Growing up in Nakuru, Kenya, June Arunga continually pondered the question, “Why aren’t cool things made in Africa?”
“A lot of things were made in China or made in America,” she told an audience recently at the Mercy Corps Action Center. Now, that very question helps direct her path to solve other problems--from inter-African trade to sanitation.
A journalist, attorney, and entrepreneur, June Arunga is the CEO of Open Quest Media, a multimedia production company. LLC Fast Company named Arunga one of the 100 “most creative people in business” in 2010, and Forbes put her on its list of the 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa in 2011.
Now based in Nairobi, Arunga believes that where there is a problem, there is room for innovative solutions.
“I need a problem to solve.”
After getting married and with two young children, Arunga found herself tackling one of Nairobi’s toughest everyday problems: sanitation.
Modern technology is pervasive in Kenya, with many sporting the latest phones and other electronics. Yet, toilet facilities were often just holes in the ground--even in the city.
Arunga told the audience of how she attended a party at a middle-class family’s home but found herself staring at a hole in the ground for a toilet. She was baffled as to why the toilet facilities were “frozen in time.”
She soon realized that the problem was a water issue and that many homes were not on a sewer system. Since creating an entire sewer system is too expensive, she decided to design water filters made for households to recycle greywater.
It has been two years since she started on research and development for affordable sewer systems.
The opportunity for innovation and business can grow out of poverty, Arunga said.
She believes that product realization is the missing link in development in Africa.
Nairobi would benefit from a product realization hub that would house experts in various fields, she said. The experts would equip those with ideas with the technical know-how in order to succeed. Basically, the experts would help turn people’s ideas into finished products. Creating such a hub would help change a long-held social mindset that pays little attention to bright ideas, Arunga added.
Nairobi also should develop a “finishing school” to prepare college graduates for the global work environment.
She explained how important it was to teach work etiquette, such as proper handshakes, professional office wear and being on time for meetings.
The dignity deficit in Kenya needs to shrink so that many ideas will be taken more seriously, Arunga concluded.
She hopes that fellow Kenyans will look up to, honor and respect other “ordinary” Kenyans and their innovations. When there is more belief in the “ordinary person” and their ideas, she foresees that more efforts will be directed towards product realization and "cool" solutions to Africa's problems.