McLean Sibanda: Innovation from Africa is becoming more sophisticated

Every year, the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) through its initiative, Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) honours and encourages innovative achievements that contribute toward developing new products, increasing efficiency or saving cost in Africa. Specifically, the award targets technological breakthroughs by Africans in five main areas: manufacturing and service industry, health and well-being, agriculture and agribusiness, environment, energy and water, as well as ICTs.

In an interview with the chairman of the IPA judges’ panel, McLean Sibanda, who is also the CEO of The Innovation Hub South Africa and President of the African Division of International Association of Science Parks, he speaks about the AIF and the IPA, as well as innovation in Africa. 

Can you briefly take us through your relationship with AIF/ IPA? And how do you think IPA has evolved since 2012?  

I have been associated with the IPA since 2013 and became a judge in 2014 and then chairman of the judges’ panel in 2015.  In 2015, my organization The Innovation Hub also played a key role in supporting the IPA’s outreach program and expanding the pipeline of applicants.  The IPA has become a flagship program not only for showcasing the best innovations coming out of Africa, but also for promoting a culture of Africans developing solutions to address their own challenges.  Over the past 5 years, the IPA has become a coveted award for any entrepreneur working on innovations with market potential in Africa. Increasingly, the quality has become better; yet the diversity remains, in terms of both frugal innovations addressing real societal issues as well as more technological innovations addressing both African and global challenges. The number of countries participating has also increased, as well as the entries themselves.

What are you looking for this year from the various participants?

 I think the top entries must be the ones that have innovations promising to make a difference to the lives of people of Africa; but are also scalable. The entrepreneurs themselves must demonstrate their hunger to make a difference.

Since you represent The Innovation Hub South Africa and are the President of the African Division of International Association of Science Parks (IASP), how do you support innovation and the participants at the IPA?

 The support we provide is two-fold.  One, in preparing the applicants in our various incubation programs to enter the IPA. Secondly, by extending our services and support to the finalists of the IPA located within our region. From the IASP point of view, we are extending our network to ensure that any participant in the IPA can still receive assistance from a member of the IASP somewhere within the continent.

What shift have you witnessed in the technology space across Africa in terms of innovation?

 In the early days, the innovations, other than in South Africa, tended to be less technological, we are seeing increased sophistication of the innovations coming out of the continent. Also, the innovations address African problems. Considering the diversity of the African continent with its 54 countries, we are seeing the importance of context in terms of the innovations coming from different parts of the continent, yet there is scalability of these innovations in other parts of the continent.  Increasingly, we are also seeing convergence of technologies, with ICT becoming a great enabler in health, agriculture and water related innovations.