Egypt, likely less familiar innovations such as the Maasai Spear and African metallurgical technologies. In citing such examples, they critically highlight historical details often underemphasized in conventional literature that showcase the creative fashioning of indigenous Africans and the unique social circumstances of technological production on the continent.

For example, D.A. Masolo points out that, in the mid-twentieth century, local blacksmiths produced new variants of the Maasai spear when they could access a greater abundance of iron (32). In crafting these spears of improved functionality, the blacksmiths also created elaborate, ceremonial aesthetic designs they knew would attract foreigners as the region increasingly became a tourist destination. Since the Maasai spear culturally symbolizes the social identities of different age groups, Masolo argues that such stylistic changes resulted from communal debate and agreement (34).

Shadreck Chirikure notes that technological practices in pre-colonial Africa occurred in sites that might now be considered ‘unscientific.’ Long before the laboratory became the iconic site of scientific work, the bloomery process of metallurgy, universally practiced in Africa, involved the usage of draft furnaces in residential areas (69). Indigenous smelters working in open-air sites experimented with furnace designs, ore types, and heating techniques to produce metals.

The homestead is generally overlooked as a crucial site of technological work, but the cast iron and steel produced in these pre-colonial African contexts mirror the metal produced in ‘modern’ laboratories (75). The ‘laboratory,’ Chirikure argues, should be expanded to include “any place where knowledge is produced through experimentation, improvisation, and adaptation” (77).

Appreciation of technological developments in Africa thus requires a reconceptualization of what constitutes the ‘proper’ conditions of scientific inquiry and experimentation. Much of the existing literature on the history and philosophy of science depicts the social practices and forms of knowledge production that existed prior to the European scientific revolution as “pre-science” (3). According to Clapperton Mavhunga, this viewpoint privileges the Western scientific method characterized by “disinterestedness, peer review, a reward system, competition, and intellectual property” (3) as the source of true knowledge. Such an outlook increasingly appears absurd when one notes the ‘scientific’ chemical processes for metal production in modern laboratories yield identical results to the ‘prescientific’ homestead draft furnaces.

Mavhunga further argues that commonplace notions about technology and innovation generally fail to account for the unique social circumstances in African countries. People tend to inaccurately perceive all technology as (a) built by academy-trained ‘experts’ like scientists and engineers, (b) for society, (c) in the laboratory, and ultimately (d) yielding large economies of scale (4). To highlight this point, he references the Oslo Manual (OECD 1991), a popular guide on scientific, technological and innovation activities, that focuses primarily on firm activity and identifies scalable economic value as a key indicator of innovation.

In a remarkable development, the most recent version of the Manual (OECD 2018), which was published after this edited volume, explicitly acknowledges a non-negligible proportion of individuals and households develop innovations despite the dominance of research institutions and industrial corporations (62). The Manual largely focuses on firms but provides a brief framework for measuring innovation beyond the business sector. This expanded definition signals an important victory for activists who have persistently advocated for inclusive measurement practices, citing the underrecognized impact of inventive strategies from ‘below.’

Given these prevalent metrics, the authors of this volume stress that important histories of scientific activity in Africa have yet to be recovered and contemporary developments are often wrongly framed as mere technology transfer and consumption. Due to the weak research infrastructure and low patent rates in Africa, the continent is widely regarded as unscientific (Mavhunga 2017,184). This book depicts a different reality. Many technological innovations in Africa (and globally) occur outside formal research institutions and corporate laboratories. Many creators do not have university-level education, and instead learn during apprenticeships and/or use open-source software.

The authors characterize African ‘scientific and technological spaces as communal, collaborative, and often transient. Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster, for example, describe the makerspaces that emerge within informal markets in African countries as street vendors fix and create new products using materials from scrapyards (127-9). In 2014, a community of young innovators in Togo collaboratively created the first 3D printer made out of electronic waste in Africa.

Even though much technological activities occur outside of formal settings, a slew of innovation labs, technology hubs, and co-working spaces full of young entrepreneurs producing digital platforms have also surfaced across Africa in recent years. The book references the economic promise of such ventures (19-21) but, notably, provides little detail on how these technologists have been innovative.

What is Technology from Africa?

While Mavhunga and co-contributors powerfully showcase the distinctive sociality of African scientific and technological practices, their perspectives on novelty are perhaps the most provocative contributions: They propose new models for understanding when and how innovation arises. For example, Shadreck Chirikure (65) and Geri Augusto (82) note that science practitioners have historically blended and refashioned existing knowledge systems, underscoring the deep syncretism and recombination underlying ‘inventions.’

Toluwalogo Odumosu similarly indicates that the consumption of prior knowledge is necessary for the production of novel technology, a process he characterizes as “constitutive appropriation” (139). To illustrate, he describes the experience of telecommunication engineers in Nigeria that designed a new mobile telephony system when the unique usage patterns of local residents overburdened the existing Swedish built network (148).

In another striking chapter, Katrien Pype describes how unique infrastructural challenges in Kinshasa, Congo have resulted in inventive uses of technology such as the “intelligent traffic robots” that direct the flow of city-center traffic in place of police officers (101). A female engineer built the solar-powered robots locally at Institut Supérieur des Techniques Appliquées.

While such examples complicate the narrative of Africans as passive consumers of foreign technology, the volume surprisingly offers less insight on another critical aspect of African scientific legacy—technology transfers from the continent to non-African contexts. In this regard, Geri Augusto reminds readers that enslaved African people were brought to the “New World” partly due to their expertise of agricultural production (81). They cultivated new plants and herbs in separate gardens known as palanques as they creatively polycropped African and indigenous seeds (86-92). Augusto found evidence of these inventive activities in the personal reports of colonial officers tasked with destroying crops perceived as rebellious acts (93). It is a successful—and heinously coerced—transfer of African botanical technologies.

We need further research on the global footprint of agentively used (as opposed to merely appropriated) knowledge traditions from the Africa. Equipped with the conceptual tools articulated in the book, researchers and practitioners can now (re)assess historical sources and contemporary events to elicit fresh perspectives on technologies originating from Africa.

Aderayo Sanusi is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology at Princeton University. She currently researches the role of Nigerian technology entrepreneurs in urban planning, their grassroot efforts to transform Lagos into a world-class smart city, and the unique intellectual property challenges they experience while creating digital products aimed at servicing infrastructural needs. Before graduate school, Aderayo practiced civil rights litigation at the New York City Law Department and interned at the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs. She holds a J.D. from Columbia Law School and an LL.M. in International Economic Law from SOAS, University of London.


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