Africa’s competitive edge

Creative innovation in a context of limited resources and ever-changing environments is nature's and Africa's way.

Designers, engineers and innovators worldwide are adopting biomimicry to solve technological, organisational and systemic challenges. The idea is to look at how other species have managed to survive and thrive for 3.85-billion years.

Organisms and ecosystems can give us innovative and progressive solutions to the challenges we face: energy, water, food production, life-friendly chemistry, transportation, packaging and more. The models are organisms that achieve technological miracles using no more than the energy of the sun, while cycling benign materials with 100% employment, in closed loops that continually enhance the ecosystems in which they live. What better models could there be?

There are thousands of species that have already solved most of our challenges in Africa. For every design decision, we have millions of elder strategists to advise us. Here are some examples of innovation based on the genius of Africa:

The micro-surface on the back of the Namibian desert beetle has tiny, water-loving bumps next to little channels that shed water quickly to its mouth, allowing it to drink condensed moisture from the atmosphere and survive in a harsh environment. This technology has been emulated in the design of highly efficient fog-catching surfaces that can turn water vapour and fog into water.

We tend to think of termites as destroying buildings, not helping to design them. But the Eastgate Building, an office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe, has an air-conditioning system modelled on the self-cooling mounds of termites that maintain the temperature inside their nest to within one degree, day and night, while the temperature outside swings from 42°C to 3°C. The operation of buildings represents 40% of all the energy humans use, so learning how to design them to be more sustainable is vitally important. The Eastgate Building uses 90% less energy for ventilation than conventional buildings its size and has already saved its owners more than $3.5-million dollars in air-conditioning costs.

The abalone (perlemoen) shell is twice as tough as high-tech ceramics and as strong and lightweight as aluminium, which we make using the heat-beat-treat approach. We heat kilns up to 2000°C when we make ceramics. The abalone makes the equivalent at sea-water temperature while also sequestering carbon dioxide. It lays down layer upon layer of calcium carbonate material between sheets of protein and, creating this organisation at the microscopic scale, increases its toughness so that it can absorb a great deal of energy. Real breakthroughs are now seen in this area of creating low-energy materials that mimic the way the abalone creates its nano-scale architecture of hard mineral and soft polymer. The field of abalone research has developed into a large and international group of materials engineers and biologists, from a biomolecular materials group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States to a study of materials coating and surfaces at the University of Sydney, Australia. Extraordinary innovation is stemming from mimicking an endangered species found in the oceans off South Africa.

Kwabena Boahen is one of the new group of African geniuses using biomimicry for innovation. He wants to understand how brains work and, through reverse-engineering of the nervous system, build a computer that works like the brain.  He is looking for ways to mimic the brain's supercomputing powers in silicon, because the messy, redundant processes inside our heads actually make for a small, light, superfast computer. His group at Stanford is developing Neurogrid, a hardware platform that will emulate the cortex's inner workings.

Systemic changes
These examples indicate the power of biomimicry for high-tech innovation from Africa. But this approach can also be applied to a broader systems level to Africa's systemic challenges. Nature optimises across an interdependent system for the benefit of the whole. Our existing economic growth models maximise benefit to parts while causing damage to the whole, creating poverty and environmental degradation, for example. Our African ecosystems should serve as the inspiration for a more appropriate economic growth model for Africa.

The Blue Economy by Gunter Pauli explains how. It began as a project to find 100 of the best nature-inspired technologies that could positively affect the economies of the world while sustainably satisfying basic human needs such as potable water, food, jobs and habitable shelter. Starting with 2 231 peer-reviewed articles, Pauli and his team found 340 biomimicry innovations that could be bundled into systems that function the way ecosystems do. These were then additionally reviewed by a group of corporate strategists, expert financiers and public policymakers. Further meetings with entrepreneurs, financial analysts, business reporters and corporate strategy academics reduced the list to 100.

One of the so-called Blue Economy examples is the upcycling of waste into high value that was achieved by Nigerian priest Godfrey Nzamujo at the Songhai Centre in Porto Novo, Benin. He understood that abattoir waste could be turned into high value products rather than costing him money to incinerate it or dispose of it correctly. He encourages flies to eat the rotting waste. The flies then lay eggs and before long maggots proliferate.

The maggots are flushed with saltwater, causing them to excrete an enzyme that is highly successful in treating open wounds. The enzymes can be collected, purified and sterilised at low cost for sale as a high-value wound-healing pharmaceutical. In addition, the bodies of the maggots are then fed to fish and quails, cutting costs further and generating high-value food. A similar approach has been developed by Jason Drew et al in South Africa (

These models for generating more value from materials while creating employment are highly applicable to the African context. They are examples of collaborative innovation inspired by nature's greatest collaborations – thriving ecosystems that turn challenges into opportunity. Nature succeeds through networks, and so will we.

Claire Janisch is the founder of BiomimicrySA, a network that brings together the disciplines of designers, scientists, engineers, architects, businesses, economists, educators, students, entrepreneurs and other innovators who work together to emulate nature's genius to solve Africa's challenges

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