African Digital Laser Breakthrough Promises Future Innovation

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


For decades many African countries have experienced low investment in research and development (R&D) and scientific innovation. One of the few nations to benefit from a sophisticated university network and research and development sector was South Africa. It still ranks top on the continent for funding R&D and its high number of scientific journals.

And it seems this support has paid off in a recent innovation. The world’s first digital laser designed and built in Africa has been developed by a team of physicists at the University of KwaZulu–Natal in South Africa (, as reported in the MIT Technology Review (

This innovation joins a positive trend in Africa, where support to science, technology and R&D is rising – albeit from a very low base. In 2010 UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – found Africa was reversing decades of neglect in research and development. African countries were increasing investment in science and technology after realizing it will accelerate their connection with the global economy and help create better-quality jobs to tackle poverty. The UNESCO Science Report found Burkina Faso, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa had adopted laws to support biotechnology research, for example.

Since 2005, six new science academies have been established in Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. This compares to nine established between 1902 and 2004.

The proportion of GDP (gross domestic product) devoted to R&D averages 0.3 per cent in Africa, according to UNESCO.

South Africa continues to lead in R&D spending, raising its investment from 0.73 per cent of GDP in 2001 to 0.94 per cent in 2006. The country is home to 46 per cent of Africa’s scientific publications compared to 11.4 per cent in Nigeria and 6.6 per cent in Kenya (UNESCO).

Experts say the digital laser developed in South Africa is a breakthrough that will open up ever-further innovations and business opportunities.

So, what is a digital laser and what is the innovation? A laser is short form for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. It is a device that produces a concentrated light source. Unlike conventional light sources that emit a diffused, multispectral light, lasers allow for a monochromatic light beam to be concentrated on a small area. This can be used to cut an object precisely, or beamed over long distances without losing its strength.

Lasers can create immense light, heat and power at close range and are regularly used in surgery and medical diagnosis.

Conventional lasers require external devices to alter and bend the laser light beam. The digital laser allows the shape of the beam to be digitally altered internally at the touch of a computer keyboard and gives greater immediate control. This means a plethora of new shapes can be formed with the laser beam, and this can have many practical applications.

The digital laser augers in a new age of creativity with lasers and more spontaneity in how they are used. Rather than having to place a lens or mirror at the front of the casing to shape the laser beam, this innovation makes it possible to create any shape desired digitally by a computer. The research team has been able to create various complex shapes for the laser beams in experiments. One mooted use is to apply laser beams to manipulate microscopic objects – similar to the tractor beams seen in science fiction films such as “Star Trek”.

Few of us spend much time thinking about lasers, yet they are ubiquitous in the modern world and are found in many electronic products ( They play a critical part in the modern world’s economy. Some common applications for lasers include laser light shows at music concerts, bar code readers at the grocery store, or laser pointers used during public presentations. Dentists also use them to speed the hardening of fillings.

Not to exploit lasers as a technology in the modern world is equivalent to bypassing the silicon micro-chip that sits inside personal computers, electronic devices and mobile phones.


1) Digital laser: The research paper submitted by the team explaining the innovation. Website:

2) 3D Laser Hologram Kit: Now you can make your own holograms at home with the help of this innovative kit. Website:

3) Hands-On Science Kits and Demos. Website:

4) Home kit for making a Laser Theatre. Website:

5) Little Bits: littleBits is an open source library of electronic modules that snap together with magnets for prototyping, learning and fun. Website:

6) Consolidated Plan of Action for Africa’s Science and Technology adopted by African Minsters of Science and Technology in 2005. Website:

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31 July 2013

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Like science and technology stories from the global South? Here are some more from the archive:

China Sets Sights on Dominating Global Smartphone Market

China Pushing Frontiers of Medical Research

China Looking to Lead on Robot Innovation

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© David South Consulting 2022


Profile of African Innovators Continues to Rise

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


A mix of developments is proving that African innovators no longer need to see themselves as lone operators working in isolation. Awareness of the continent’s talent has never been higher and is grabbing attention from the world’s media. In turn, more and more resources are being made available – from funding opportunities to get-togethers where innovators can meet like-minded people, to ego-boosting praise that helps raise profiles and attract investors.

This summer saw the launch of a new publication called African Innovator Magazine ( It is a good example of how perceptions have switched to recognizing that the continent is awash with innovators who have a lot to say.

Billing itself as “Technology insights for Africa’s decision makers,” African Innovator interviews business leaders on the continent about how they are driving innovation within their organizations.

Launched at a dinner on July 31 in Johannesburg, South Africa (, the quarterly magazine – with its glossy production values, high-quality photographs and design – is a reflection of how far the information technology business has come in Africa. The first issue asks “What is Innovation?” and features a broad range of African technology innovators, from Nigerian tablet personal computer maker Saheed Adepoju ( to one of the world’s best-known technology innovators, South African-born Elon Musk (

Publisher Abby Wakama told IT News Africa that the magazine would initially be distributed in South Africa, with plans to expand into Kenya and Nigeria.

“Our aim is to grow the reader base and branch out into new regions,” Wakama said. “The vision is to be the premier voice of Africa’s larger ICT community, covering issues that impact on commerce, trade, industry and the lives of everybody who uses IT.

“Readers do have a choice of publications that talk about ICT that cover technology and products. But there are very few that have an inside track into innovation in Africa. There are not many publications that discuss how technology is making an impact in the lives of Africans.”

For innovators strapped for cash to take their ideas forward, there are several new Africa-based funding sources to turn to.

In East Africa, the Rwanda Innovation Endowment Fund (RIEF) ( is a collaboration between the Government of Rwanda and the United Nations. The Fund aims to promote research and development (R&D) of “innovative market-oriented products and processes in priority areas of the economy” to increase the country’s wealth and economic competiveness.

For Africans as a whole, there is The Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) (, an initiative of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) ( The prize hopes to place African innovators and entrepreneurs at the heart of the development agenda. It will be awarded to innovators who develop new products, increase efficiency or find ways to do things better and save money in Africa.

Africa Review, published by the Nation Media Group in Kenya, is “a digital news platform” providing “smart insights on African news and to examine important social and political trends in the continent.” It recently came up with a list of 20 East African “bold young innovators to watch”.

The 20 were selected because all of them are working on mobile phone applications and are creating “life-changing mobile apps in health care, education, finance and agriculture.”

They include:

  • Jamila Abass from Kenya, the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) for M-Farm (, which is helping farmers get real-time retail prices for their products.
  • Tanzania’s Erric Mutta, founder and CEO of Problem Solved Ltd, set up the MiniShop mobile phone application for small businesses to make accounting and inventory control easier and more transparent – in turn making it easier to access credit.
  • Jessie Gakwandi Benimana runs Rwandan company Sail Ltd ( and the Get-It application (, which helps people to find restaurants in the capital Kigali.
  • Everyone knows Africans like to tell stories, and Victor Miclovich from Uganda is helping them to do this online. His StorySpaces ( website “builds on the age-old African tradition of storytelling” for the digital age.
  • Tanzania’s Eric Lwambura is using technology to save lives during pregnancy. He is founder of Crystal Interactive Systems (CIS) (, which has developed a mobile phone-based application to assist doctors to detect problems during labour. It is designed for health centres that can’t afford more expensive and sophisticated equipment.
  • Kariuki Gathitu from Kenya who founded Zege Technologies (, is working on innovative ways to transfer money. His latest development is M-Payer, helping small businesses manage their payments.

Read more about the East African technology innovators here:


1) Southern Innovator: Browse the back issues of Southern Innovator magazine. Website:

2) Innovative Africa: The New Face of Africa: Essays on the Rise of Africa’s Innovation Age by Will Mutua and Mbwana Ally, Publisher: Afrinnovator.  Website:

3) The Coming Prosperity by Philip Auerswald, Publisher: Oxford University Press.  Website:

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This work is licensed under a
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© David South Consulting 2022