Category: News

African Leadership Magazine: How Africa Can Create More Innovators




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.Jean-Claude_Bastos_de_Moraiss

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.

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.