This OZY original series takes you to the doorstep of Developing World Lessons: stories of pathbreaking successes in education and health, technology and environmental protection, from Africa, South America and Asia, that are reshaping those societies and that the West too can learn from.
Don’t go by Jerry’s looks. What looks like an ordinary jerrican is actually a computer built from electronic waste by students mentored by WɔɛLab, an incubator for tech firms. In most parts of the world, the invention would stand out as a unique example of a cheap but effective alternative to an expensive gadget. In Togo, Jerry has to share that space with a growing crowd of similarly stunning technology triumphs.
Among the world’s poorest nations, Togo has one of Africa’s lowest internet penetration rates, at just 7 percent. For eight years now, the West African nation has witnessed public protests against the Gnassimbé family that — over two generations — has ruled the country for half a century.
Meanwhile, in tiny, poorly equipped labs, a parallel revolution is underway. A growing number of young Togolese are using rudimentary engineering skills to develop printers, robots, computers and games for kids, all from waste, helping the country access technology they otherwise could never afford while also reshaping their nation’s identity.
We have street vendors in Africa who can repair almost anything … we should learn from them.
Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou, Togolese e-waste inventor and entrepreneur
Sam Kodo, the 26-year-old founder of Infinite Loop, a Lomé startup, has built a virtual robot teacher — called VT bot — from discarded electronic components, which he hopes will help fill in for some missing teachers in Togo’s schools. In 2012, Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou — an architect by training — founded WɔɛLab, an incubator for tech firms, in the Djidjolé neighborhood of Lomé. Since then, inventors guided by WɔɛLab have developed a 3D printer called W.Afate, the computer in a jerrican, and are now working on a 3D printer built in a discarded refrigerator. WɔɛLab — “woe” means “do it” in the local Ewe language — in March 2017 set up a second hub, called WɔɛLab Prime. And Africa Global Recycling, a Lomé company founded in 2013, collects waste from more than 50 clients, sorts it out, and sells it to firms that can reuse it. The company is now expanding to Ivory Coast too. These waste entrepreneurs don’t see the West alone offering solutions to Togo’s challenges; Togo too, they believe, can teach the West.
“We have street vendors in Africa who can repair almost anything, from old radios and bicycles to shoes and garments,” says Agbodjinou. “We should learn from them.”
Togo is smaller in size than West Virginia, but the 8 million-strong nation has a proud history. A German protectorate from 1884 till World War I, then divided between British and French Togoland and eventually carved into present-day Ghana and Togo, the region was never formally a European colony. But since gaining independence in April 1960, the country has struggled to shed French influence. Its first president, Sylvanus Olimpio, was assassinated in 1963 by former French colonial army soldier Eyadéma Gnassimbé, who ruled the country till 2005. His son Faure has been president the past 13 years.
Among the many allegations the Gnassimbés face is one that involves agreeing to set up a massive dump for e-waste from Western countries, near Lomé harbor — the Togo government denies any wrongdoing. But the country’s band of young, waste-based inventors is turning the e-waste that Togo is importing into a signature raw material helping to build their country.
Edem D’Almeida, who earlier worked in the French recycling industry, in 2013 founded Africa Global Recycling in Lomé. An estimated 90 percent of the products made from the waste the company gathers are eventually exported to Europe. “Recycling is an extraordinary source of employment and is one of the most important ways to develop the continent,” says D’Almeida.
But Togo’s waste entrepreneurs aren’t just building successful companies and developing creative gadgets. They’re also working with the next generation of young Togolese girls and boys to help them recognize the challenges garbage and e-waste can pose, and view these as tools to build something special.
Africa Global Recycling is installing bins in Lomé schools to teach students how to segregate waste. WɔɛLab members teach two hours every week in 10 neighboring schools, training students in ethical hacking and on how to use 3D printers. This September, WɔɛLab plans to gift each of those 10 schools a W.Afad 3D printer. WɔɛLab is also developing an interactive tree from waste, where children can play amid lights and music, while also understanding relationships between different elements of nature.
For some, like Kodo, the innovations are a way to bridge holes in Togo’s public systems. When he was at university, he says, teachers were often missing. He wants to fix that for students now entering university. The latest iteration of his robot teacher is equipped with a web camera, screen and keyboard, and can ask questions, prod students to reply and correct their answers. All it needs is a distant teacher remotely monitoring the class.
To others, creating an ecosystem around these waste solutions is important for tackling stereotypes. The school sessions, says Agbodjinou, are the “best way” to demystify technology for children, especially girls, who in a male-dominated tech industry have even less access to gadgets than boys. It’s making a difference, he says — some girls, initially shy, start playing with Jerry the computer, decorating it.
But the dream is still bigger. Agbodjinou sees WɔɛLab as a “petite république numérique” — a “small digital republic.” And he hopes to create a tech city that will emerge as a unique African space for “democratic technology,” he says. That’s ambitious. But Togo’s inventors have made it a habit to build more with less. They’re making sure that Togo — like Jerry — has a lot more to offer than is obvious at first.
Explore the world
This year, OZY is going Around the World, bringing you untold stories from every single country on the map, one day at a time, to introduce you to new people, new trends and new places.