Quartz Africa Innovators 2019: leading the change for Africa’s future

Quartz Staff

It seems like only yesterday when one of the innovators from our inaugural list, in 2015, warned the audience at a Quartz event in Nairobi that we shouldn’t “fetishize entrepreneurship.” The context was discussing the many programs in Africa designed to support entrepreneurs which didn’t take into account the fundamental challenges of local markets, such as inadequate infrastructure and poor electricity supply.

As with entrepreneurship, there’s also a tendency to fetishize innovation, particularly in the African context. This is why there’s so much talk about “leapfrogging” in almost every book, report, or Powerpoint presentation you’ve seen on development in Africa. But while there is much about overselling or overestimating the impact of innovation that makes us all a little weary, there’s also plenty of real-world evidence that supporting innovative thinkers and outperformers has a credible, and at times disproportionate, impact in developing markets.

At this year’s World Economic Forum Africa, our panel of innovators drove home the point that innovation for Africa was a much more comprehensive philosophy than simply building things or creating smart apps. They argued for the need for more innovative thinking in every aspect of modern African life—with the legal and governmental infrastructure to support it. And if the support wasn’t going to be readily available, then self-identified innovators would have to take matters into their own hands and get involved in reinventing politics and governments.

As we reviewed scores of candidates for the fifth edition of our annual list of Africa Innovators, we were often struck not just by their ideas but also by the creative thinking required to get around their local obstacles. We found these African women and men across a range of industries and regions, and in different ways, each of them challenged the status quo or pushed the limits of their local markets and helped bring others along with them.

As with previous years, the innovators have been chosen for their groundbreaking work, thought-leading initiatives, and creative approaches to problems. They each are exemplars of what’s possible when we take original approaches to solving big challenges.

As always, the Quartz Africa team is proud to be associated with everyone in our 2019 cohort and we congratulate them on their achievements.

Yinka Adegoke, Quartz Africa editor

Innovators

Ghirmay AbrahamSénamé Koffi AgbodjinouOlugbenga AgboolaJoël AndrianomearisoaGetnet AssefaSelassie AtadikaFatoumata BâTaleb BrahimAziza ChaouniSarah DioufGiven EdwardTouria El GlaouiAbasi Ene-ObongOdunayo EweniyiSpencer HorneMariam KamaraHermann KamteMostafa KandilAgnes KiraggaElizabeth KperrunWale LawalYannick LefangPriscilla Kolibea ManteLetsweletse MotshidiemangVidushi Neergheen-BhujunKen NjorogeAnne RweyoraEl SeedCaster SemenyaSamba Yonga

Ghirmay Abraham

Founder, Aptech Africa
@GhirmayZ
Eritrea

While Ghirmay’s interest in renewable energy was first developed in his native Eritrea, he chose South Sudan, the world’s least electrified country, as ground zero for his solar panel company, Aptech Africa.

At inception, Aptech Africa was founded with $20,000 sourced from savings and family with Ghirmay’s brother Metkel Zerai among pioneer staff. Now, eight years later the company now employs around 70 people full time and is also operational in Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia and DR Congo while being headquartered in Uganda. Aptech Africa has also been named one of the “Companies to Inspire Africa in 2019” by the London Stock Exchange Group.

In picking locations for its operations, Abraham says Aptech Africa targets cities without easy access to power. As such Aptech Africa, Ghirmay says, is looking to set up next in Niger as part of its grand plan to expand to 13 countries by 2025.

Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou

Architect/ICT activist
@sename_
Togo

Francophone Africa has long played catch-up to the rest of the continent’s tech ecosystems. But while angel investor networks are increasingly stepping in to bridge the funding gap, prominent individuals like Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou are playing crucial roles in fostering a local culture of innovation and creativity.

Agbodjinou founded WoeLabs, a Togolese tech hub, in 2012 with the goal of making “everyone equal in the face of technology.” The lab recorded major success barely a year later when a collaboration with local innovators saw them create a 3D printer from e-waste. WoeLabs’ is going further, creating more 3D printers to be placed in local schools with the objective of enabling creativity and learning.

WoeLabs has now evolved from a grassroots network of local innovators to being home to startups working on robotics and e-waste.

Olugbenga Agboola

Co-founder, Flutterwave
@TechProd_Arch
Nigeria

Early-day founders in Nigeria’s tech ecosystem confronted a major problem: unreliable online payments infrastructure and technology. Given their goal of getting more Nigerians to wholly embrace a culture of online commerce in a low-trust environment, a lack of dependable online payment methods posed an existential problem.

Today, that reality has has been largely reversed thanks to payments solutions companies like Flutterwave, led by Olugbenga Agboola. With an enviable track record in financial technology working with companies including Paypal and Standard Bank, Agboola co-founded Flutterwave alongside Iyin Aboyeji, one of Africa’s most prominent tech founders. Today, the company’s products are helping African merchants and businesses beat restrictions on international e-commerce as well as expanding the scope of their reach and earnings by enabling them receive and process payments quickly and reliably.

The latest testament is Flutterwave’s new partnership with Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba which allows African merchants receive payment from Alipay’s one billion users.

Joël Andrianomearisoa

Artist
@joelandriano
Madagascar

Joël Andrianomearisoa is a multidisciplinary artist whose work is influenced, in his own words, by “everything.” His range of inspirational sources is also reflected in his work as the 42-year-old artist has used video, fashion, sculpture and photography as mediums to produce artwork that has been showcased all over the world throughout his prolific career.

This year, Andrianomearisoa made history by becoming the first artist charged with creating the Venice Biennale’s first Madagascar pavilion. His installation, “I have forgotten the night,” uses memory and its centrality to depict the duality of one night in Madagascar and somewhere else in the world.

While he’s honored to act as Madagascar’s interlocutor, Andrianomearisoa hopes the installation will depict a complex reality away from the exoticism often associated with the island nation. The exhibition, he adds, is about dialogue too: about “the world talking to Madagascar and Madagascar talking to the world.”

Getnet Assefa

Founder, iCog Labs
@iCog_Labs
Ethiopia

Getnet Assefa is a computer scientist and an ardent futurist who constantly ruminates on the startling capabilities of machines and their place in our future. The 33-year-old is the founder and chief executive officer of iCog Labs, Ethiopia’s first artificial intelligence lab based out of Addis Ababa. Launched in 2013, the research and development lab has collaborated with companies and non-profits worldwide to use technology to expand human capacities and improve lives.

Developers at iCog are engaged in projects from computational linguistics for African languages to developing robotics for educational purposes. Getnet and his team have developed a soccer and Einstein robot, and were involved in the creation of Sophia, the humanoid robot that was granted Saudi citizenship in 2017.

His work has not been without challenges which come in form of frequent internet shutdowns in Ethiopia and limited funding. Regardless, Getnet says he’s trying to use AI as a springboard to make Ethiopia Africa’s next big tech hub; an ecosystem that isn’t just dependent on grants and donations but one that’s celebrated for invention and for “doing.”

Selassie Atadika

Founder, Midunu
@Midunu
Ghana

While witnessing a nutrition crisis in West Africa while working with UNICEF, Selassie Atadika had her Eureka moment and transitioned into attending the Culinary Institute of America for formal training in the culinary arts. But her focus on sustainable foods which maintain traditional African dining practices reflected her roots.

Buoyed by her passion and newly gained knowledge, Atadika set up Midunu, an all female-run restaurant, in 2014 in Accra. Through the Midunu brand, she operates pop-up dinners under a concept she calls “New African Cuisine,” a communal type of dining which emphasizes plant-based foods, flavors over fat, and ingredientsincluding local cheese from Fulani communities and fonio grainsacquired from regional markets.

And because “Africans also don’t know much about ourselves,” Atadika also introduces cuisines from different African countries to diners in Accra. Thanks to her innovative dining style and creativity, Atadika was named one of the finalists for the Basque Culinary World Prize in 2019.

Fatoumata Bâ

Entrepreneur/investor
@ba_fatou
Senegal

Funding for African startups broke records in 2018 but it is still considerably small compared to other emerging markets. The funding is also overwhelmingly concentrated in three key markets – Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya. For African women-led startups, the challenge of securing funding is even tougher.

But Fatoumata Bâ is on a mission to democratize venture capital investing on the continent, first as an investor herself and also as the founder of Janngo, a company she has founded to grow and invest in pan-African digital champions with proven business models and inclusive social impact. The challenges and opportunities in Africa, “motivate me not just to become an entrepreneur but also an investor,” Bâ says.

In 2018, Janngo launched Jexport, an export-import initiative which aims to accelerate cross border trade for small and medium enterprises. Before founding Janngo, Bâ worked in executive roles for the e-commerce platform Jumia in Nigeria and Ivory Coast.

Taleb Brahim

Engineer
Western Sahara

Since the armed conflict with Morocco in the mid-1970s, tens of thousands of Sahrawis have called the refugee camps in southwest Algeria home. But the conditions are tough with extreme heat and aridity making it impossible to cultivate fodder or food, thus pushing malnutrition levels high.

In 2017, Taleb, a resident of the camps himself, thought up a solution and presented the idea of producing green fodder through hydroponics. The technique allows for soilless cultivation using only water, meaning that barley seeds could be grown into grass to feed animals.

The method has since helped hundreds of families improve not only the quality of food for their livestock but also have better access to milk and meat—hence improving overall food security for a threatened refugee population.

Aziza Chaouni

Founder, Chaouni Projects
@Aziza_Chaouni
Morocco

When Aziza was a graduate student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, her graduate thesis was based on a subject close to her heartand home: she researched sustainable solutions for the contamination of Morocco’s Fez river in the city’s Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage site close to where she grew up.

The thesis evolved into a real project, culminating in Aziza traveling to the historic city to restore its riverbanks and create public spaces around the polluted river. An essential part of the project included working to change local mindsets on keeping the river clean and maneuvering local politics, she says. Buoyed by that success, Aziza has gone on to restore other sites, including Fez’s ancient al-Qarawiyyin Library (considered to be the oldest working library in the world) and the ‘Sidi-Harazem’ bath complex on the outskirts of the city.

She currently leads a design firm and a Designing Ecological Tourism research lab at the University of Toronto, splitting her time between Morocco and Canada for both projects, and teaming up with organizations and governments to preserve historical sites.

Sarah Diouf

Founder, Tongoro
@tongorostudio
Senegal

The ultimate dream for many artists is to have their work to be appreciated in global limelight. For Diouf and Tongoro, her Dakar-based print fashion brand, that moment came in form of American superstar Beyoncé becoming a client and wearing her clothes. “It created momentum not only for my brand but for African fashion,” Diouf says.

Diouf’s journey with Tongoro began back in 2014 when she first began creating plans for the brand before officially launching it in 2016. “The goal was to come up with a brand that would be accessible to most and create a different narrative around African fashion.” With the three-year old business now receiving orders beyond the continent’s shores and being worn by global celebrities including supermodel Naomi Campbell and Grammy-winning singer Alicia Keys, Diouf’s mission is well on course.

Yet, despite the brand’s growing status, Diouf is keeping things grounded as she prioritizes working with traders, artisans and tailors in Senegal. “I try to create an ecosystem where everybody benefits,” she says.

Given Edward

Founder, Mtabe
@Givenality
Tanzania

How do you ensure access to vital educational resources online when over half of the population lacks internet access? That’s the puzzle Edward is solving in Tanzania with Mtabe, an artificial intelligence-powered SMS platform and app which delivers educational content to students without internet access, pricey smartphones or even textbooks.

Here’s how the platform operates: students text a question to a number provided by Mtabe, which then replies with answers and information already curated by Tanzanian teachers and stored in a database, says Edward.

Mtabe is Edward’s second foray into education technology. In 2015, he was awarded the Queen’s Young Leader Award at Buckingham Palace for his work on MyElimu, an online discussion platform for Tanzanian students. His work with Mtabe has also won him several awards, including one for Youth Overall Best Innovation at the European Youth Award in 2018.

Touria El Glaoui

Founding director, 1-54 Art Fair
@154artfair
Morocco

Over the past few years, there’s been a <ahref=”https://qz.com/africa/1125610/africas-art-boom-is-yet-to-reach-emerging-artists/”>growing demand for modern and contemporary African art signified by the opening of new museums and galleries, growing valuations for artwork and the proliferation of fairs. Touria El Glaoui stands at the heart of this movement aimed at boosting the place of African art in the world.

The 43-year-old is the founding director of 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair, which takes place annually in London and New York, and in 2018, launched in Marrakech, Morocco. Since its founding in 2013, the fair has showcased art from across Africa and its diaspora, bringing much-needed visibility to previously neglected artists.

Yet beyond the monetary value of art, El Glaoui has also been very keen on the narrative passed on by African art, the politics of representation, and the psychological and social value of creative work. As she said at the TEDGlobal gathering in Arusha in 2017: “It is really through art that we can regain our sense of agency and empowerment. It is through art that we can really tell our own story.”

Abasi Ene-Obong

Founder, 54gene
@abasieneobong
Nigeria

Africa accounts for only 2% of global genomics data. The reality that damning stat translates to is that drug development is hardly based on African DNA and, when developed, drugs often reach African markets years later than the rest of the world.

That’s a challenge Dr. Abasi Ene-Obong is trying to address with 54gene, a genomics company he founded in January to bridge the lag in African genomic data and research by creating the world’s first and largest African biobank. Currently working with Nigerian university teaching hospitals, 54gene projects to hold 40,000 genome samples in its biobank by the end of the year. The big-picture goal for Ene-Obong is not just to collect and study African genome samples but to ensure that the drugs developed based on its samples are more readily available for Africans.

With an academic background in genetics and professional experience in management consultancy for global drug companies, Ene-Obong, 34, is well placed to identify the problem—and opportunity—that exists.Only six months after 54gene was founded, Ene-Obong’s vision was validated by a $4.5 million seed round—the largest ever by a Nigerian health tech startup.

Odunayo Eweniyi

Co-founder, PiggyVest
@OdunEweniyi
Nigeria

When Odunayo Eweniyi co-founded PiggyVest in 2016, the mission was simple: to use tech to help young Nigerians save money more efficiently. “The traditional means of savings were simply not evolving fast enough to fit millennial habits and needs,” she says.

Today, through an app that allows users to create automated monthly savings plans with interest earnings, Eweniyi and her team have created a method to ease the effort and discipline required to save away from the individual. So far, the model is helping 175,000 active monthly users—60% of which are younger than 35—cultivate smart financial habits. Investors have also come aboard with PiggyVest raising a $1.1 million in seed funding last year from a consortium of Nigerian investors. In itself, that represents a novelty of sorts, given the reticence to back tech startups among high net-worth Nigerians.

But Eweniyi says PiggyVest is now looking beyond its original goal by incorporating in-app investment options with plans to also include insurance services. “The newer, overarching objective is to become a financial services warehouse for Nigeria’s young population,” she says.

Spencer Horne

Founder, Cloudline
@Spencerjh
South Africa

Spencer Horne wants to revolutionize market access for nearly a billion people worldwide who do not have access to paved roads, runways and other forms of transport.

Following his graduation from Harvard University in 2014, his stint as a business analyst in Kenya took him to towns across East Africa where he saw the economic impact of poor road access which often proves a logistical challenge to development across the continent. “I realized drones could be the answer where the infrastructure hasn’t been built,” he says.

That revelation led him to launch Cloudline, a company working to connect isolated communities to markets by providing deliveries in blimp-like unmanned airships. The method, Horne says, is more energy-efficient than other drone deliveries. Currently in the technical and regulatory phase of development, Cloudline is expecting to introduce their airships to South African markets within the next year but it won’t stop there. “We’ve definitely got ambitions for serving all of Sub-Saharan Africa,” Horne says.

Mariam Kamara

Architect
@mariamkmr
Niger

Mariam Kamara is the founder of Atelier Masomi, a Niamey-based architecture and design firm known for its solutions-based practice.

One of those was Niamey2000, an ambitious affordable housing development in carried out in Niger’s capital city Niamey in 2016. The project highlighted Kamara’s distinct contextual approach to architecture and design, and was followed up in 2018 when she transformed a dilapidated mosque into a community complex housing a library in Dandaji, a village in Western Niger with a young population of 3000 and low literacy rates.

In addition to religion, colonial history and the looming threats of Islamic radicalization, contextual innovation for Kamara also means prioritizing locally sourced materials like compressed earth bricks over Western materials that do a disservice to the arid Nigerien climate.

Hermann Kamte

Architect
@hermann_kamte
Cameroon

Hermann Kamte has a simple architectural vision: he wants Africa’s cultural identity to be reflected in its buildings.

It’s an idea with some appeal as his designs, including a proposed wooden tower building in Lagos, have already won him international awards, including the WAFX Prize’s Cultural Identity Prize at the World Architecture Festival in 2017. Kamte is also designing schools, residential areas and museums while balancing themes of sustainability, African cultural identity and social causes.

The process of design is dependent on the issue he hopes to solve, he says. For his Lake Chad project, which Kamte says has piqued the interest of the African Development Bank and the United Nations, the designed desalination center connects the lake to the Atlantic ocean in order to regenerate its desolate, and diminishing, water supply. With other projects in development and some in the fundraising phase, the Cameroonian architect says he hopes to show African companies can create sustainable designs and architecture without international assistance.

Mostafa Kandil

Founder, Swvl
@kandilv
Egypt

Commuting in Africa’s major urban cities is often complicated—not the least because of the substandard public transport options. Mostafa Kandil has looked to change through thinking up solutions to help people travel faster, cheaper and better. In 2017, he co-founded Swvl, a mass transit system that provides buses along fixed routes in Cairo and Alexandria. The idea was simply to provide locals with alternatives to unreliable public transportation and costly ride-sharing services as well as the stress of driving or finding parking space in already congested cities.

That value proposition has proven scalable as the startup has since expanded its Africa operations to Kenya and has raised funding totaling $80 million, including the largest ever round for an Egyptian startup.

Yet Swvl won’t be slowing down soon: Kandil, 29, say the company plans to enter other African markets including Nigeria, South Africa, and Côte d’Ivoire—even as ride-hailing giants like Uber inch into their business. “We want to create a global brand that everyone across emerging markets can use,” Kandil says.

Agnes Kiragga

Medical researcher

@agnes_kiragga
Uganda

Agnes Kiragga, a statistician by training, is tackling HIV in Uganda, her home country, using machine learning and data science. The disease is so rampant, Uganda ranks 10th globally for HIV infection rates leaving its youth, especially women, at risk.

Kiragga is combating the problem by creating risk profiles from a 300,000-strong HIV database at the University of Mekere in Kampala. Focusing on Ugandan women, she uses machine learning to analyze pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) retention rates among those who are at a high risk of getting the virus as well as anti-retroviral therapy retention for women who already have the disease.

But through the risk profiles, she is profiling women as they start their medications and hopes to introduce preventative efforts that target poor care and help medication retention. “The greatest problem that is being observed is that people don’t see the usefulness of taking these drugs,” she says.

Elizabeth Kperrun

CEO, ZenAfri
@lizkperrun
Nigeria

Elizabeth Kperrun’s children-focused company ZenAfri, started as a modest idea to tell African folklore stories to young children in their native languages and, in so doing, further preserve African history and culture. Today, the dream has evolved as the company has developed a cache of native language-based educational and fun apps for kids, all of which have notched over 180,000 downloads.

With her work, Kperrun is furthering the case for teaching young children in local languagesan idea with the potential to make education more accessible on the continent. Inadvertently, her work is also ensuring a connection to native languages through technology even as globalization deepens.

And her work has not gone without notice: in January, she made history as the first Nigerian female nominated for the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation and, in May, was conferred with the Commonwealth Innovation Award.

Wale Lawal

Media entrepreneur
@WalleLawal
Nigeria

The life of a digital media entrepreneur in Nigeria is often thankless. Between meager advertising budgets and the mass popularity of tabloid blogs, it’s a tough task being a platform offering serious, long-form journalism. But none of that has stopped Wale Lawal, an Oxford graduate who launched The Republic, a socio-economic, political and cultural journal, in 2017.

If you want to read something in-depth on Trump’s foreign policy, you can find that online, but what if you had the same questions in Nigeria? Addressing that knowledge gap was the driving force in starting The Republic,” he says. While the journal caters to a broad audience of Nigerians, university students are a “core target audience” for Lawal given a broad lack of local sources of academic essays.

“When I first started The Republic, I was a student myself and there’s a lot of value that students gain from a platform like this.” With long-form essays on topics ranging from the enduring fall-out of Nigeria’s civil war to the local impact of climate change, Lawal says The Republic is addressing to need “of having a worldview that’s curated and more relevant to our own reality. “

Yannick Lefang

Founder, KASI
@y_lefang
Cameroon

One of the biggest issues in African business and economics is the lack of reliable, up-to-date data on African consumers. It has been the bane of international investors and major corporates looking to open shop on the continent. Yannick Lefang, has spent the last few years trying to build the most comprehensive products to tackle a challenge which is often under-appreciated by many Africa observers.

Since co-founding Kasi Insight, he and his team have developed a range of consumer data products including the Kasi Consumer Confidence Index which are on course to become recognized industry standards for African data with presence on both the Bloomberg and Reuters financial terminals used by thousands of financial traders across the world.

“There isn’t so much a lack of data, it’s more about the quality,” says Lefang. “Too many African companies are focused on how many people they can reach on a database rather than understanding their audience or market, we can help change that.”

Priscilla Kolibea Mante

Scientist
@pk_mante
Ghana

Of the 50 million people affected by epilepsy globally, 80% live in developing countries. Although the ailment can be managed with medication, there is no known cure—at least for now. “My ultimate aim is to find that magic substance that cures it,” says Dr Priscilla Kolibea Mante, senior lecturer of pharmacology at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana.

Dr Mante investigates the efficacy of herbal remedies in her laboratory and is leading pioneering research into discovering new treatment regimes for drug-resistant epilepsy by “exploring options from nature.”

For starters, she is working on developing a cheap, non-invasive test kit to diagnose types of epilepsy to replace the current expensive procedure of computerized medical scans. Dr Mante’s ongoing work has earned her selection among 15 of the world’s most promising women scientists of 2019 by UNESCO.

Letsweletse Motshidiemang

Social justice activist
Botswana

“We have determined that it is not the business of the law to regulate private consensual sexual encounters between adults.” With those words, three high court judges in Botswana scrapped a colonial-era law that prohibited gay sex in June 2019.

The suit challenging the legality of the controversial law was brought in 2016 by Letsweletse Motshidiemang, then a 21-year old student, with the help of a law professor at his university. Rights groups across Africa now hope that the verdict in Motshidiemang’s case will have reverberations across a continent where over 30 countries still criminalize same-sex relations, with the death penalty applicable in some countries.

For his part, Motshidiemang, now 25, says he was motivated by his love for himself and the local LGBTQ community: “If you love yourself, obviously you don’t want to be called a criminal in a country that you belong to.”

Vidushi Neergheen-Bhujun

Biomedical researcher
@VidushiNB
Mauritius

How do you prevent cancer through natural methods? What chemicals can stop the progression of a tumor? Vidushi Neergheen-Bhujun’s research focuses on questions like these and targets prevention and treatment for the disease by looking at indigenous plants found in Mauritius.

An associate professor at the University of Mauritius, Neergheen-Bhujun researches plants unique to the island to see how chemicals found in these plants can stop the proliferation of breast cancer cells. Although much of the results depends on the aggressiveness of each cancer cell, combinations of these chemicals can stop the initiation, promotion and even the progression of cancer cells, she says.

Neergheen-Bhujun says her research can eventually add value to indigenous resources “that are under utilized and provide avenues for entrepreneurship”.

Ken Njoroge

Co-founder, Cellulant
@kennjorogecg
Kenya

Ken Njoroge calls himself a “mobile commerce evangelist,” a believer in the various ways mobile financial innovation can change lives for the better.

And he’s channeled that passion into his work: he’s the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Cellulant, one of Africa’s largest—and best-funded—fintech companies. The company’s reach is down to partnerships with over 90 banks and several mobile payments platforms across the continent.

Initially launched as a music ringtone business in 2002, Njoroge and his co-founder turned their business into one offering mobile payments solutions, remittance and digital banking services in 2004. The Nairobi-headquartered company now has operations in 11 countries and was in 2018 listed among KPMG’s 100 leading global fintech companies.

The company’s operations suffered a blow earlier this year as it lost six team members in a Nairobi terrorist attack but Njoroge remains determined to see financial inclusion move beyond just mobile money and lending to making an impact in sectors that matter, including agriculture.

Anne Rweyora

Industrial designer
Uganda

Anne Rweyora realized the necessity of affordable housing at a young age. When her father passed away, her mother could not afford their home, which meant a relative had to chime in to make sure the family had a place to live.

“I realized how the lack of affordable quality housing affects all spheres of life,” she says. It was something she saw even more so while working as a social worker in South Sudan. By 2015, Rweyora’s life experiences led her to launch Smart Havens Africa, a social enterprise which builds affordable and sustainable homes for low-income, women-headed households in Uganda. In Kampala, the capital city, up to 85% of the low-income populations live in slums.

The eco-friendly homes are built with a technique that uses local materials to build bricks that do not require plastering, thus cutting construction and transport costs. Beyond cost saving, the techniques have seen Rweyora named one of the finalists for the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

eL Seed

“Calligraffiti” Artist
@elseed
Tunisia

Arabic was once the world’s language of commerce and knowledge. But its place in public, private, and learning spaces has slowly eroded over the years. Franco-Tunisian artist el Seed wants to change that, using Arabic calligraphy with the method and means of street graffiti. His work especially has a strong social message, emphasizing messages of peace, love, and tolerance.

His artwork has been exhibited in the slums of Cape Town, across 50 brick buildings housing Cairo’s trash pickers, and on the tallest minaret in Tunisia on the Jara Mosque in the city of Gabès, and even replaced the love locks on the Paris bridge.

As eL Seed told Al Jazeera in 2018: “Usually Arabic script is not perceived as a tool to unite people.” But given the responses to his work, he now truly believes “that art is the only way to keep us together and to remind us all that we are human.”

Caster Semenya

Athlete
@Caster800m
South Africa

After a medal-laden decade of success and victories, beating out rivals from the Olympics to World Championship events, Caster Semenya is now running her toughest race yet: against the International Association of Athletics Federations, athletics’ global governing body.

While a new ruling aims at forcing her to choose between effectively being banned from official female competitions or taking medication to moderate her testosterone levels, Semenya is picking the third option of fighting back. Even though she’s not the only athlete affected by new regulations, she’s by far the most prominent and has become the face of the debate over the role of testosterone in performance. As such, Semenya is fighting not just for herself but also for other current and future hyperandrogenic athletes like her.

And in challenging the controversial ruling while drawing global support, Semenya’s fight transcends sport itself as it forces the world at large to reckon with its understanding of gender. One way or the other, Caster Semenya will play a huge role in defining the future of athletics.

Samba Yonga

Co-founder, Museum of Women’s History
@Kuwaha
Zambia

Since founding the Museum of Women’s History in 2016, Samba Yonga has embarked on a mission of collecting artifacts that document the legacy of Zambian women.

Alongside her co-founder, their collection already includes a digital archive of 5,000 pieces of audio from the colonial and post-colonial period as well as quilts sewn in the 1940s which record the entry of Europeans into southern Zambia. Yonga’s driving passion is symbolic of a wider problem across the continent: “Africa has a problem with documenting history because of the disruption of colonialism and the transition of modernity,” she’s said.

But with the Museum of Women’s History, Yonga hopes to reverse the trend, particularly for Zambian women. To ensure wide access, the collected artifacts will form part of a permanent exhibition that will be housed at the Lusaka National Museum. Yet as she explores and documents women’s history in Zambia, Yonga is encountering more motivation to continue: “A lot of these histories that we’re discovering are still living histories, there’s still oral archive so we still have a short window of opportunity to document these stories.”

Credits

Editor
Yinka Adegoke

List coordinators/writers
Haleluya Hadero
Yomi Kazeem

Writers
Abdi Latif Dahir
Irene Chidinma Nwoye
Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu

Art director
Bárbara Abbês

Editor-in-chief
Kevin Delaney

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