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Africa’s innovation often occurs outside the formal sector, but it should still count as science

What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean From Africa?

Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Ed.
MIT Press
255 pp.
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Eurocentric assumptions about the history of science and technology, entrepreneurship, epistemology, and scientific methodology are directly challenged in this scholarly collection of essays that masterfully document the historical and contemporary scientific contributions of Africans. So, too, are some of the accompanying conceptual underpinnings on innovation and inventiveness, marking a substantial departure from conventional accounts of science, technology, and innovation.

A lengthy, incisive introduction sets the tone for the rest of the book in no uncertain terms. Its author, Clapperton Mavhunga, a historian of science at MIT who is also the editor of the text, is brilliant, brave, and bold enough to pull the devil by its tail.

From an African perspective, what exactly do science, technology, and innovation mean, asks Mavhunga? The West, he argues, has no right to define science in its own image, at the expense of generations of makers and innovators around the world. He goes on to suggest that those countries that have acquired their dominance through imperialism should also acknowledge, more generously, episodes of plunder, rapacity, and knowledge transfer.

Mavhunga maintains that the story of science, technology, and innovation in Africa is one of resilience and creativity. Indeed, the theme of triumphant achievement runs through several chapters of the text.


The Nigerian mobile phone network is unlike any other, argues Toluwalogo Odumosu.

In her essay, Geri Augusto celebrates the ways in which enslaved Africans created botanical knowledge in the Americas. She carefully demonstrates how this knowledge was central in the evolution of “richly polycropped, ingeniously defended, bountiful fields and gardens” and insists that such achievements must be included in the global history of science. Creativity and inventiveness should not be evaluated by prearranged terms of privilege and exclusion, she argues.

Nor should innovation be confined to the formal sector of the economy or to “firm-based” ingenuity, argues Chux Daniels, in his essay on innovation policy. Africa’s informal sector is a major source of its innovation activity, he reveals, citing the contributions of artisans and traditional craftsmanship to the continent’s advancement.

African innovation, experimentation, and improvisation were prerequisites to success in ceramics and metallurgy, argues Shadreck Chirikure in his discussion of the African “laboratory.” This observation is echoed by D. A. Masolo, who sees evidence of material iteration in Maasai spear designs.

In his discussion of the use of mobile telephones throughout Africa, Toluwalogo Odumosu observes that the Nigerian mobile network is “materially, topologically, and instrumentally dissimilar to networks of similar size and membership elsewhere in the world.” He asserts that this is a clear example of innovativeness in response to consumer demand, usage, and activity.

In their insightful essay “On the politics of generative justice,” Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster attempt to fuse moral and political philosophy with economics and science, technology, and innovation. Their analysis reflects on traditional African concepts of self-generation, self-organization, and value; on the “bottom-up” engineering of traditional African villages; and on the continent’s manifestations of the maker movements.

Here, a few questions emerge. For example, do indigenous African processes of value generation and self-generation automatically lead to generative and distributive justice? If so, what is the sequence leading to such an outcome?

The language, modus operandi, and location of science, technology, and innovation are variable, depending on time and location. Guerrilla warfare in Rhodesia, for example, necessitated an understanding of the environment and its attendant flora and fauna and led to the production of powerful medicines and antidotes, as Mavhunga details in chapter 2.

In modern megacities like Kinshasa, on the other hand, innovation occurs constantly in all different arenas, as Katrien Pype discusses in chapter 5. Here, expertise manifests across a wide spectrum that includes healers, metallurgists, computer gurus, and musicians.

Innovation, the text repeatedly emphasizes, does not stem exclusively from laboratories. This is a lesson that Western science would do well to take to heart.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of History, Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, CT 06050, USA.