AfriGadget Innovator Series: A profile of Frederick Msiska

Peasant farmers are not the first group that come to mind when thinking about innovation but Mr. Frederick Msiska of Nchenachena in the Henga Valley of Northern Malawi is an innovator and in more than just one way. Mr. Msiska, who only attended school until the 5th grade, is a peasant farmer who also happens to be an inveterate inventor and a tinkerer. Among his many creations, he has designed and built a biogas converter for his toilet that he uses to produce electricity. He has also built a cell phone charger of his own design, a fan for his home, both of which use the electricity that he produces as well as a chemical sprayer for use on his farm.

Mr. Frederick Msiska
Mr. Frederick Msiska

Of his inventions and what it took to make it so, he says “I looked around and I found that certain things were missing in my life so I studied very closely things that the government supplies. I made them myself through trial and error. I just kept trying, trying, and trying until they eventually worked.”

Frederick Msiska - Teaching Africa   On the wall of the office of Frederick Msiska

On the wall of the office of Frederick Msiska: a to-do list of things he plans to do -

'Zinchito Mu 2008' (Work in 2008)
- Kuzenga office (Build office)
- Kupanga Luso ( Make things with my skills)
- Kupanga Sipuleya (Make a sprayer)
- Kupanga fani (Make a fan)
- Kupanga magetsi (Make electricity)
- Bio-gas light

Frederick is also a “lead farmer” – a designation local government gives to thought leaders in agriculture in an area who give advice and direction on best farming practice and techniques. He is also known around his area as the “Doctor of crops” due to his farming expertise and adoption of every sustainable farming techniques he comes across.

Frederick on his farm  Frederick Msiska at his macademia tree nursery.  Frederick Msiska with his homemade chemical sprayer.
Frederick on his farm / at his macademia tree nursery and with his self-made chemical sprayer

Mzamose Gondwe, who runs the blog African Science Heroes spoke to Mr Msisaki and was distraught to learn that he has taken apart his biogas toilet due to (unwarranted) fears about imprisionment after word came out to him about the travails of another rural inventor, Gabriel Kondesi. Gabriel who has invented a radio station using an old cassette player, Nokia cellphone, some electrical components and antennae. What he did not know was that the root reason behind this particular arrest was the running of a radio station without appropriate licensing, an ovresite that the licensing body, the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) later fixed when the recognized Gabriel’s ingenuity and awarded him a license.

Mr. Msisaki is the picture of humility: when asked about his inventions and achievements, he presents the view that “… farmers do not contribute to national development, it is only those who are educated who contribute to development.” He story and achievements however are truly the epitome of what we profile here at AfriGadget with the focus that we have on the appropriate application of ingenious African technology in every day problem solving.

via African Science Heroes: Communicating science, the African way and Self Help Africa.

Video of home made bicycle repair tools and gadgets in Nairobi

In Africa bicycle repair men can be found everywhere, from under a tree to in the local vegetable market, one of the best places to find African innovations.

At the Karen market I met the charismatic Mohammed Makokha who proudly showed me two of his home made gadgets that are critical for his business.

I’ve obviously been wasting my money in the bicycle stores.

Football: Handmade in South Africa


By grassroots reporter Thandile Ntlebi – One of the COSAT (Center of Science and Technology) learners, 17 years old, living in Township Khayelitsha, South Africa. Visit more of Thandile’s stories on Students for Humanity

Young boys are starting to realize their dreams and do what ever they can to make sure that those dreams come true even if they must get themselves dirty.

It’s Saturday around 11am, the community is very peaceful and the quietness makes parents wonder what their kids are up to. Within hours you hear whistles and names being called. Your boy is watching TV until his name is being called; he jumps up and runs as fast as a cheetah.

Around 1pm the field is full of people, as if there will be a fight or a community meeting. When you check it’s just young boys sorting themselves into two teams. After the argument of who should play and in which position, they settle down. The teams go to their side of the field to plan how they are going to win the match. The minimum of players is four; the maximum is eleven players for each team.

The referee blows his whistle and the game begins. Fans give courage to their players by cheering. They make them feel proud and confident. What is amazing is the ball and the field they are playing on. These boys do not have a coach or someone telling them what to do. They don’t have money to buy a soccer ball….. they make it on their own.

This how the ball is made:

Firstly you look for old clothes or blankets. Then you put a few condoms around, which you blow up with your mouth, but not with too much air. Just so it’s the same size as a soccer ball. After this you put either a plastic bag or a piece of old clothing over the condom. Then to make it strong, you tear up the old clothing or blanket into long strips and tie the strips all around the condom to strengthen the shape of the ball and make it heavier. Once you can feel it bounces well, you take a strong plastic bag and wrap it around the ball. Lastly you reinforce it by wrapping strong rope or tire wire around it.

Maybe you are surprised but let me tell you about the field. It is not a play ground or a park but it is a field that is full of drains and the half of it has a long grass and some kind of a wetland and a dumping place. And as we all know that when you are playing soccer you need scoring nets. These boys don’t have scoring nets, but take wood or cardboard that is in the carpet and make poles.

In the end some go home smiling and singing winners songs and others go home in a way sad but still planning how to beat them tomorrow.

These boys are young and know nothing about suffering or what the world is going to bring them in the future. But all they know they want to be famous soccer players and being admired by the world. They come from a poor back ground and they didn’t choose to be there but they can try by all means to change it and make their future as bright as it can be.

Maybe you think I’m crazy but hey, they are the ones who are building things from scratch and are creative if they don’t have money to buy what they need. They are the ones who get their selves dirty just to be seen as a soccer player. These are geniuses don’t you think so?

The credits of the soccer ball photo go to our friend Michiel Van Balen


The beesness of honey

Bee keeping logo

You know it’s a great jua kali project when you see the logo

Honey is one of the most valuable products of the drylands of Africa. It can be obtained by following a little bird called a honey guide to a bees nest in a tree, whereupon one raids the hive. Or bees can be farmed…in most places a bee keeper simply hollows out logs to make perfectly acceptable hives for local consumption. for commercial purposes however, Langstroth hives are universally thought to be superior to the traditional log hives found in Africa – the box shape make them easy to stack and move around,  and the movable frames guide bees to build combs in an organized manner making comb extraction easy. These hives also have a queen excluder, a mesh grid, usually made of wire or plastic, sized such that worker bees can pass through but the bigger queens cant. This keeps the queen from laying eggs in the honey combs called supers leading to cleaner honey. There are so many NGO’s, GOs and religious Orgs introducing these bright yellow langstroth hives across the Kenyan landscape.They don’t always catch on though – in rural areas people still prefer the logs…

Traditional hive
Traditional hive

Traditional log hives are hollowed out logs usually cut from specific tree species with the permission of the local chief. They are hung high in trees and the inside is rubbed with leaves of plants that attract bees – a practice that has been going on for eons. The bees enter the hives through a tiny hole and build their combs willy nilly throughout the space, it’s inefficient and the honey is of a lower quality as the larvae are all mixed up with the honey combs. Not very good for a business approach… or should I say Beesness?.

Langstroth hive in Baringo Kenya
Langstroth hive in Baringo Kenya

Logic would suggest that the Langstroth hives which produce cleaner honey and they save trees should be favoured right? Wrong! These modern hives are produced by experts in cities and cost a good $100 – far beyond the reach of anyone living in rural Kenya. It’s also rumoured that these hives are easily broken into by honey badgers, over heat in the dry climate of north Kenya driving bees away, and are expensive to maintain. On a personal note, I for one, find them extremely ugly too.

Modified traditional hive
Modified traditional hive

One bee keeping cooperative in Bogoria has figured out a cunning way of modifying traditional log hives to produce more honey. A bee excluder is made using coffee mesh.

Symon demonstrated how beeswax tracks are laid down to guide the bees where to build their combs in neat lines. Cost? One third of the Langstroth hive.

Bucket of raw honey
Bucket of raw honey

The honey is collected at night by naked men (yes totally naked …) they say that this prevents one from getting bees stuck in your clothing… I asked about the possibility of getting stung in sensitive places, they said the bees were far too civilized for that…but yes, people had fallen from the trees and been found comatose and butt naked at the tree base…

Honey extractor
Honey extractor

Raw honey with comb is sold to the local cooperative where wax is separated from honey. The machine is another jua kali item bought in a workshop in Nairobi.

Home made bee smoker
Home made bee smoker

Bees are smoked out of the hive using a home made smoker.

Production by 40 bee keepers was 8 tons last year, each Kg of raw honey was bought by the cooperative for Ksh 80 ($1), and sold on raw at Ksh 100, or processed and honey sold at Ksh 600 per kg ($8).

8 tons of raw honey were collected in 2008 – this is valued at Ksh640,000 for the 40 bee keepers in the business.

The wax is not wasted but converted into candles which sell for Ksh 10 each ($ 0.12).

Candle making gadget
Candle making gadget

Using a jua kali gadget for making candles, comprising a string, a piece of conduit pipe and two beer caps….ingenious!

Bees wax candle
Bees wax candle

Producing the sweetest smelling cheapest candles I’ve ever used. They claim they burn much longer than paraffin candles. Besides they smell delicious

Some sweet facts

· The dry lands of Kenya are the important honey producing districts in Kenya – the semi arid climate, diversity of flowering plants and easy access to fresh water makes it perfect for bees. Kenya is the fourth largest producer of honey in Africa 22,000 tons, China is the worlds largest producer at 299,000 tons (USA produces 70,000 tons) (figures for 2005).

· The group in Baringo produced 8 tons of honey last year.

Bee keeping motto
I love their motto for hard work - "never expect magic from no where".

· Kenya is a world center of bee diversity with over 3,000 species (about 10% of the worlds total number of species)

· Only 150 species or thereabouts produce honey in Kenya.

· Contrary to popular belief, most bee species are harmless… they have no stings

· The Kalenjin people immunize themselves to bees by purposely stinging babies with bees

· In many pats of Africa, honey is an important component of dowry or bride price – a kilogram being made as part payment for the bride – symbolic of the sweetness of sex – or so I’m told 😉

· Bees pollinate most of the crops that we eat

· Bee keeping is most productive in natural habitats, and is a one of the few forms of resource extraction that does not destroy the environment.

The sour facts

· Bees in USA and Europe are disappearing fast – a condition described as colony collapse disorder (ie. Nobody knows why it’s happening). Africa is unaffected so far making honey production a very sweet deal.

The Swahili Bed

A Swahili bed and couch

The Swahili bed was in a recent article on MAKE Magazine (a publication that inspired AfriGadget’s creation). In it they discuss why this style of bed is so useful on the hot and humid East African coast.

“In Kenya, the most common and most useful piece of furniture is the rot- and bedbug-resistant Swahili bed.”

“In most houses, you can only find one type of furniture: the Swahili bed. It’s used as a couch, bed, table, and everything else. It’s comfortable and perfect for the hot, humid climate.”

The beds are made from locally grown mvuli or mbamba kofi trees, then straps are created out of palmetto leaves which are soaked in salt water and woven into rope.

Years ago I used to export furniture like this from East Africa, so it’s something that I happen to know quite a bit about. Which provides yet another lesson for those of us who live, or work, in Africa. That is, items that seem mundane to us, as we live our lives in Africa, can be quite exceptional if we only stop to really look.

(via Timbuktu Chronicles)