Innovation is fundamental to the progress of humanity and is so ingrained in the fabric of society that I have often overlooked it as a field itself. However, after spending four months on a field study in East Africa this view has certainly changed!

During my travels through Kenya and Tanzania I was privileged to see some remarkable innovations. And now, as an intern at MaRS, I can’t help but draw some connections between the projects I saw abroad and those underway at this hub of Canadian innovation.

MaRS clients work on innovations in one of four practice areas, similar to those that I saw in Africa. 

1. Cleantech

Just like in Canada, renewable energy resources are becoming increasingly important in Kenya. Huruma Village, a slum settlement in eastern Nairobi, has developed a small-scale biogas digester that converts human waste from the local school into energy that is used to cook the students’ lunches, a pragmatic and environmentally friendly cleantech solution.

New Dawn High School in Huruma Village where students are benefiting from an innovative biogas solution

2. Information technology, communications and entertainment (ICE)

A technology research incubator in downtown Nairobi, iHub provides a space similar to the MaRS Commons, drawing IT experts together to formulate practical solutions to local problems. The innovation hub’s five Penta Principles are: innovation,
 community, entrepreneurship, business mentoring 
and research, principles that seem to echo the themes I’ve encountered at MaRS.

The manager of iHub, Hamilton ‘Tosh’ Juma, explained to me that their work mainly revolves around cell phone technology, which is a popular commodity in Kenya (and a focus of many ICE clients). To give an example of the types of projects they work on, Tosh discussed their development of short message service technology that allows cellphone users to access government information, thereby increasing the citizens’ political engagement.

3. Life sciences and healthcare

Kitare Health Centre in Mbita, Kenya, is using a collaborative, integrated approach in bringing together biomedical and traditional healthcare systems to improve maternal health outcomes. Doctors at Kitare are now training traditional birth attendants in order to improve the quality of care received by women and ensure that patients feel comfortable seeking their preferred type of healthcare. I’ve noted that the idea of collaboration within the healthcare system is also a key theme in MaRS’ Life Sciences and Healthcare practice, and was discussed at the recent Health IT Innovation Forum.

4. Social innovation

In the port area of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, community members who had been evicted and whose homes had been destroyed came together to develop the Chamazi Community Housing Scheme. In an effort to improve their living conditions they established a co-operative, purchased a plot of land and are currently constructing their own homes—a moving example of community empowerment.

Chamazi Community Housing Scheme's newly built homes

These innovations are just a few of the many astounding developments I witnessed while travelling abroad. While I was amazed by these projects, I often felt frustrated about the research being done in this region that remains in the realm of academia—inaccessible and intangible to local communities.

It is very refreshing to be interning at MaRS, therefore, where entrepreneurs are turning their ideas into commercialized innovations that have real economic and social impacts for Canadians.

After having my curiosity about innovation sparked while travelling in East Africa, it’s exciting to be working at a place where I get to see innovation come to life every day!

 

Ilana Birnbaum

Ilana is a summer intern with the Business Services team at MaRS. She recently graduated from McGill University where she studied anatomy & cell biology and international development. In the fall she will be pursuing a master’s degree in public health at the University of Toronto, focusing on global health. See more…