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Meet 30 innovators finding African solutions for African problems

Quartz has chosen 30 innovators in Africa for their creative approaches to local problems in business, politics, culture and health and more. They will be honored on Monday (Sep. 14) at the Quartz Africa Innovators summit. Yinka Adegoke, Quartz Africa editor, says:

The narrative in Africa has moved from seeking foreign-solutions-for-African-problems, to discussing African-solutions-to-African-problems. And, as our coverage (and the efforts many of these innovators) shows, it’s now moving toward a narrative of African-solutions-to-global-problems…Africa’s future is as promising and rewarding as we often hear, but not just because of oft-cited factors like abundant natural mineral resources and increasing political stability. The countries of the continent have great promise because of their people.

Here are 30 of the people who are helping the continent take major strides forward.

JAMILA ABASS

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.

Read more about Abass here, here and here. Watch her speak here. Follow her: @kouljay on Twitter.

KUNLÈ ADEYEMI

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.

Read more about Adeyemi here, here and here. Watch him speak hereand here.

Follow him: @NLEWORKS on Twitter

CHIMAMANDA NGOZI

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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.’

Read more about Adichie here, here and here. Read some of her writinghere, here and here. Watch her TED talks here and here.

Follow her on Facebook, here.

KUNLE AFOLAYAN

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.

Read more about Afolayan here, here and here

Follow Afolayan @kunleafolayan on Twitter

AKON

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 groundbreaking ‘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.

Read more about Akon here, here and here.

Follow Akon @Akon on Twitter

BETHLEHEM TILAHUN ALEMU

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.

Read more about Alemu here, here and here.

Follow Alemu @BethlehemAlemu on Twitter

COBHAMS ASUQUO

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 showProject Fame.

That determination to create original, authentic African pop music often means he does some of his best work with singer/songwriter artists includingAsa, Tiwa Savage and alternative soul musician Bez, the first artist on Asuquo’s CAMP label in 2011, with his album “Super Sun.”

Read more about Asuquo here and watch him here and here.

Follow Asuquo @cobhamsasuquo on Twitter.

ERIC CHARAS

His eponymous company, Charas LDA, invests in young Mozambican entrepreneurs, especially those from the poorest sections of society. It also develops affordable housing. Arguably his most important investment, however, is Verdade, a free newspaper with a strong focus on governance issues: with a readership of more than 600,000, it’s the largest newspaper in the country. Charas is also an outspoken advocate for access to information and freedom of expression.

Read more about Charas here, here and here. Watch him speak here andhere.

Follow him: @echaras on Twitter

DIDIER DROGBA

One of the world’s best-known footballers, Drogba has graced the colors of Marseille, Chelsea, Galatasaray—and of course the national team. He currently plays for Montreal Impact. His goal-scoring exploits are legendary. When he led the national team to qualification for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, Drogba called for a halt to the civil war then raging in Cote d’Ivoire: a cease-fire was soon announced. In 2007, Drogba was appointed a global goodwill ambassador for the UNDP.

More recently, his eponymous foundation has pledged to open five hospitals in Cote d’Ivoire. The first, which opened in April in the Abidjan region, will be able to take 50,000 patients a year. The hospitals will specialize in women and children’s health.

Read more about Drogba here, here and here. Watch him here and here.

Follow him: @DidierDrogba on Twitter

NTONE EDJABE

Born in Cameroon, educated in Nigeria and currently resident in South Africa, Edjabe brings an omnivorous, heterodox literary and musical appetite to his role as the continent’s preeminent curator of African thought and sound. His cultural impact is showcased on two platforms: the Pan African Space Station, a music platform that brings together diverse African genres both online and in venues across the continent; and Chimurenga, a literary magazine that also publishes investigative journalism.

Read more about Edjabe here, here and here. Watch him speak here andhere.

Follow him: @Chimurenga_SA on Twitter

MOSOKA FALLAH

Dr. Mosoka Fallah is a Harvard-trained epidemiologist and immunologist. He was one of the leading health officials fighting the spread of Ebola in Liberia. He grew up in Monrovia, which helped him build trust within communities that were struggling to deal with the disease that ravaged his hometown. As one resident of the city told the New York Times, “We can say openly: Had he not been here, things would have gotten far worse.”

At a difficult time in Liberia’s history Fallah showed creative leadership in a devastated public health system and demonstrated his commitment to his country and the continent. Even before the Ebola outbreak, Dr. Fallah had intended to return to Liberia after Harvard to open a maternal care clinic.

Read more about Dr. Fallah here, here and here. Watch him here.

Follow Fallah @mfallah1969 on Twitter

MESCHAC GABA

Gaba trained in Amsterdam, and spends much of his time in Rotterdam, but his art speaks the language of Africa. His breakthrough on the international scene, in 2002, came with a conceptual masterwork entitled, ‘The Museum of Contemporary African Art,’ installed in 12 rooms. It was playful, provocative, and very personal—one room is a record of Gaba’s own marriage.

The work, in its entirety, was featured at London’s Tate Modern in 2013. Since then, Gaba’s work—some of it featuring such unconventional materials as sugar and hair—has been displayed in the world’s finest museums and galleries, and he has cemented his status as the continent’s most influential artist. Gaba currently has a solo exhibition called Architectures Sculptures in Paris.

Read more about Gaba here, here, here and here. Watch him here andhere.

CLARISSE IRIBAGIZA

An ineluctable presence on Kigali’s tech scene, Iribagiza is founder and CEO of the mobile-solutions company HeHe Labs, which connects businesses—including high-profile clients like MTN—with customers. Having started the company while still in college, Iribagiza is now helping Rwandan schoolkids build mobile apps. Building on the prominence she gained in 2012, when she won $50,000 on the reality-TV show Inspire Africa, Iribagiza’s entrepreneurship and social outreach have made her an inspiration, especially to women in technology.

Read more about Iribagiza here, and here.

Follow her: @clairyce on Twitter

ESTHER KUNDA

While still at university, Esther Kunda helped create Sarura, an app that provides SMS-based weather updates and agricultural advice to Rwandan farmers. She got $5,000 as a startup grant from IndieGoGo, and co-founded OSCA Connect, which develops mobile and web applications. It is also developing a virtual marketplace online for farmers.

Kunda is also involved in mentoring programs for young women through the MsGeek competition, where young women are able to showcase new technology.

Read more about Kunda here, here and here. Watch her here.

Follow her: @estherkunda on Twitter

KOPANO MATLWA MABASO

A medical doctor and a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, Mabaso is the founder of Transitions Foundation, an organization that works in the area of youth unemployment. But she’s better known for her writing, which she has described as a hobby: her books ‘Coconut,’ and ‘Spilt Milk’ have won her a raft of international and African awards. Critics have hailed her as one of the defining voices of South Africa’s “born free” generation—people who didn’t experience Apartheid. She’s now working on her third novel, and on a PhD on population health.

Read more about Mabaso here, here and here. Watch her here and here.

Follow her: @kopanomabaso on Twitter

VERENGAI MABIKA

Mabika’s organization, Development Reality Institute, aims to mitigate the effects of climate change in Africa, not only by generating awareness and pressuring governments and companies, but by helping to train activists across the continent. DRI’s Climate Change Virtual School is an e-learning tool that offers courses on climate change and responses, and encourages students to start their own, local movements. Mabika is also a bitcoin evangelist: he co-founded BitFinance, which aims to create an exchange to buy and sell bitcoin.

Read more about Mabika here, here and here. Watch him speak here andhere.

Follow him: @VerengaiMabika on Twitter

JULIE MAKANI

One of the leading haematology experts in Africa, Makani’s work on anaemia and Sickle Cell Disease—a major cause of infant mortality on the continent—has led to new understanding of the disease and won her international acclaim, including the 2011 Royal Society Pfizer Award. She founded the Sickle Cell Foundation of Tanzania, to work on the prevention and management of the disease.

Read more about Makani here, here, here, and here. Watch her here andhere.

Follow her: @juliemakani on Twitter

SARA MENKER

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If Sara Menker’s philosophy was a bumper sticker, it would say, ‘It’s the data, stupid.’ A former Wall Street commodities trader, the Ethiopian-born entrepreneur founded Gro Intelligence, to provide customers with data insights into anything from weather patterns to pricing dynamics. Many times, African businesses and, even governments, can not get access to capital because there is a dearth of reliable data on information as basic as GDP inputs or how much corn is produced in a country. Menker wants to change that.

Her business is split between New York and Nairobi and has started out focused on the African continent. But Menker tells Quartz that Gro Intelligence is now looking into offering its proprietary data platform globally as the business has identified a challenge which is not completely unique to Africa.

Read more about Menker here Watch her here and here.

Follow Menker @SaraMenker on Twitter

MONICA MUSONDA

With over 15 years in law and corporate experience, Musonda wanted tomake affordable food from local products. She created Java Foods. She previously worked with Aliko Dangote as the director of legal and corporate affairs at Dangote Group. Here, she led a project to build a cement plant in Zambia.

Her challenge with Java Foods has been to market noodles to Africans. But she was prepared for the challenge and saw the opportunity in a fast-urbanizing and young continent. At least one study predicting that demand for processed or packaged food on the continent will increase seven times by 2040. “I wanted to develop a product for the youth market that was affordable and nutritious,” says Musonda.

Read more about Musonda here, here and here.

Follow Musonda @monicamusonda on Twitter

BONIFACE MWANGI

An award-winning photographer, Mwangi became an activist after documenting Kenya’s post-election violence in 2008. Now he’s on the front pages as much for his eye-catching campaigns against corruption and violence as for his photographs. Mwangi is also founder of Pawa254, a hub for creative people working on projects geared for social change, and of Picha Mtaani (Photos of the Streets), a street exhibition that has traveled around the world.

Read more about Mwangi here, here and here. Watch his TED talk here.

Follow him: @bonifacemwangi on Twitter and Instagram

TREVOR NOAH

Noah’s nomination as successor to Jon Stewart as host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show may have surprised Americans, but Africans have long known—and laughed at–the young funnyman. If you hadn’t watched him on his own show, “Tonight with Trevor Noah,” chances are you caught YouTube clips of his one-man show, “The Racist,” at the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe.

He was also featured in the documentary “You Laugh But It’s True” about his career in post-apartheid South Africa. Much of his early work revolved around his mixed parentage: his mother is Black South African, and his father is Swiss, and white. But his sharply drawn observational comedy has evolved into a wider range, covering the personal, the social and the political.

Read more about Noah here, here and here. Watch him here, here andhere.

Follow him: @Trevornoah on Twitter

JASON NJOKU

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.”

Read more about Njoku here , here and watch him here.

Follow Njoku: @JasonNjoku on Twitter.

LUPITA NYONG’O

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 the 2013 film, 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.

Read more about Nyong’o here, here and here. Watch her here, here andhere.

Follow her: @Lupita_Nyongo on Twitter

ORY OKOLLOH

Okolloh is co-founder of Ushahidi, a crowd-mapping platform that gained international prominence during Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence. She also co-founded mzalendo.com, an online platform that aims to “keep an eye on the Kenyan parliament.” Okolloh was also behind the #147notanumber campaign in response to the Garissa University tragedy earlier this year. She is currently director of investments for Omidyar Network, an impact investor that has backed the likes of Sahara Reporters, Hotels.ng, JoziHub, and BudgIT.

Read more about Okolloh here, here and here.
Follow her: @kenyanpundit on Twitter

OLUSEUN ONIGBINDE

Nigeria’s politics isn’t exactly known for transparency but no one has done more to take advantage of web-based software and social media plus a dash of sheer effrontery to hold government players to account than Oluseun Onigbinde. He’s the co-founder of BudgIT, a web-based public data visualization platform which works to educate the public about Nigeria’s funds. Onigbinde says on a state’s pecuniary matters, “I believe in a just, transparent and fair society where every citizen within a community has equal access of information about the fiscal position of their society.”

BudgIT’s #OpenNASS campaign for greater transparency by Nigeria’s National Assembly led to the famous headline, “Nigeria’s legislators will get $43 million of taxpayers’ money for a wardrobe allowance”.

Read more about Onigbinde here and here. Watch him here.

Follow Onigbinde @seunonigbinde on Twitter.

UCHE PEDRO

Uche Pedro is founder of Bella Naija, one of the fastest-growing digital media businesses on the continent covering entertainment, fashion and lifestyle. Pedro started the Bella Naija blog in 2006 as a hobby while a student in Canada. She returned home to build it into one of the most influential, trend-watching media brands online with over one million unique visitors a month. Today the BellaNaija Wedding page, which features fashion shots from high society weddings is a phenomenon on the Web and social media, particularly Instagram.

Pedro has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show, CNN and won numerous individual and media awards in recognition for her contributions to fashion, media, and entrepreneurship.

Read more about Pedro here, here and watch her here.

Follow Pedro @bellanaija on Twitter

NJERI RIONGE

Widely acknowledged as one of Kenya’s most successful entrepreneurs, Rionge was co-founder of multi-million dollar Wananchi Online, which made the Internet affordable for Kenyans. She got her start in business at just 20 years old by selling yogurt from a friend’s car while being a hairdresser.

Passionate for the global and the local, Rionge has worked in Greece, the UK and Spain among other countries. On success, she says, “I believe that success is defined by increased value—not simply financial rewards.” Rionge is an icon of African web entrepreneurialism and recently featured in a Cadillac commercial that celebrated global achievers

Read more about Rionge here, here and here

Follow Rionge @njeririonge on Twitter

BRIGHT SIMONS

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.

Read more about Simons here and here.

Follow Simons @BBSimons on Twitter

BINYAVANGA WAINAINA

Binyavanga Wainaina broke into mainstream pan-African consciousness with his groundbreaking satirical essay How To Write About Africa”. It has become the definitive critique of foreign coverage of the continent. He also wrote the memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place.” His extensive career in writing includes everything from freelancing as a food and travel writer in South Africa to winning the Caine prize for his short story “Discovering Home.” In 2014, he publicly announced that he is gay and has since become a vocal advocate for LGBT rights.

Wainaina’s use of language, irony, worldliness and an agnostic approach to media formats help him break down barriers that are often used to define and limit what is supposed to be ‘African writing’.

You read more about Wainaina here, here and here and watch him here:

Follow Wainaina @BinyavangaW on Twitter

SIYA XUZA

Siya Xuza is a Harvard-educated engineer who invented a homemade rocket fuel. The invention won him the Intel Science Prize. MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory named a minor planet in his honor, “Siyaxuza,” found near the Jupiter asteroid belt.

Xuza is now focusing his attention on earth by founding Galactic Energy Ventures, which will help the energy industry in his home country of South Africa. He wants to develop solutions to address Africa’s energy needs focusing in on the 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live without access to electricity.

Read more about Xuza here, here and watch him here.

Follow Xuza @SiyaXuza on Twitter

Credit: Quartz Africa

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