African Innovators: Big Ideas, Making BIG Impact
What does it take to make a difference in the lives of people in your community, your country, your continent, or even the world? Is it a bright mind, an endlessly flowing stream of creativity, or an unflinching spirit to always do great? There probably isn’t even a recipe, but whatever it is that fuels one to make a big difference, there’s an infinite list of Africans who possess the ingredients. These are some of those big thinkers who inspire the world with their groundbreaking work.
South African entrepreneur Elon Musk has made tremendous strides in revolutionising transportation on earth and in space. The founder of electric-car maker Tesla Motors has helped popularise the use of electric vehicles. Through his other business, SpaceX, a space transport services company, the 45-year-old inventor has commercialised space flight. His company plans to launch the first humans to Mars in 2024, with a planned arrival in 2025.
Born and raised in Pretoria, Elon had a curious mind from a young age. By the age of 12 he created a video game and later cashed in big when he sold the code to a PC magazine. A few years later he moved to Canada and later to the United States to study business and physics at the University of Pennsylvania.
As the dot-com boom took over the world in the late 90s, Elon was there to capitalise, forming his first company, Zip2, in 1995. From there, he has achieved overwhelming success by founding a string of businesses, including X.com and Paypal.
Sickle cell disease is one of the major health problems in Africa. Sickle cell disease is an inherited condition affecting the blood and various organs in the body. It affects the red blood cells, inhibiting blood flow. On the frontline of efforts to combat this disease is Dr Julie Makani, one of the leading haematology experts on the continent. The Tanzanian scientist, who has dedicated her life to save lives, founded the Sickle Cell Foundation of Tanzania, an organisation that works to prevent and manage the disease.
Julie’s remarkable work hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2009, she was honoured with the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellowship for promoting biomedical science in Africa. She was also awarded the 2011 Royal Society Pfizer Award.
With a belief that Africa is the next economic powerhouse, Njeri Rionge has been working like a machine, building a succession of companies that will support this growth. One of the continent’s most successful serial entrepreneurs, the Kenyan business magnate has co-founded multi-million dollar companies, including Wanachi Online, East Africa’s leading pay-TV, cable, and broadband company that brought affordable internet to Kenyans.
Rionge also established Ignite Consulting, a business consultancy; Ignite Lifestyle, a healthcare consultancy; and Business Lounge, one of Kenya’s top startup incubators. One of the few African women pioneers in the ICT sector, Njeri is a global achiever and her success serve as a testament to the abundance of opportunities on the continent.
Patrick Awuah has made priceless contributions to Ghana’s education system. The bold and ambitious man started Ashesi University in his home country in 2002, and the institution has quickly gained a reputation for quality education in West Africa.
Born and raised in Accra, Patrick left his country in 1985 to study in the United States. After completing his studies, he worked for Microsoft, where he made millions managing a software design project for dial-up internet access. In 1997, he quit his lucrative job and returned to Ghana to help build a better Africa through education. Ashesi University is the fruit of Patrick’s dream of creating an institution that would make a difference on the continent. The school offers degrees in business, information systems, and computer sciences.
At just 27 years of age, Siya Xuza’s name is already being mentioned among the continent’s brightest minds. The South African is a Harvard-educated engineer known for inventing a homemade rocket fuel.
Xuza’s passion for science was ignited when he saw a helicopter flying across his township, Mthata. He became curious about what made things fly, and as the need to know grew, he turned his mother’s kitchen into a lab, where he began experimenting with rocket fuels. This resulted in a science project that saw him create a cheaper and safer rocket fuel. The invention earned him a gold medal at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair in the United States.
His achievement inspired Nasa-affiliated Lincoln Laboratory to name a minor planet in his honour, which is known as Siyaxuza, found near the Jupiter asteroid belt.
PHOTO CREDIT: Velocity Films
Mark Shuttleworth fuelled the imagination of Africa when he made history in 2002 as the first African to fly into space, while also being the world’s second self-funded private citizen to do so.
Apart from his history-making feat, Mark is known for his entrepreneurial genius and IT innovations, along with his efforts in improving access to quality education in his home country, South Africa.
Playing video games as a child, Mark developed an interest in technology. In 1995, while studying at the University of Cape Town, he founded Thawte Consulting, an internet consulting firm that became a global giant in internet security. He sold the firm in 1999 and used his profits to launch HBD Venture Capital, which invests in South African companies.