However, greater exposure is not enough to help them overcome the tremendous barriers they face, which extend far beyond time and money.
First, of course, is the technical challenge. “Building an aircraft is incredibly complicated,” says Jim Gaunt, a bush pilot and mechanic based in Nairobi who’s been flying planes in Kenya for over 30 years. “Everything you put into an aeroplane has to get off the ground." Car and aircraft engines are very similar, however those that power cars are heavier, and made for rapid acceleration and deceleration, while those in aircraft are made lighter, and to run at a more steady speed. And of course while a Toyota or Honda engine can be found in many junkyards, cheap aircraft engines are far harder to come by.
Then, there is the cultural aspect. “What we have in most parts of Africa are lone wolf inventors, fabricators and dreamers, who unfortunately lack the types of support systems that are found in developed countries,” says Okafor.
A relative lack of financial and physical resources, and of education and training environments that foster innovation, in many African countries helps explain why the odds are stacked against these individuals. But it’s also frequently rooted in a failure of governments to recognise the role of innovation in development, which in turn comes from deeper societal attitudes.
In many African countries those who are most revered in history books are nation builders and founders, who, more often than not, were writers, artists, poets and politicos. The equivalents of the likes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford feature far less prominently. “In Africa, they are invisible,” says Okafor.
Faced with this combination of obstacles, those driven by the passion to innovate face an uphill battle. After Mwangi unveiled his helicopter in April, his employer fired him, claiming the media attention was interfering with his work. Then, the local authorities confiscated his chopper, saying it was a “security risk”. The police have since returned it, but have forbidden Mwangi from flying it.
‘Waste of talent’
And yet sometimes these innovators do get the rewards as well as recognition. In 2007, 24-year-old Nigerian physics student Mubarak Muhammed Abdullahi spent nearly a year building a 12-metre (39ft) long helicopter out of spare parts sourced from old cars, motorcycles, and even a crashed Boeing 747, using money he saved from repairing cell phones and computers.
“When I was a kid I loved helicopters,” says Abdullahi. “Whenever I saw one in the movies, I used to ask ‘how does this thing work?”
Years later when he told his college friends of his plan to build one, they laughed. “Only whites can build things like that,” they said. His response was to build a bright yellow helicopter with push-button ignition, an accelerator lever and a joystick for thrust and bearing. It was powered by a 133-horsepower engine salvaged from a Honda Civic.
Unlike the flying machines of many other amateur aviation innovators, Abdullahi’s contraption actually flew, although never above a height of 2.1 metres (7ft). But it did earn him international recognition, a TED Global Fellowship and a scholarship to study aircraft maintenance in the UK.
He now has a well paid job working for an electronics manufacturer in the UK, but dreams of starting his own aircraft company. He reflects that he got little support from the Nigerian government, and says the barriers faced by people like him result in a tremendous “waste of talent” in Africa.
These stories beg an important question: how can Africa better encourage and harness the talents of its aero-innovators?