When Quartz Africa was launched in June, the focus was on telling Africa’s stories through a lens of innovation. According to Quartz Africa, innovation does not just apply to technology, but to the full spectrum stories covered from business and politics to culture and health—and everything in between.
This approach was taken because based on a firm belief that great innovation is happening on the continent both out of necessity and opportunity.
Many of our countries face the challenges of rapid urbanization and fledgling democracies. But they also have the opportunity provided by rising Internet access and young demographics.
Here are the top innovators in no particular order:
Tech Entrepreneur M-Farm 30 years old
Abass’s company, M-Farm, gives small, subsistence farmers vital market information via SMS on their mobile phones and helps them reach buyers. It is also helping to remake the role of traditional middlemen into that of aggregators and enablers, rather than mere conduits to markets.
Abass’ interest in rural development stems from her own childhood on a farm, where she grew and sold coriander and kale. She now aims to bring M-Farm to other emerging countries.
She has also worked on other tech projects, and has been a leader of AkiraChix, a group of hackers and developers.
Architect NLÉ 39 years old
Adeyemi, founder of NLÉ, an Amsterdam-based architecture, design and urbanism practice, gained global attention in 2013 by building a three-storey floating school on a lagoon in Lagos, serving the slum of Makoko. It was an innovative solution to several problems, all familiar to urban planners in the developing world: overflowing slums, the lack of education infrastructure, and the need for low-cost housing. Adeyemi also built a waterfront radio station, not far from Makoko, that will serve 500,000 people.
Adeyemi has now turned his attention to another interesting issue: how to secure land tenure to people living on water.
Author Americanah 37 years old
One of the continent’s most celebrated authors, Adichie’s novels ‘Purple Hibiscus,’ ‘Half of A Yellow Sun’ and ‘Americanah’—and her collection of short stories, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’—have reached an global audience, introducing millions to modern Africa, and especially to her native Nigeria.
But she’s likely even better known for her essay and TED talk, “We Should All Be Feminists,” which challenges feminism to be a more inclusive space; it was also sampled in the Beyoncé anthem, ‘Flawless.’
Actor/producer/director Golden Effects Pictures 40 years old
Kunle Afolayan’s 2015 got off to a great start when his award-winning drama ‘October 1’ became one of the first-ever Nollywood movies to get signed up for distribution on Netflix, the world’s largest Internet-based video on-demand platform. October 1, had one of the biggest ever budgets for a Nollywood movie as Afolayan tries to lead his counterparts to raise production standards across the Nigerian movie business.
Afolayan started acting in 2005 and later transitioned into directing. His Yoruba and English language film “The Figurine” won multiple awards at the 2010 “African Oscars,” or the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), including best picture.
His films have been featured in various festivals including the London Film Festival, Pan African Film Festival and the New York African Film Festival.
Musician/Entrepreneur Akon Lighting Africa 42 years old
Akon, who has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide and worked with artists including Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and Gwen Stefani, is reinventing himself beyond American pop music.
He is returning to his African roots by lending his name and media brand to a ground breaking ‘Lighting Africa’ initiative. It has the ambitious target to bring solar power to 600 million people who currently do not have access to reliable power. The Sengalese-American also opened Solar Academy in Mali, to train engineers who will develop innovative electricity solutions.
Lighting Africa says it already has operations in Mali, the Republic of Guinea, Benin, Senegal, Niger, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Madagascar, and Namibia.
Fashionista and Entrepreneur soleRebels 35 years old
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu started soleRebels in her country Ethiopia back in 2005. The shoe company, which works with local artisans, is now a global brand with exports to over 30 countries. A huge part of the attraction is that soleRebels uses old rubber from truck tires to make its shoes giving it a unique eco-friendly twist on fashion.
“We selected shoes because we saw that footwear was an excellent platform to begin to share many of the indigenous eco-sensible craft heritages and artisan talents that we have here in Ethiopia with the world!” Alemu also created The Republic of Leather, which produces bespoke goods.
Alemu is re-imagining style in Africa. But more importantly, she’s having an impact on the local economy by channeling the talents of artisans into job opportunities.
Musician/producer CAMP 34 years old
A singer, songwriter and producer, he’s one of the most talented musicians in Nigeria with hits such as Ordinary People. Asuquo was born blind but has never let that dissuade him from being ambitious.
While the phenomenal rise in the popularity of the Nigerian pop sound ‘Afrobeats’ has encouraged many producers to veer further down a path of ersatz American hip hop in search of crossover success, Asuquo has been one of the few to stand firm and encourage a new generation of African musicians to retain an “African” sound in their music. He has done this most notably as a judge on the American Idol-like TV show Project Fame.
That determination to create original, authentic African pop music often means he does some of his best work with singer/songwriter artists including Asa, Tiwa Savage and alternative soul musician Bez, the first artist on Asuquo’s CAMP label in 2011, with his album “Super Sun.”
Tech entrepreneur/Investor iRoko Group 34 years old
Never one to shy away from bold statements, Njoku founder of iRokoTV, the so-called “Netflix of Africa” describes his business as “arguably one of the most awesome internet companies in Africa.” The four-year old business now has distribution deals with Dailymotion, iTunes, Amazon and Vimeo.
Barely 18 months after launching iRoko, Njoku started Spark, an investment firm which will support budding technologists and has backed the likes of Hotels.ng the travel website.
Capitalizing on the fact that Nigeria has the world’s third largest movie industry, Njoku brought a creative solution for movie-lovers to access the country’s film. He was able to raise millions of dollars of investment from seasoned international investors like Tiger Global. Njoku describes himself as an “Igbo-Kung Fu Samurai Warrior Geek.”
Actress Hollywood 32 years old
The first African to win an Oscar, and one of Hollywood’s brightest stars of the moment, Nyong’o is best known for her powerful performance in 2013’s ’12 Years a Slave.’ Even greater stardom awaits: she will appear in the next ‘Star Wars’ movie this winter.
More recently, Nyong’o has been using her stardom to draw global attention to the protection of African elephants, and the preservation of their habitat.
Tech entrepreneur mPedigree 33 years old
Seeing that fake pharmaceuticals ran rampant in his country Ghana, Simons decided to solve the problem by founding mPedigree, which lets customers verify the authenticity of drugs with a simple text message code.
Trained as an astrophysicist, Simons’ first attempt at being a change-maker was in 2005 when he developed technology for consumers to track their produce to ensure it was organic. He then shifted the idea to drugs when realizing the farmers of the produce would have to learn how to code.
Now in 2015, mPedigree’s codes are on hundreds of millions of drug packaging in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and India with more pilots in other countries.
Simons and mPedigree are now turning their sights to other industries with counterfeit, marketing and logistics challenges including seeds, cosmetics, and other businesses.