February 20, 2018 By Chris Broyles
Over President’s Day weekend, Disney and Marvel Studios’ Black Panther roared to a record-breaking box office totaling more than $360 million in global ticket sales (according to comScore). In addition to becoming the top-grossing film in history by a black director (Ryan Coogler) in less than a week, it has been universally hailed by audiences and critics alike since its release (Rotten Tomatoes lauds the film at 97% and rising).
While the cross-cultural experience and almost entirely black leading cast has been buzzworthy, director Ryan Coogler told The Hollywood Reporter, “The concept of an African story, with actors of African descent at the forefront, combined with the scale of modern franchise filmmaking, is something that hasn’t really been seen before. You feel like you’re getting the opportunity of seeing something fresh, being a part of something new, which I think all audiences want to experience regardless of whether they are of African descent or not.”
One of the more exciting aspects of the movie is seeing the underlying comic book mythology of Black Panther as a character and long-running storyline come to life (created by ubiquitous Marvel Comics duo writer-editor Stan Lee and writer-artist Jack Kirby and debuting as a character in The Fantastic Four (#52 July 1966)). T’Challa, prince and then king of fictional African nation Wakanda (played by actor Chadwick Boseman), is not only an enhanced super-hero with expected physical skills, but also part of an amazing African world of science and technology thanks in part to Wakanda’s ‘hidden’ supply of the world’s most precious and powerful metal: ‘vibranium.’ A host of supporting characters revel in innovation and breakthrough applications of this magical metal and element.
The movie depicts Wakanda and its incredible hidden world of science through beautiful special effects, soaring cities and technologies that range from medical marvels to transportation, infrastructure, computer software, hardware, and wearable communication devices (some of which are featured in this TimesLIVE article from South Africa).
Breakout character Shuri, T-Challa’s sister and Wakanda princess, is played to perfection by Georgetown, Guyana born, and London-raised actress Letitia Wright. She serves as the movie’s “Q” (James Bond’s gadget wizard), with a touch of Iron Man’s tech-genius Tony Stark. Turning the ‘Disney Princess’ trope on its ear, Shuri shows the audience that an African princess can be more than a pretty face serving as a STEM leader and role model. This poignant character helps open the eyes of Western audience members in seeing African contributions to the world of technology and innovation, breaking through myths and misperceptions about the advancements being made in African countries today.
Let’s explore this further: while the film expresses high-tech ingenuity through comic-book resourcefulness, what are some of the REAL groundbreaking technologies coming out of Africa? Who are some of the scientific and innovative heroes that the rest of the world will soon be embracing?
One can also look to an agency and resource that has been dedicated to finding the best Africa has to offer: the Royal Academy of Engineering. Each year, they award the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, and uncover incredible inventors, scientists and thinkers from Africa solving real world problems via breakthroughs in science and technology from around the continent. You can explore the 2018 shortlisted entrants, finalists and winners of the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation through this interactive tool. You can sort the entrants by engineering category, country, year and UN Sustainable Development Goal.
2018 marks the 10th anniversary of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Pan Africa Chemistry Network (PACN). In a recent article in Chemistry World, PACN program manager Helen Driver explains, ”We wanted to bring together a community across the continent, internationally, to give Africa a push in the right direction to ultimately becoming a self-sustaining science community.”
The article continues to tell the story of chemical engineer Askwar Hilonga from the Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology in Arusha City, Tanzania. Dr. Hilonga has made it his scientific mission to tackle local water quality in the Arusha region, something that he found to be one of the biggest challenges he faced growing up. Dr. Hilonga developed a filtration device called a “Nanofilter” that employs nanomaterials which absorb dangerously high levels of fluoride from the water. Another sustainable feature of the Nanofilter is that it’s made from locally available materials, and doesn’t need electricity to power it. Dr. Hilonga parlayed this invention into the winning entry in the 2015 UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize for Engineering, a 2016 Human Development Innovation Fund of Tanzania grant, and today the Nanofilter not only provides clean filtered water in Tanzania, but has a nearly 200-person staff taking this invention to the next level.
Here are additional examples of the many scientific breakthroughs developed in Africa across broad disciplines:
The movie features ‘virtual reality’ in a couple of key plot-driving scenes, that remind the viewer about breakthrough science like Africa’s first VR mine design center in Pretoria, South Africa (and only the second in the Southern hemisphere). The multi-million dollar Kumba VR Mine Design Centre is training new mining engineers through advanced simulations and forensic analysis of emergency situations with 360 degree, 3D imaging.
Shalton Mphodisa from South Africa invented the AEON Power Bag, which allows its users to charge their phones and laptops remotely utilizing harvested radio waves in the surrounding environment, as well as solar power, converting the stored energy into electricity.
Esther Gacicio from Kenya is the entrepreneur and innovator of eLearning Solutions (ELS), which offers courses to “anyone, anywhere” through any internet-enabled device. She has developed an app that allows for self-paced learning, classes, access to tutors, or learning through games and videos. It also hosts custom-made online training courses for organizations using it as an platform which reduces training costs. ELS is working with Kenya’s training certification body, NITA, on accreditation for the courses done through the app.
Nnaemeka Chidiebere Ikegwuonu and his team in Nigeria has developed ‘ColdHubs,’ a solar-powered walk-in cold room that extends the life of perishable foods from 2 to 21 days. Developing countries like Nigeria face losses of food upward of 45% due to lack of cold storage, which can account for losses up to 25% in annual income for local farmers.
Entrepreneur Iyinoluwa Aboyeji was recently interviewed by podcaster Dotun Olowoporoku, who is interviewing many of the faces of African innovation and technology in an impressive series called “Building the Future with Dotun.” The first guest in episode one, Iyin Aboyeji is a co-founder at Andela, a talent accelerator start-up which raised $24m from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s foundation. He recently left to start Flutterwave (a payment processing company) and is at the forefront of Africa’s growth in the space of fintech and payment infrastructure.
Ugandan inventor Brian Turyabagye recognized that pneumonia is a silent killer in Africa. Pneumonia represents 16% of all deaths in Africa for children under five. Turyabagye was featured in a CNN article in the fall discussing his revolutionary biomedical smart jacket called MamaOpe (“Hope for the Mother”) that can diagnose the condition four times faster than at the hands of a live doctor by working like a stethoscope, measuring body temperature, heart rate and lung condition, specifying points on the lungs for symptoms of pneumonia (which can be misdiagnosed as malaria). It’s also more accurate, analyzing the chest and sending the information via Bluetooth to a smartphone app. It’s worth noting that Africa has 500 million people subscribing to mobile services, with a number expecting to grow to 725 million by 2020.
Dr. Nagwa Abdel Meguid is a Geneticist from Egypt who has identified several genetic mutations that cause common syndromes such as the fragile X syndrome and Autism. In 2002, she won the L’Oreal UNESCO Award for Women in Science for Africa and the Middle East. Since then, she has set up clinics for children with special needs. She is also a member of several groups such as the Gender Research in Africa into Information Communication Technologies for Empowerment (GRACE), as well as Autism-Open Access.
The list goes on-and-on beyond the handful featured here. In addition to the myriad individual names receiving valuable investments, grants and awards helping them to achieve their visions, there are also informative resources like The Guardian’s series “The Tech Continent” Africa’s digital renaissance”, National Geographic’s “How Africa’s Tech Generation Is Changing the Continent,” and HuffPost’s examination of the question: Is Africa Leading the Innovation Revolution? which feature more of Africa’s cutting edge.
Black Panther is inspiring as it relates to the unique place it now holds in the entertainment world and the film’s box office triumphs. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it will continue to serve as an inspiring touchstone for everyone around the globe. People from all cultural backgrounds will see how their previously held perceptions can be shifted, and their eyes opened, to the technological savvy and scientific impact of a continent often overlooked when it comes to the future of innovation.
Digital Illustration by: Tarren McCray