A New Wave of Frugal Innovation: Africa During the COVID-19 Pandemic

April 27, 2021

by Niamh O’Donnell

The concept of frugal innovation was popularised in the South Asian region, with India at the forefront of the movement. Local inventors across India faced with scarce resources have produced radical, new solutions to problems. For example, the Mitticool fridge, created by potter Mansukhbhai Prajapati in India, is made entirely of clay that keeps produce fresh for days, without the use of any electricity! This has been a vital addition to rural communities as the fridge continues to function in the event of major disruptions and natural disasters. However, frugal innovation doesn’t always mean low-tech solutions, it can also be about using technology to increase the reach and accessibility of services to customers. 

In 2020, the temporary closure of borders and the restricted movement of international trade accelerated local innovation in Africa in new and exciting ways. Using a frugal mindset and creative ideas, people were able to tackle emerging health, social and economic challenges.

In the healthcare space, many companies stepped in to fill gaps in public health facilities. For example, in Kenya, automotive companies linked with the Kenya Association of Manufacturers developed a powerful and economical ventilator that is both lightweight and portable. This ventilator is an especially amazing invention as it can be used by untrained medical personnel and operated off-grid for up to four hours, providing crucial lifesaving assistance in emergency situations. In addition to this, HACO industries partnered with East African Breweries Limited to manufacture, high quality, Amara Antibacterial sanitisers which were distributed for free as part of measures aimed at combating the pandemic. 

The wave of frugal innovation truly spread far and wide throughout Africa. At a university in Uganda, students created a touch-free hand sanitiser that uses sensor technology to dispense liquids for handwashing. Whilst in Nigeria, in line with the drive to implement domestic solutions to the pandemic, the Nigerian Air Force unveiled two emergency ventilators produced by Nigerian researchers. The stimulation of local innovation injected a new dose of confidence and tenacity into local capabilities. 

In the consumer sector, frugal innovation in e-commerce adapted to the pandemic and began to scale up to allow citizens who were self-isolating in their homes to remotely access essential goods such as food, toiletries and medical supplies. A brilliant example of this is the Ugandan Market Garden app that created a platform for female produce vendors to connect with their customers. 

Frugal innovation is not about merely ‘making do’, it is about the drive to make things better. It is about keeping things simple, being able to innovate where you are with what you have and creating solutions that can be made widely accessible and used with ease. Human ingenuity is an incredible tool that can be harnessed to create frugal solutions that enhance people’s quality of life whilst working within the boundaries that the planet provides.

Photo by Alex Radelich on Unsplash