SHERYL MBOYA- FOUNDER, GREENX TELEMECHANICS
Most of the time when we hear about innovations and inventions, we think about Silicon Valley, or massive start ups from genius students at the incubation labs at Stanford or MIT, but rarely do the thought of Africa as a continent and a place ever cross our minds. We have grown to get comfortable with the fact that any great innovation can only be a product of Silicon Valley. This is evident anyway because today we enjoy some of the biggest inventions that literally changed how mankind lives all from Silicon Valley, the likes of Apple, Google, Meta (formerly Facebook), Visa, Chevron just to mention a few.
However, young Africans are quickly changing this narrative and making it known to the world that life changing innovations can come out directly from the continent. In a recent research, many start ups are coming up out of the African continent and indeed this promises to tilt the scales in the coming years and I foresee a future where Africa will have a bigger hub than what exists currently at the California based Silicon Valley. StartUp Africa has listed several companies that were founded and based in Africa that are already unicorns. This therefore gives hope that the future of innovation is nowhere else but here in Africa.
It is on this light that it became necessary for me to share a story of one young African woman from Kenya who is a trailblazer in the field of innovation and invention. Sheryl Mboya, a 22 year old has founded several successful ventures in line of innovation and creating new things. The first Kenyan woman to have her patent approved by World Intellectual Property Organization, WIPO(yes, you read that correctly) tells me her story, her achievements, challenges and what she thinks the future holds for these young continent in terms of creation.
Sheryl, by any description has curved her niche far beyond her peers. Apart from her running venture GreenX, she will be introducing to the market two major innovations which are the Vulipap and Snackuit ventures. Vulipap is a portable car shade which incorporates AI (Artificial Intelligence) and advanced technologies making it fully automated and disability user friendly. Snackuit on the other end provides a direct and alternative innovation to single use and disposable plastics. This product has already been approved by the existing regulatory bodies in Kenya such as National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) and KEMFRI all which gave it a nod as safe for the ecosystem. Apart from that, she is keen to introduce a new innovative approach that she believes will replace and revolutionize the old school marketing that currently exists. She plans to launch Snackuit by April, 2022, the marketing idea by July, 2022 and Vulipap by August of the same year. She currently holds 2 patents and 3 trademarks.
Currently, she is also an employer, working with her fellow young men and women to accelerate her ideas of innovation therefore through the opportunities, she is able to create employment. She is equally keen to create social impact by producing eco friendly products. For her Vulipap idea, she intends to increase forest cover as an area of social impact. For every sell of Vulipap product, she will plant 100 trees. She has a target of planting 1000 by August 2022 when she will be launching this product to the market. She estimates that by a year in the market, she would have sold at least 5000 Vulipap units, meaning she will have planted 500,000 trees. Kenya has a target of planting 5 million trees to increase the forest cover, and Sheryl through her venture will contribute hugely in this.
She is also keen at improving the number of women in STEM fields through collaborative efforts with other like minded partners through mentorships and scholarships.
Many a times we have been told to think outside the box, however Sheryl describes an innovator as someone who thinks without any box (not outside the box), and that for her, she looks at situations and circumstances and identifies the problem with it, and comes up with a solution. This has made her fit perfectly in the scope of invention. She is however concerned about the lack of information that troubles many African innovators, and also the fact that young innovators in the continents usually have their awesome ideas snatched away from them with people they trust and believe might be of help in giving their ideas exposures. For her, these two phenomena are the worst undoing to innovations in Africa. Indeed, Africa consists of many developing and under developed countries and this means that most ideas suffer from lack of funding and venture capitals. Faced with such hurdles, the young innovators approach people they believe would help them get funding, but these same people run away with this stellar ideas leaving their owners with no way to earn from their ideas. This is an issue in the wider African continent that has failed to develop innovation as a field and this means that the African innovators may never earn from their ideas at all.
She goes on to note how innovation has made many people in the world extremely wealthy, a case that has not been able to be replicated in Africa, a continent with even much more dazzling ideas. She gives examples of Jeff Bezos who for founding Amazon has lived to be among the richest people in the world and had been for a long time ranked the world richest human, Tesla CEO Elon Musk who has achieved enormous fortune out of his brilliant ideas, Steve Jobs of Apple and so many more who have become affluent members of the society because of the ideas that they have. Therefore, it is only fair to say that innovators throughout the world deserve to get back the value of their ideas and it shocks her that this is not the case in Africa.
She goes on to tell me the acute lack of support that many innovators in Africa encounter, and this makes her recall a certain innovation fair she attended where she emerged top but is yet to be awarded anything. She notes that such innovation fairs have largely become PR gimmicks by corporates which want to appear like they are supporting development of innovations but in real sense they offer absolutely no support at all.
Sheryl also talks about the huge male dominance in this new industry of innovation. Just like her, several other young women have found it hard to penetrate the industry because of the largely patriarchal society. She is however hopeful that this is changing, judging from the more women who have taken up field formerly dominated by men such as Law and STEM. She recalls of a particular competition she had gone to, and the ratio of men to women was 6:1. She believes that any industry should not be described by gender, but by the individual capabilities.
In her view, and indeed a view which I share, innovation is simply the essence of mankind. Man has been able to evolve from simple creatures to achieve complexity that the modern man enjoys, and that if we want to grow as a Continent then we must embrace innovation fully or continue lagging behind. This is particularly true because of how harsh innovation tends to treat those who are not able to match up with the advancements. She looks back at the development of mobile phone hardwares from a time when button and flip phones to the invention of smart phones which wiped out the flip and button phones, and the biggest casualty being Blackberry which was forced to completely bow out of the phone industry early this year, something no one ever thought of 10 years ago when Blackberry was the king of the market. More complex advancements are happening every day such as the growth in blockchain, fintech and many more and that for a firm to survive, they will have to level up to this advancements , and this cannot happen if companies are not embracing new creative and innovate ideas that Sheryl and her fellow innovators have. She agrees that innovations are so many and it will be necessary to be embraced.
She leads our talks to the area of intellectual property. For her, she feels quite disappointed that many innovators have not explored the area of intellectual property rights so as to guard their immaculate ideas. She believes that most ideas are stolen from the authentic creators because the creators have not invested and explored the area around patenting, copyrights and trademarks. Therefore, growing young innovators should be encouraged to seek legal means of protecting their ideas from the scavengers who are always on the look for any new idea. She has personally helped her fellow young innovators to explore the means of protecting their ideas, and she says nothing is more fulfilling to her than this.
Sheryl believes that in a few years from today, she would have brought many successful innovations to the market. Doing this she says is not any easy but with the support of her skilled youth team, mentors and advisors she will be able to achieve her plans. In conclusion, she notes that Africa is a rich continent endowed with immense natural and human resources, cultural, ecological and economic diversity. These have however remained underdeveloped. It is her hope that in the future, many young people will be able to chase their dreams and break glass ceilings challenges existing notwithstanding. She finishes by urging all Africans to use local rich resources, skills and talents that the continent possesses to catapult the African continent to economic, social and political dominance.