The continent of Africa has witnessed some accelerated growth in the level of innovation in recent times. The young people of Africa are remarkably unleashing their innovative spirit, in the area of Information and Communications Technology (ICT, Healthcare as well as Science and Engineering, finding local solutions to local challenges in different sectors of the continent’s economy, creating jobs, and raising the standard of living of the people.
One of the strategic platforms and instruments encouraging and supporting African innovators and needs-based innovations in the continent has been the African Innovation Foundation (AIF), a non-profit organisation founded by Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais.
In this exclusive interview with Ehis Ayere of African Leadership Magazine, Morais, discusses innovation in Africa and how the continent can create an innovation ecosystem that can create, encourage and support the growth of start-ups to address the continent’s current economic challenges and realize its full potentials. Excerpt:
Experts have pin-pointed innovation as the “engine of growth and development”. Innovation has evidently been a catalyst for the industrial transformation of nations. In Africa today, many agree that the creation and diffusion ICTs are important to spur growth in the economy, particularly in the agricultural sector. What is your take on innovation in Africa vis-à-vis how it can boost growth and development?
Innovation is absolutely crucial to the overall economic diversification mix for African nations. There are so many layers as to why this holds true. There are some schools of thought that believe technology and leapfrogging is not sustainable in Africa because of poor infrastructure, and that focusing on building this infrastructure will divert crucial funds that are required for more basic needs such as healthcare, education, water and food supplies.
I understand why this argument exists but don’t necessarily prescribe to it because to me innovation is the undercurrent of everything that is required for African nations to realize their economic potential. From revolutionizing healthcare, education and transport, to revitalizing traditional industries such as agriculture and fisheries and recalibrating the mining and energy sector to electrify the continent, innovation is imperative.
In my interactions with African innovators over the past five years since the launch of the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), I have witnessed first-hand Africa’s tremendous innovation potential. These protagonists are creating incredible products and services that are born out of localized needs yet many of these innovations have the ability to be replicated on a global scale.
African nations are in a position of great advantage…provided they play their cards right. The cards I refer to are its large youth population. Playing it right could reap great demographic dividends capable of building integrated African innovation economies. Playing it wrong however could potentially lead to unrest and upheaval. Africa cannot afford the latter especially now when peace and stability in most parts of the continent have been driving investments and stimulating economic growth.
While ICTs have the potential to transform Africa, providing a backbone for entrepreneurship, innovation and economic growth, it is important to differentiate that innovation isn’t necessarily about the ICT sector. The Mobile Economy report by GSMA estimates that 386 million unique mobile subscribers were located in Sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2015, up from 348 million in 2014. Mobile penetration rates in several Sub-Saharan countries have reached almost 80% due to cheaper access. Africans are inventing news ways to use mobile technology that the West has never imagined possible – from banking to farming and healthcare.
Now is the time for the African public and private sector to do what it takes to support African innovators and create conducive mechanisms to invest in them because they really do hold the key to Africa’s innovation future.
We are aware that you founded the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) in 2009 as part of efforts to increase the prosperity of Africans by catalyzing the innovative spirit in Africa. Please tell us more about the foundation.
Many years back, I promised my late Angolan grandmother that I would find a way to make an impact in Africa. The AIF is a result of that promise. I have always believed that Africa has tremendous untapped human potential beyond its vast natural resources and that innovation will unlock this potential.
So I founded the AIF to provide a platform for Africans to create local solutions to local challenges. Ultimately, the AIF’s goal is to support needs-based innovation that can enhance the standards of living for all Africans.
We do this by building synergies, collaborations, and partnerships with African innovation enablers committed to socio-economic impact in Africa. The Foundation’s core activities are focused on innovations & technologies, access to law and governance, and social impact development.
What are some of the programs or initiatives you have designed to achieve the noble task?
The Innovation Prize for Africa, which we launched in 2011, is one of three flagship programs of the AIF. It was initially launched in partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) but today it is independent. It has become one of the foremost pan-African platforms to grow the African innovation spirit and to build innovation-led societies.
The second program is the African Law Library (ALL), which was launched in 2012 to enable Africans from all walks to access legal data freely and to understand their rights. Access to knowledge is crucial to the innovation equation, even more so in a complex legal landscape such as Africa where modern law exists alongside traditional laws. The ALL contains thousands of legal documents ranging from legislations, acts, court rulings, and customary laws in various languages from many African nations, as well as a host of secondary sources including legal commentaries, journals, dissertations, books and articles.
The third program is the Social Impact Program (SIPA), which is focused on addressing social challenges through innovation in my homeland, Angola. Through these flagship programs, all of which hold a special place in my heart, the AIF is helping to drive innovation-led socio economic growth and sustainable development in Africa.
Could you kindly tell us some of the successes you have achieved in this regard?
When I look back at the AIF and see how far it has come, I am truly in awe. From the people who work at the Foundation to our partners, innovators and innovation influencers across Africa, the AIF has become one of the most credible and respected innovation-focused platforms.
Now in its 5th year, the IPA has more than 6,000 innovators in its database. This year alone, the Prize has attracted more than 3, 600 participants from 50 African countries, making it a truly Pan-African initiative. Countries bid to host the IPA event.
The ALL now has over 50 regional partner entities in 20 African countries, and we aim to extend our reach to the rest of Africa by 2017. With many Sub-Saharan African nations now moving towards e-governance, the ALL will be able to work with our partners to digitize data and provide the public with up-to-date legal information.
Through its partners, SIPA is helping to enhance the standards of living for marginalized Angolans by providing basic access to medical diagnostics, low-cost services in health, water and sanitation or energy provision, education and rural development.
I am very grateful that I have been given the opportunity to make good on my promise to my late grandmother.
In 2015, a survey by Djembe Communications and Forbes Insights reveals that the ICT industry will create the most entrepreneurs in Africa in the next 5 years. Looking at the African business environment- the opportunities and challenges, what is your take on this?
I’m not surprised because as I mentioned earlier, the African demographic is very young and technologically savvy. The average man on the street might not think that Africa is synonymous with technology-led innovation and entrepreneurship but over recent years the region has embraced it.
Across key growth sectors, ICT is already transforming Africa. Digital and technology-based businesses are on the rise. Despite that the African SME sector is still weak because entrepreneurs are unable to upscale and commercialize their products at the rate required. This is largely because investors are still hesitant to back young African startups in this space.
What investors don’t see is that Africa is an early stage market offering tremendous potential for ICT investments. If you take the healthcare technology industry, in a time when developed nations are faced with aging populations and finding it hard to maintain high standards of healthcare, reverse innovations from emerging regions like Africa can offer cost-effective alternatives.
There are potentially high yields and first mover benefits for investors less risk averse to investing in African technology. There are opportunities to work with local partners who understand how to navigate the African market and overcome challenges such as the lack of globally accepted policies, standardized metrics, information security, and lack of technological infrastructure. Furthermore African governments are increasingly open to public-private partnerships (PPPs).
What are some of the measures or mechanisms that can create stimulating start-up ecosystems in the continent?
I believe that the African startup sector holds the key to speed up economic diversification. Today, many African governments are seeing the correlation between innovation and economic diversification as well as job creation. The continent is beginning to see the steady emergence of innovation ecosystems in the form of technology hubs, scientific clusters and startup colonies across the continent.
The sustainability of these ecosystems remains a question however and more must be done to support their growth so that they can become mature innovation ecosystems that can support African startups to scale their business and become investor-ready.
In developed markets, the SME sector forms the backbone of industry, driving innovation and employing millions. In Switzerland for example, SMEs constitute 99.6% of Swiss enterprises and employ 66.6% of the labor force. On the contrary, the SME sector in Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for over 90% of all enterprises, yet contributes less than 20% to gross GDP and barely impacts employment levels.
African nations must find a way to reverse this anomaly. The African public and private sectors need to not only invest in SMEs financially but also invest in innovation ecosystems that can perpetuate the growth and longevity of SMEs. PPPs offer a way forward but there are other ways that the African public sector and private sector can work together.
For example, in Angola, I am building the country’s first hybrid innovation hub on land that is owned by a company belonging to the Angolan sovereign wealth fund (FSDEA). The land has been leased to me because the Fund is committed to supporting social development projects that can drive social inclusion and bridge the gap between the formal and informal economy in Angola.
The hub, called Fábrica de Sabão, is currently being constructed in the heart of Hoje Ya Henda em Luanda, home to the largest slum in the country, containing some 800,000 people. When completed, it will comprise of incubator and accelerator hubs, co-working and maker spaces, a cultural exchange platform, local radio station and a residence program for visiting mentors and artists. Fábrica de Sabão is an ecosystem to foster innovation-led education, creativity and entrepreneurship amongst all sects of Angolans, including marginalized slum communities who are highly resourceful and eager to learn.
Projects like Fábrica de Sabão demonstrate how public entities can collaborate with the private sector to develop a nation’s innovation ecosystem and leapfrog education challenges with the common goal of driving socioeconomic inclusion and growth.
Building innovation ecosystems is not a one-man show and cannot be achieved overnight because it involves intellectual and financial capital amongst others, in addition to strong governance, inclusive policies and favorable regulatory frameworks. But it must be done in order to level the field for African SMEs to thrive, and to boost economic diversification and job creation.
Some studies show that Africa has been losing 20,000 highly-qualified professionals annually since 1990. This underscores the widening gap in science and technology between Africa and other continents as there are more African scientists and engineers in the USA than in the entire African continent. How do you think the continent can significantly benefit from the wealth of knowledge and experience of its diaspora?
African nations are now in a unique position, at the juncture of global capital flows. There is tremendous scope for investments in Africa. There is great pride in being African and while the region is increasingly witnessing the return of the diaspora, all of whom are committed to playing a positive role in sustainable socio-economic growth, there is much more to be done.
A 2012 McKinsey report says that in the past decade, 37 million new and stable wage-paying jobs were created yet some 63% of the total labor force is still engaged in some form of self-employment or “vulnerable” employment, such as subsistence farming or urban street hawking.
This has to change and the answer lies in knowledge transfer and innovation. Africa has money but it lacks know how. Africa’s burgeoning youth population needs a lot of support in terms of capacity building in order to enable them to access new job markets that innovation economies are creating in today’s technology-led day and age.
The diaspora is key here because they have the ability to open windows of opportunities for upcoming African entrepreneurs, inspire African innovators to make their products competitive on the global stage, and breed higher rates of success through creative collaborations and know-how. This is why the AIF actively seeks opportunities to build partnerships with the diaspora to support innovation-led growth across the continent.