The Nation: ‘Africans Capable of World Class Innovations’

The African Innovation Prize for Africa  initiated by the African Innovation Foundation now  in its fifth year brings together innovators from all over Africa to network, share knowledge, and compete for a prize. This prize has attracted winners and nominees from all parts of Africa, including South Africa.

In this interview, Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, (JC),  Innovation Influencer, Founder of African Innovation Foundation  and Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl, (PMK), Director, Innovation Prize for Africa speak on the programme.

What has been the impact of the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) in the past 5 years?

JC: I founded the AIF in 2009 with the aim of supporting sustainable and innovation-led socio economic growth in Africa. Its key focus has been to enable Africans to create homegrown solutions for local challenges. Then, in 2011 we launched the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) in partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). This proved to be the catalyst for unlocking the dormant African innovation spirit.

In 2012, at the joint Africa Union (AU) and UNECA conference, the IPA was endorsed by the ministers in attendance, and a resolution was passed, calling for member states to work with the AIF to promote innovation-based societies in Africa.

To me, this will always remain one of the greatest achievements of the AIF because it led to important beginnings. Many African governments have since begun to see the real value in investing in innovation economies and have been increasingly putting innovation ahead on their development agenda.

Today, from seeding the African innovation spirit across the continent to enabling the emergence of African innovation ecosystems through creative and strategic collaborations, the AIF has become one of the most respected and credible innovation-led platforms for African innovators.

 

Can you elaborate more on the innovation ecosystems in Africa?

JC: African innovation ecosystems are fledgling and simultaneously reflective of and dependent on the continent’s economic strength. They exist because of the incredible growth that Africa has witnessed in the past five years, yet in order to be sustainable they need to be integrated into the economic diversification mix from policy to grassroots.

Innovation ecosystems are a work in progress and unique to each industry, country and continent. One of the key aspects of innovation ecosystems is the circulation of knowledge between co-existing systems*. They cannot succeed in isolation and therefore must be aligned with business and education ecosystems that can support and perpetuate parallel innovation.

Its players must include innovators, entrepreneurs, researchers, academia, venture capitalists, investors, as well as training consultants, legal consultants, business and professional development experts, and marketing gurus amongst others. The ability for these components to effectively come together rests on sound government policies, ethical practices and African cultural understanding.

This is very much the focus of what we do at the AIF – connecting African innovators with innovation influencers and enablers to build stronger, more sophisticated innovation ecosystems that will ultimately become the backbone of African innovation economies.

Is the concept of co-working spaces across Africa on the rise and why? 

JC: Yes they are but not necessarily in the traditional sense, and this is fine. Africa doesn’t need to do things the way the rest of the world has. It has all the right variables to chart its own course and establish its own models of ecosystems that support innovation and entrepreneurship. The continent’s innovation ecosystems landscape is being shaped by a very young demographic** – one that is less resistant to change, quick to adopt technology and therefore very innovation driven.

Coworking spaces, or hybrids of them, are cropping up across Africa and reshaping how African entrepreneurs learn, share ideas and co-create solutions that work for Africa. They are becoming hives for colonies of new tech start-ups, and small businesses who are creating the scope for more innovation-led jobs.

In more technologically developed African countries, the concept of coworking spaces has truly taken off. South Africa’s Innovation Hub and Open Innovation, Kenya’s iHUB and 88mph Garage Nairobi and Senegal’s Jokkolabs are all great examples that have set the stage for many other African nations to learn from.

In Angola, I was inspired to conceptualize a hybrid version of all the various facets of innovation ecosystems under one hub. Fábrica de Sabão (Soap Factory), although still in development, is a hybrid innovation hub designed to include marginalized communities in Angola. It comprises 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. The AIF, due to its experience and connections in the innovation space, will pay a key role in driving some of the hub’s programs.

So as you can see, Africa’s innovation ecosystems do not follow a certain mold. They aren’t spaces that are inaccessible to the masses. They are there for practical purposes and to drive socioeconomic development opportunities.

How has the IPA changed the innovation landscape across the continent?

pauli mujawamariyaPMK: IPA has spurred change in Africa through actively mobilizing, rewarding, and promoting African ingenuity, by Africans for Africans. For the past 5 years, we have mobilized more than 6000 innovators from 50 African countries, unlocking innovation talent through offering more than US$800 000 in cash to promote outstanding innovations in multi-disciplinary sectors that include agriculture and agri-business, healthcare and well-being, ICTs, manufacturing and industry, and environment, energy and water.

Through IPA, strong inroads have been made to affirm that Africans have the creativity and can innovate – not only for themselves – but for their communities and the nation at large. Our results touch the length of breadth of Africa, from a team of researchers and entrepreneurs in Cape Town, AgriProtein who won the IPA 2013 first prize of US$100 000 for their innovative approach to nutrient recycling – a method that uses waste and fly larvae to produce natural animal feed. The AgriProtein solution collects bio-degradable waste, feeds it to flies that in turn produce larvae that are ground into protein to provide a more ecologically friendly, naturally occurring type of animal feed. This approach improves the nutritional value of meat and lowers the cost of animal feed for African processors and farmers. After winning IPA, they attracted many investors and were able to raise US$11 million in less than a year!

In Cairo, IPA 2012 Grand Prize winner Professor Mohamed Sanad, an engineering professor, created a new in-phone and mobile antennae that operates on all frequency bands and addresses challenges faced by the existing antennas. This innovation helps people stay connected, ensuring improved cellular access and productivity across Africa and around the world. Professor Sanad’s antennae will be the first to operate across carriers and borders. His innovation exemplifies the kind of leapfrog solutions with practical market potential that inspire AIF and investors.  He was able to sign a contract with Vodaphone after winning IPA!

More recently, in 2015, Prof Adnane Remmal of Morocco, and Grand Prize winner of IPA 2015 received US$100 000 for his patented alternative to livestock antibiotics. This is a composition of natural phenolic molecules with anti-microbial (anti-bacterial, anti-parasitic, anti-fungal) properties. This natural and innovative formula reduces the health hazard to cattle and humans, and prevents the transmission of multi-resistant germs and possible carcinogens through meat, eggs and milk to humans at no extra cost to farmers. Prof Remmal is now talking to investors to explore possibilities of scaling up his innovation to other African markets!

As these few examples demonstrate, IPA has been able to confirm that Africans are capable of coming up with world class innovations which solve African problems and the rest of the world. It has also helped attract the necessary investments for these innovators who are creating jobs and solving pressing African challenges.

Will you be introducing any new components into the IPA Awards going forward and if so, what will these be?

PMK: Innovation is dynamic and as our work at IPA continues to turn wheels, we embrace new ideas, strategies and opportunities to enhance our mission to script Africa’s growth story. Our work in Africa is important, and we are now confident of our role in strengthening innovation ecosystems in the continent. We will continue to work with IPA champions and networks to pull resources together and respond to identified needs innovatively.

One addition to our activities is the launch of our new online platform to connect African innovators and innovation enablers with resources to be launched at IPA 2016 event in Gaborone. We will also plan to put more emphasis on mobilizing young people and women to join our innovation movement. Lastly, collaboration will remain a key focus area. We will continue to work with established innovation enablers, and movers and shakers across the continent to support home-grown solutions that can make it to the market.

Besides the three winners, IPA is extending support to all nominees with a support voucher of US$5000 and will promote leading young people and women through mentorship, training, and opportunities for boosting their great ideas.

Going forward, our team will expand, to meet the growing needs of our program and increased our post-prize activities which will include capacity building through skills training, organizing pitching opportunities to attract the right investors and working with WIPO to ensure African innovations are protected.

What does the AIF aim to achieve on a continental level in the future?

JC: The AIF has always prioritized supporting sustainable projects that improve the lives and the future of people in Africa. We will continue to drive access to technologies and innovations, law and governance and social impact development.

Of course, in the innovation space, the IPA will remain a key driver in building innovation societies in Africa. And through it we will continue to support the development of African innovation ecosystems by building synergies, collaborations, and partnerships with innovation enablers committed to Africa.

Additionally, through the African Law Library (ALL), another important AIF program, we aim to support knowledge transfer in vital areas such as access to legal information. This is especially important in a continent like Africa with such diverse legal realities, both customary and colonial, because it can impact how things get done. The ALL will continue to provide free online public access to legal information from all over Africa. We now have over 50 partner entities in 20 African countries, and we will continue to empower African citizens with freedom of information through increased partnerships across the region.

The third and newest program is the Social Impact Program (SIPA) in Angola. SIPA is focused on addressing social challenges through innovation. It looks at providing solutions to specific issues that impact rural communities. Here the focus will remain on building partnerships to support basic access to medical diagnostics, low-cost services in health, water and sanitation or energy provision, education and rural development in Angola.

Clearly we have our work cut out for us but what keeps us going is desire to elevate need-based innovation and ramp up economic diversification across the continent.

What are some of the success stories of the previous winners?

Alex Mwaura Muriu, who developed the Farm Capital Africa, a risk sharing agri-business funding model that draws in investors for a share of farming profits was invited to showcase his innovation to the Kenyan president at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in 2015 in Nairobi, which is a lifetime opportunity for him. In terms of tangible growth, he has raise US$100,000/- from investors, increased partnership base, expanded his operational reach with cultivation increase to 20 acres from 8.

Hassine Labaied and Anis Aouini from Saphon Energy received USD 25 000 for creating a bladeless wind converto in IPA 2013. Since then, due to IPA, their credibility and exposure has been increased substantially, thus leading to building strategic partnerships with Microsoft 4 Africa and further scaling their reach. They have also enhanced their technology by moving from version 2 to 5.

Logou Minsob, from Togo, won the runner-up for the FoufouMix machine, seen as the innovation with the best business potential. The Foufou Mix is a food processor designed to replace the mortar and pestles used to prepare foufou, a popular dish in West Africa. Due to the win, Logou received recognition from Head of State at Togo leading to increased funding with increased media exposure thus creating more awareness around the FoufouMix.

Do you have offices in Africa?

JC: Yes, in addition to our headquarters in Zurich we are set up in Luanda, Angola. It runs the SIPA program and the programs for the hybrid innovation hub, Fábrica de Sabão. However we don’t believe in the necessity to maintain a physical premise in order to accomplish our goals. Our focus is innovation and our work is to build innovation ecosystems and connect innovation enablers to support African innovators.

We do this by tapping into our influencer networks across the African continent, including governments, innovation hubs, and other key stakeholders in countries that have hosted the IPA in the past or that have strong focus on innovation-led development. This approach has been fundamental to our achievements in supporting African innovation on a pan-African level.  Innovation thrives when people are connected, and by supporting innovation ecosystems, we are collectively contributing towards building African innovation economies.

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