Africa is buzzing with start-ups and innovations, which promise to transform our socio-economic landscape. Our new challenge is to unlock the potential of these innovations.
African innovators and SME’s are now contributing more than ever before to the region’s need for economic diversity. A great many of the innovations that are coming to the fore are uniquely African, developing products and technologies that are solving some of Africa’s most intransigent problems. Moreover, some African innovators are also creating world class innovations which address global challenges. This good news is however tempered with some challenges – which is where policy makers, not-for-profits and the private sector have an opportunity to get involved.
More and more ground-breaking innovations and talented entrepreneurs are coming forward, thanks to pan-African campaigns and initiatives that focus exclusively on innovation. The African Innovation Foundation’s Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) focuses on unearthing thousands of innovators every year and mobilizing for their support. The IPA initiative has been now running for 5 years and it has mobilized more than 6000 innovators from 50 African countries. It also has a robust network of innovation enablers from across Africa and beyond who are ready to collaborate with AIF and support selected IPA applications after the Awards event. The IPA 6th edition, also known as IPA 2017, was launched on September 27th and its theme is African innovation: Investing in prosperity.
IPA provides a platform to identify outstanding African innovations whilst also mobilizing innovation enablers to support African innovators and entrepreneurs and create enabling environment for them. IPA focuses on home-grown innovative solutions that tackle pressing issues in Africa such as these related to agriculture and healthcare.
It is great to note that other institutions such as the World Economic Forum are actively involved in promoting the development of more actions to support African entrepreneurs and innovators. In May 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda, the 26th World Economic Forum on Africa addressed issues such as under-investment, the skills gap and support for women entrepreneurs in Africa. This year it launched an initiative to find Africa’s Top Women Innovators, looking at how the digital economy can drive radical structural transformation and strengthen public-private collaboration on major African issues.
Despite all exciting stories about African innovations, it is still difficult for innovators and SME’s to access capital. Policymakers now have an opportunity to capitalize on, by developing national innovation ecosystems which prepare local innovators to become attractive for investors and the business community. Considering that innovators are contributing to the creation of a diverse economy, alongside new jobs and much-needed solutions; society stands to benefit greatly by their success. There are so much to gain if Governments and other innovation enablers work together to raise the profile of African innovators and facilitate access to the much needed seed capital.
With the right amount of funding, African innovators will solve the most pressing African challenges whilst creating new jobs in the continent. With the majority of Africans being young, innovation can solve unemployment problem while also setting the young people on the road to be competitive on the global stage.
The Innovation Prize for Africa is one initiative that offers major cash prizes for those that come forward with genuinely ground-breaking innovations. It offers annual Awards of US$ 185 000 to three winners and 7 nominees– capital that is now seeing amazing impacts on the winners who go on to attract more funds and create successful businesses.
Knowing that money is not all that is needed, IPA also provides unique platforms for African innovators and innovation enablers to network, share knowledge, and discuss potential collaborations. In addition selected innovators receive support and training in areas including communications, intellectual property and business development.
In fact, IPA has delivered success to many. It has awarded innovators in sectors such as manufacturing & services, ICT, health & wellbeing, the environment, energy & water and – perhaps one of the fastest growing sectors – agriculture & agribusiness. The US$ 100 000 cash prize awarded to 2015’s 1st prize winner, Professor Adnane Remmal, has enabled him to move up a gear in his production and distribution capacity. Prof Remmal created a new, natural alternative to antibiotics for livestock. This is a composition of natural phenolic molecules with anti-microbial properties, without side-effects or resistance. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as many other world bodies, have insisted that antibiotics, “Must be used judiciously in humans and animals because both uses contribute to the emergence, persistence and spread of resistant bacteria.” Despite this warning, many African countries have not taken measures around the use of antibiotics for livestock. Professor Remmal is tackling the antibiotic issue head-on.
In the same year, Alex Mwaura Muriu from Kenya won the Second Prize and was awarded $25000 for Farm Capital Africa, a well-developed risk sharing agri-business funding model that draws in investors for a share of farming profits. This initiative identifies, screens and shortlists full-time farmers with small holdings and helps them devise farming plans to attract potential investors who earn profits over time. This is a viable solution to address the inability of committed, small scale African “agripreneurs” – who lack collateral and credit history to access traditional financing—from expanding their operations. An attractive farming initiative and investment option for those with extra capital, benefiting both small scale farmers and investors.
If Africa wants to continue “to rise”, unlocking the potential of its innovators is no longer a matter of choice. Given its young and driven population, Africa has key ingredients to shape its destiny and leapfrog the rest of the world. What is needed is to build strong African innovation ecosystems which support needs based and market oriented innovative solutions to African challenges. And, of course such ecosystems shall include different type of investments needed to prototype, pilot, benchmark and scale home-grown innovations.