I hope you enjoyed reading the last two letters from Somto and Wamboga. I’m looking forward to inviting more guests to write the letter.
Something that’s been on my mind
Almost two years ago, I spoke to Abraham Natukunda for the first time. He was building a sensory system with machine learning capabilities for improving the yield of tea processed in Rwandan factories.
Tea leaves being prepared for processing. Source: iConnect Point.
Improving the yield would ensure factories earn a consistent income, and thus help farmers - who grow and harvest the tea leaves before giving them to factories - also earn better incomes. Tea prices fluctuate weekly; they are sold at auctions where traders (representing huge brands like Unilever) determine the price based on quality among other things.
This is largely the same for most commodities, but tea has one distinguishing feature: no brand sells single-origin tea. Big brands buy processed tea at port auctions in Mombasa (Kenya), Colombo (Sri Lanka) and Calcutta (India). Tea from each of these regions have their distinct quality: Asian tea is known for its colour, and East African tea for its flavour. These are bought separately, shipped to the tea companies, and then blended according to the formula of particular brands.
Now, Rwandan tea sells for the highest prices at the Mombasa auction. But only 20% of the auction price goes to the farmers who do most of the work. The government has an ambitious plan to grow the incomes of farmers and Abraham’s technology could help that tremendously.
In my new longform (link below), I try to breakdown Rwanda’s tea industry highlighting the main players, the farmers who grow the crops, and the opportunities for industry growth.
Things I enjoyed reading
Kenya’s strict laws regulating the usage of plastics have created the environment for new initiatives such as the Partnership for a New Plastics Economy which comprises producers like Coca-Cola, retailers, government and policy organizations. A key component of their work is recycling plastics into products for commercial use, a big use case for 3D printing. Transforming PET plastic from bottles into printing filament can be a little tricky, but Digital Blacksmiths has been building this technology in Nairobi for more than three years now - their extrusion process named ‘Thunderhead’ has a low barrier of entry, is easy to set up and completely open source.
Side note: There’s an interesting subculture of building 3D printers from waste in Nairobi, thanks to retr3D and Qtron.
Lithium-ion batteries, the most common choice for transportation, usually use graphite anodes because they cope well with the flow of lithium ions during charging and discharging. With the ascent of electric vehicles, graphite mining has increasingly become a foreign exchange earner for Mozambique. The current issue in the country’s Cabo Delgado province (which has huge graphite deposits) is the displacement and loss of income for fishermen, a topic Kei Otsuki is researching actively.
One of the upsides of being as obsessed with tomatoes as I am, is that it forces me to read more about agricultural infrastructure on the continent. Companies like Solar Freeze and Cold Hubs have developed cold rooms in farms and public markets that are affordable, but have not addressed the cold chain transport issue yet. Many Zoom calls after, some friends and I designed a mobile cold chain transport concept.
Fuel Intellisense is an inventory management system for fuel stations. [Nigeria]
Sofemed develops custom orthopedic and dental implants. [Tunisia]
Kwandaa Labs is building tray robots that remember their routes. [Rwanda]
In Uganda, Wekebere is developing a fetal monitor for nurses and midwives in primary health care clinics. Health workers use the monitors to check vital signs for pregnant women via the light weight belt with sensors that pick up parameters from both the mother and child.
Since I started writing this newsletter I’ve always wanted to print a physical publication. A collection of original pieces about design and technology in Africa, in the mold of Logic Magazine - but smaller.
I think I’m finally in that place. Next year, I hope to publish the first Hardware Things Zine! I’ve been slowly recruiting a small group of people for this project and have been honoured by their acceptance to contribute.
See you next year!