Zahinullah shows a group of onlookers how his mini digger works. (This and main photo: Haqmal Masoodzai)
Logar is more famous for being a cradle of anti-government insurgency than for industrial innovation, but now an 11-year-old inventor who developed a miniature digger from junk materials has become a local celebrity, altering local headlines.
“At school our teacher showed us a picture of an excavator and asked who could make one," says Zahinullah, a Grade 6 student at Surkh Abad School in Mohammad Agha, a small district in Logar Province. "I raised my hand and said I could," says Zahinullah, who true to his word, developed the mini-digger from stray materials he found in the vicinity of his house.
Zahinullah developed a prototype machine without any training or previous experience in only six days. The aspiring engineer has since made a sturdier model of his excavator using plastic piping, scrap wood, water and syringes acquired from medical facilities.
His father says he always supported the young boy's education and came to know of his son's technical abilities very soon. “I was kind of aware of his talent and skills from the very beginning," says Nick Zam Mir, Zahinullah's father. "If we had an electrical problem in the house, he was the one to fix it."
But even he had to see his son's excavator creation to believe it was real. “Sometimes he would bring some stuff home from school, such as wood or plastic," recalls Zam Mir. "I would ask him what he was going to do with these things and he said he was going to make a machine. My response was not to waste his time working on something else other than his education”, says Zam Mir, who has since been won over by his son's raw technical ability.
Local media have been similarly impressed. The young innovator's work has been featured in several online and TV outlets and officials from the Provincial Department of Education have given Zahinullah prizes to encourage his work, such as pens, notepads and school materials. Now Zahinullah's innovation is even being appreciated at a national level. "I was asked by President Karzai to meet him in his palace. It was a great opportunity and he even provided me with some financial assistance,” says Zahinullah.
Such patronage is rare among Afghan inventors. Rajib Andeshmand, a prolific industrial innovator based in Kabul - who since the 1970s has designed a drone, his own digger as well as traffic safety devices, among other things - has yet to receive any government funding. Last year Andeshmand threatened to burn all his inventions in a public bombfire in Kabul if the government didn't change its attitude towards supporting Afghan innovation. Andeshmand proposed an annual fare for innovators, although his idea has yet to materialise.
Little support for innovation
Afghan pioneer innovator Rajib Andeshmand in Kabul in 2013. (Photo: Rahmat Alizada)
Nevertheless, innovation has begun to take root across Afghanistan, despite the lack of resources or formal labs. Kabul University has become something of a hub for Afghan inventors, with projects like Afghan Device and Smart Tank emerging from campus collaborations. But the government still has no permanent fund to support technical and industrial innovation, despite different Afghan trailblazers adapting DIY fridges and wind turbines in makeshift workshops across the country.
Science is part of the Afghan curriculum for secondary schools, but a lack of teachers and resources means students rarely have access to practical learning methods or laboratories. Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan is sponsoring a project to equip 50 schools with starter kits for science labs by 2018. Nearly 120 schools have already received kits. Other donors have focused on capacity building for secondary school science teachers, yet many schools still don't have qualified instructors.
Despite the mountain left to climb, Zahinullah is reassured by the promises of further education that Presidetnt Karzai personally pledged to him. "One day I hope to make a larger model that will help rebuild our country," Zahinullah told Afghanistan Today. If the government upholds its promise to fund the young prodigy's education, that wish could still come true.