New Technologies for Job Creation in Africa

On December 12, the Africa Business, Social Enterprise and International Business & Development Clubs co-sponsored a lecture given by Martin Fisher, co-founder of Appropriate Technologies (ApproTEC), a non-profit organization based in Kenya. Fisher, a Stanford Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, first visited Kenya as a Fulbright Scholar in the mid-1980s. In 1991, he established ApproTEC, an organization committed to designing and building machines relevant to the operations of micro-enterprises.
In many Western countries, governments have historically subsidized R&D spending in strategic industries. From military research to pharmaceuticals, this subsidy runs into hundreds of billions of dollars per year, and acts as a driver of economic growth through the development of new marketable technologies and products. However, in many developing countries, governmental allocation to R&D spending takes second place when compared to basic infrastructure, social, and debt obligation requirements.

Kenya is one example of a nation where the government invests little or nothing in R&D. As a result, most businesses are forced to import all of their technology from foreign suppliers. Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are hardest hit, as most new technologies priced out of the range of Kenyan entrepreneurs.

In order to close this gap, ApproTEC has worked to develop innovative machinery that is both affordable and directly increases the efficiency of Kenyan SMEs. ApproTEC’s strategy is to identify cottage industries serviced by SMEs that could be made more efficient with the introduction of “appropriate” technology. Once identified, ApproTEC’s research team works to design a product that meets tough design and manufacturing criteria. The product has to be affordable ($50-$1000), manually operated, energy (output) efficient, easy to transport (on bus or bicycle), durable, require minimum training to install and use, be easy to repair, and use locally available materials. The products, which include pedal-powered irrigation pumps and manually-operated oilseed kernel presses (to combat the lack of electricity in many rural communities), are then mass produced by local partners and marketed to the SMEs.

According to Martin Fisher, over the past ten years local entrepreneurs have used ApproTEC technologies to establish over 19,000 new businesses and create over 30,000 new jobs in East Africa. New businesses have generated over $18 million a year in new profits and wages. These businesses enable the new entrepreneurs to feed their families, educate their children, invest in their futures and escape the downward spiral of poverty.

ApproTEC not only fills a huge gap in Kenya, but also serves as a model nonprofit worthy of emulation in many developing countries across the globe.