One of the things Africa is known for is its rich and massive human capital. For several decades now, the West has tapped into Africa’s best brains to find innovative solutions to everyday challenges and that part of the world has become better for it. It has been established that there are so many innovative minds in Africa, but the continent still struggles to solve its challenges by itself, owing to several structural and policy deficiencies. Dr. Toluwalogo Odumosu, an Assistant Professor in Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia is one of several smart Nigerians who now contribute immensely to Western economies after leaving Africa.
As one of the judges of the Innovation Prize for Africa 2016, Odumosu, who is also a research associate at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, expresses his passion for African innovations in this interview with The Nerve Africa. He also stresses how astounding innovative activity across the continent is, and the kind of future it paints.
What do you think of African innovations?
I think the continent has immense potential. The greatest resource in Africa is its highly creative and intelligent people. It is clear that Africans are innovative in pretty much every area of life and activity. Look at the creativity in fashion, film, arts and culture for example. One area that does need work and greater concentrations of expertise and investment is innovation in the areas of science and engineering.
Do you think the continent has been able to harness the potential of home-made innovations?
Yes and No. There are a few sectors (for example film and music) where the confluence of creativity, a robust supply chain and a ready market have resulted in some important successes, but by and large I feel that there is much that still needs to be done, for example addressing structural inequities in local markets and in the arena of public policy, in order for entrepreneurs to reap the full rewards of their efforts.
What kind of innovation does Africa really need?
That is a great question and one that can only be answered by Africans themselves. As an interested citizen, a few critical areas that would benefit from some creative disruption stand out to me, including the energy sector, fiscal policy, waste and water management, policing and security, communications and general infrastructure development. Developments in all these though, depend upon governance and policy. So from my perspective, there really is no area in which African ingenuity and creativity isn’t warranted or badly needed.
What deliberate efforts are needed by African governments to encourage home-made innovation?
This is a great question! My response would be too long for you to publish in this forum. However, very briefly, I believe that African governments need to do a lot more work to encourage research in science and engineering in universities on the one hand. On the other, they need to do everything they can to encourage entrepreneurship. Possible interventions range from addressing the high cost of capital to reducing the regulatory and administrative burdens placed on small businesses. Making seed-funding available through competitive programs like the IPA would also be a positive contribution.
What do you think about the Innovation Prize for Africa?
The IPA is a fantastic intervention in that it destabilizes narratives about Africa that paint her as a continent that suffers from a dearth of creativity and innovative capacities. If you are weary of the negative stories reported by the majority in media outlets, and want to examine a different Africa, one that is tackling its pressing problems and contributing to solutions to global difficulties, you need look no further than the amazing submissions to the IPA. The sheer breadth of innovative activity across the continent is astounding and bodes well for the future.
When did you become an IPA judge?
I became an IPA judge sometime last year. I have been involved with the IPA for a few years before that in other capacities.
Names of nominees for IPA 2016 were recently released. How were they selected?
The IPA utilizes a comprehensive vetting process to ensure that it identifies the best and most promising submissions. The process treats all submission fairly, with initial selections based on completeness of the dossier and how well applicants have responded to all the questions. The Judges then undertake a thorough review of the submission that make through the first round, and then there is a winnowing process that relies of external experts to verify all the claims before we begin interviewing the remaining submissions and from there, announce the nominees. Having seen the process from the inside, I can attest that it is fair, rigorous and thorough.
What advice do you have for new IPA participants?
First, believe in yourself and in what you do. Second, as all entrepreneurs need to be able to sell themselves, invest in some advice and feedback to ensure that you improve your ability to market your ideas. Third, take the application process seriously and make sure to put in your best effort. Verify that your application is complete and comprehensive. Be clear and succinct in your explanations. Good luck!