Africa calling: what can India learn from Africa?




Whenever an African dignitary or a delegation visits India, the general tendency on the part of India is to offer help and suggest what can Africa take from us.  May be, this is a legacy of the colonial times when we were subjected to similar sermons by the British.   Now that UK and other European countries have begun to look at frugal innovations and many other ideas from India, isn’t it time that we also start looking at what can we learn from Africa.  It is similar to asking a question as to what can we learn from people in Koraput, Bastar, Dangs,  or Ghadchiroli.   In a distributed knowledge system, there is no place in the world which does not have something to teach others.  Since I didn’t read much in media about what India wanted to learn from Mozambique, maybe I should mention something about it.


When I am saying this, I am hoping that learning will become a two way street.  When it comes to coping with climate change, the knowledge of many communities in different parts of Africa will be extremely relevant and useful.  The lack of market penetration in large parts is also an opportunity for drawing upon living systems of traditional knowledge for us and those countries. By recognizing the importance of that knowledge as we have done in India, we could not only strengthen their own knowledge systems but also learn about new ideas. This will help us in strengthening our own understanding of risk, resilience and responsibility for nature and social systems.   During a meeting of science and technology ministers from African countries hosted by Indian government, a book was brought out by National Innovation Foundation called as Africa Calling [].  It had pooled a lot of innovations that could be useful for Africa but also had a large section on what could India learn from Africa.


When a farmer Auta Gravetas noticed in Uganda that the sweet potato plants in a part of field having Lantana camara on the border did not have pests incidence, he evolved a hypothesis. Can lantana leaves help extend the shelf life of sweet potato slices? Since a large number of people in that region survived on sweet potato slices as a staple food when they could not afford maize or paddy, the shelf-life of these slices was directly linked to the food self-provisioning. He had an idea. He put Lantana camara leaves in between the layers of dried slices stored for future use. He could extend the shelf-life and food self-provisioning by almost a month and a half more. The weed became a resource.


In an international competition organized by IFAD, Rome with the help of Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) for scouting innovations from seventy countries, this innovation was considered worthy of first prize, given at Global Knowledge Conference – 2 organized in Malaysia, 2002. Neither Lantana camara was indigenous, nor had the knowledge been transferred by one generation to another over centuries. Still the way of knowing was traditional, i.e., observing an odd phenomena, discriminating, abstracting, hypothesizing, testing and developing a robust rule or technology. A contemporary innovation was born by using traditional way of learning.

Why can’t we be open and learn from these examples with an open mind.  We should learn not only about the practices, processes or products but also systems of knowledge which encourage people to find new applications for old as well as new materials.  I invite readers to download the copy of Africa Calling and go through the ideas documented in Honey Bee newsletter for more than two decades originating from Africa.  Those who are still not convinced that Africa can teach a lesson or two to India and other countries can write back to me, and I will be happy to share more examples.  The emerging structure of global economy requires not only that our institutions and society becomes horizontal but that  our mind also becomes more open to learn from creative people anywhere and everywhere.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place