Japanese Inventor: Technology, Africa’s Savior

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Top Japanese inventor Professor Yasuyuki Fujimura who visited Zimbabwe recently believes innovation can help African countries accelerate their rate of economic growth.

His passion today is to help find solutions using simple technology to answer to the numerous problems facing people in the developing world.

Dr. Fujimura came to Zimbabwe together with Eng Satoh Yohji, a consultant, Ichiro Wachi of the Tokyo International Language and Technology Center and Jeffrey Ng of the Microware Systems based in Singapore to help find ways of supporting the country's IT system in disadvantaged schools.

Fujimura and the Minister of Science and Technology Development Dr. Olivia Muchena visited schools and communities in Mutoko. The visit gave Fujimura a lot of insight into the challenges facing rural people when it came to accessing portable water and computers particularly in schools.

Talking to him after the visit to Mutoko and the Eastern Highlands, revealed his passion and love for invention that makes life easier for everyday people. "Innovation is very necessary in this country. My impression about people in this country is that they are peace loving and hard working," he said.

"After the Second World War, we were so poor, we had nothing and we had to find ways of surviving. When I visited Mutoko with the Minister I found that people have difficulties in accessing water and power for computers in school. The problems are similar in some ways with our experience after the Second World War but inventors can help to find solutions to the challenges. Innovation not only helps make life easier for people, it also gives courage and hope to people to persevere in their chosen environment," he says.

Concern for the people who are suffering is one of his major motivation.
"It’s not about money. If you don't have anything and you are going through hardships that create a fertile ground for invention," Prof Fujimura says. "Invention is about offering solutions to people facing hardships."

Fujimura has more than 1,100 inventions which are patented in Japan. He is the president of Labo Non-Electric company and Invention Labo company as well as a professor at Kyushu National University and Osaka City University.

His discussion about his career was important, inspiring and offered deep insight and invaluable reassurances about the power of positive thinking in an age driven by high tech and consumerism.

When he was 38 years old, his eldest son suffered from asthma. The deep cough, difficult breathing and the pain that his son endured affected him greatly that he had to invent an air purifier to help his son.

The asthma attack on his son was an example of the price Japan had to pay for concentrating on high tech without respect and concern for the natural environment. The rapid industrialization of Japan had caused excessive pollution of the air and environment.

"I don't want developing countries to copy the technology of industrialized countries. I want people in the developing countries to invent simple technology using local available materials to answer some of their problems," Prof Fujimura says.

Since then, he says, his company focuses on research and development to create products that are friendly to the environment and beneficial for the health of children.

No companies were interested in air purifiers in the mid-1980s when Prof Fujimura quit a secure job with a major company to set up his own business to market the fanless, ionic air purifier Clear Veil. 

Scientific inventions, he says, must have a human face and help people cope with life in their chosen environs. "I became concerned about the health of children when I found my son had developed an allergy. The environment and children's health were neglected when the economy was booming. I asked myself whether the two should be sacrificed in the name of economic development," he says on the need to put the environment first.

"In a way, I saw Japan 20 years ahead there. I believed Japan would not be able to sustain its high economic growth much longer.  I was also convinced that people would not just sit back and watch the earth being destroyed, but do something to help the environment."

Fujimura is now at the forefront of popularizing his Leap Frog Theory which advocates for the creation of independent and sustainable industries in developing countries.

"I decided to go low-tech and work on inventions that will assist people in their day-to-day lives," he says. "We need to promote technology that is sensitive to the ecology, that is safe to humans, that is human and addresses the concerns of the poor too."      

In Mongolia, Prof Fujimura invented a non-electric refrigerator for the Nomadic population in that country and is now working to develop simple radios and televisions using local materials.

"Nomadic Mongolians must continue to live with nature and if I invent television and radio, this can help them retain their traditions without moving to the urban areas," he says. "The non-electric refrigerator gave them courage and hope. I feel very happy when I invent something that gives people hope."
The nomads pay two sheep for the refrigerator and Prof Fujimura says he gives the concepts for free to the communities via a locally based people-centered company.

For Nigeria, he invented a battery recondition units and solar fish dryers to help communities who faced numerous challenges when it came to drying their fish produce. His battery recondition model can help cut Nigeria's battery import bill from US$10 million per year for new ones to US$4.5 million every three years for reconditioned batteries. He is now working to develop devices for cassava and oil processing as well as solar water sterilizers.

In Latin America, he is helping rural communities with simple coffee roasters and other gadgets which are effective and more appropriate for developing countries' agricultural sector needs. "Invention is not a discovery but it’s combining local materials and known concepts. If invention is new then it's a discovery. Most communities need concepts and business models for simple technology which is environmentally friendly," he says.

For Zimbabwe, he says, he will work to device a gadget that will tap solar energy and convert it for use in computers that were distributed under a presidential program to disadvantaged schools.

"Solar energy uses direct current (DC) and computers use DC so may its possible to by-pass the Alternate Current connections by putting a switch that can move power directly to the computer," he says after learning of the challenges facing some rural schools in Mutoko which have no electricity.

He completed his PhD in Physics at Osaka National University in 1973 when he was 28 years old.

His visit to Zimbabwe was inspiring. Prof Fujimura has this rare quality of stimulating interest in invention and making it so easy even to a lay person. He is a gifted person willing to share his ideas and concepts with people on this side of the earth without being driven by the profit motive.

"He has made us think invention. It's the mindset that we need to change. There is a lot to learn from him," said Prof Robert Chimedza, Pro Vice Chancellor of the Zimbabwe Open University after Prof Fujimura delivered a lecture. A science with people at the heart is the science of the future.

Tsiko is The Black Star News' Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare.

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