Each Friday this month we’re featuring a series of articles focused on innovators and how they came to do what they do. Some are inventors, others humanitarian workers, but all have a passion for taking problems and turning them on their heads.
Ken Banks, author and innovator, is the editor of a book every international development student should read, The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator. This is the second in a four-part series looking at the opening chapters of the book. Find the review of chapter 1, about the use of subtitles to spread education in India, here.
If you are interested in the book, download a sample by clicking on the cover image, or better yet, support their work and buy a copy (available in hard copy and ebook).
Chapter 2: Silicon Savannah Rising, by Erik Hersman
Innovation – A Product of the Outliers, the Disrupters and Rebels
Game parks with lions and giraffes, incredibly fast runners who sweep international standings, abject poverty and malnourished children, violent wars – all of these fit within the lens of how the West views Africa. They are historical abstractions that leave limited room for the advance of time and change. Too often, even the development community is guilty of allowing these stereotypes to shape their practices and procedures. However, innovators like Eric Hersman are showing the world that “the Africa of the 80’s and 90’s is not the Africa of today,” and are furthering the continent’s innovative and technical transformation.
Erik Hersman is a man who needs no introduction in the tech world, particularly in his home countries of Kenya and Sudan. Known for his ability to innovate within challenging, harsh environments, Hersman is the CEO of BRCK, co-founder of Ushahidi, founder of iHub and AfriGadget, blogger at WhiteAfrican, TED and PopTech Senior Fellow, and much more. He is product of two worlds, “the raw, gritty reality of [his] home country, mixed with the wealth and ease of [his] parent’s country.”
Innovation, according to Hersman, is simply a new way of doing things. It requires a certain level of stubbornness and naiveté, with a willingness to question and take risks. Innovative ideas are born outside the status quo, in reaction to a legacy of structures that have outlived their own innovation. Coming from the margins, these new ideas challenge positions of power awarded to old structures. Because of this threat to traditional power, it falls to the outliers, the disrupters and the rebels to bring innovation to the table and design a new method of thinking and doing in their own way. 
Hersman’s own entrepreneurial breakthrough began during the media blackout of the 2008 Kenyan election crisis. Concerned about the violence and the lack of available information, he worked with four others over three days to create a crowdsourcing platform that could combine information sent in through SMS, email and the web to connect and map incidents of violence and peace efforts. Suddenly, information from across the country could be seen in one comprehensive image. The platform, Ushahidi, was formatted into an open source software and has been used to create 60,000 maps in 159 countries, for everything from the fallout from the nuclear crisis and tsunami in Japan to oil sightings after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
Two of Ushahidi’s projects include Nairobi’s iHub and BRCK. iHub is an open space connecting all the different elements of the tech industry – entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and the investment community – to incubate innovation and growth, combine talent with a community workspace, and attract investors and venture capitalists. With over 14,000 members, it has hatched 150 tech start-ups to create over 1000 jobs.  BRCK is “the go anywhere, do anything, self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device” that ensure you are connected to the internet in even the most demanding of environments.
Connection is the common theme of Hersman’s work; the idea that if people are brought together with the right resources and knowledge, then their individuals capacities are magnified. His experiences have given him a tremendous wealth of knowledge, contacts and resources upon which to draw, a network that he has worked to curate and develop. These projects have international applicability – as the Ushahidi team jokes, “if it works in Africa, it’ll work anywhere.” It is clear that in this digital age, innovation and technology are creating a vastly different Africa.
To learn more about Erik Hersman and his work, visit the Ushahidi website.
Check back next Friday for part three of the series.