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Home-grown innovation touted to accelerate African economic growth

by Ben Oduor

Rwanda will in October this year host the Innovation Prize for Africa, a program that seeks to strengthen African innovation ecosystem through supporting a culture of innovation and competitiveness. In the countdown to the event, the East African Business Times writer Ben oduor discussed with Pauline Mujawamariya, Managing Director for Africa Innovation Foundation who also doubles up as Programs Director of Innovation Prize for Africa, about the planned event, key topical issues to be discussed and its impact in Africa over the years. Excerpt;

 What was the idea behind formation of the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) and what impact has it created in Africa so far?

The Innovation Prize for Africa(IPA), which is an initiative of the African Innovation Foundation (AIF), was formed in 2011 with a main goal of strengthening African innovation ecosystems through supporting a culture of innovation and competitiveness, whilst spurring growth of innovative, market-driven African solutions to African challenges. To achieve this goal, IPA focuses on catalyzing and supporting home-grown innovation in the following five key areas:  manufacturing and services industries, agriculture / agribusiness, health & well-being, ICT and the environment, energy & water. Ultimately, our objective has always been to strengthen African innovation ecosystems through our platforms and mobilize a whole new generation of innovation enablers, driving business development and cross-collaboration. IPA cuts across generations and social. So far, in its six editions, the IPA has showcased and supported a number of transformative solutions across the aforementioned areas. These solutions range from an alternative to antibiotics for livestock, a software solution that enables healthcare workers to determine HIV positive patients’ responsiveness to anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), among other key ideas. Every year, 10 top African innovators are selected and rewarded as follows:1st Prize Winner with US$ 100’000, 2nd Prize Winner with US$ 25’000, special prizefor the innovation with the Highest Social Impact with US$ 25’000, and each one of the remaining 7 nominees goes home with US$ 5000 vouchers.  Between the cash Awards and additional support provided to winners and nominees, we have invested over US$ 1.5 Million to support innovators to move their innovations forward.

 What informed the choice of Rwanda as this year’s host country for the Innovation Prize for Africa? Also, how many delegates and participants are expected to grace the Kigali event?

 Over recent years,Rwanda has shown that it has a strong commitment to promoting innovation culture and is now one of the continent’s most innovative economies. The country tops the ranks in science, technology and innovation (STI), and the government has set itself a target of attracting $1 billion of ICT investments by 2020. The leadership is clearly serious about this commitment, which is backed by investments like the Kigali Innovation City.We are delighted to host the IPA 2018 edition in Kigali and look forward to working with our existing networks and Rwandan innovators,entrepreneurs, innovation enablers and Partners to build strong innovation ecosystems across Africa.In past IPA editions, we had around 500 delegates from across Africa and the diaspora and we expect to get at least the same amount. I must add though that for us, it is not about the number, but the quality of participants that IPA attracts: Innovators, entrepreneurs, innovation influencers and enablers who believe in Africans’ ability to solve its own challenges and also contribute to the rest of the world. In two words: the Doers!

What topical issues will dominate the IPA event in Kigali and how does East Africa stand to benefit?

Our theme this year is about “Investing in Inclusive Innovation Ecosystems”. Therefore, the two-day event will feature a series of strategic round-tables and workshops aimed at identifying solutions and key actions to drive the right kind of investments and other support without leaving anyone behind. This is a call to action for all innovation stakeholders to invest in building bridges for more inclusive ecosystems that will accelerate and scale African innovation at all levels of society. Planned discussions will be around this theme and will include topics related to the roles youth, women, people living in disadvantaged areas and the diaspora can play towards building robust innovation ecosystems. The two days event will also feature an innovation market place which will be a simulation of our ZuaHub platform where IPA winners and nominees together with Rwandan and other selected African innovators will showcase their innovations to Pan African and international audiences, including top tier media. The event will end with the celebration of African Ingenuity where the three IPA 2018 winners will be announced and rewarded with a total cash amount of US$ 150’000. The remaining seven nominees will also be rewarded with certificates and a US$ 5’000 voucher each.

What criteria does African Innovation Foundation use to arrive at the best innovators and how do the winning ideas benefit after selection?

The IPA selection process is based on the following 5 criteria:

Originality: The uniqueness of the product and its superiority in comparison with similar or alternative products in the market

Marketability: The extent to which the innovation sufficiently addresses the problem it seeks to solve at a cost or model that is accessible to the target market and can generate profits or is self-sustainable

Scalability: The extent to which the solution can be easily applied to other similar markets beyond the applicant’s immediate or local environment

Social impact: The ability of the innovation to create or effect positive and desirable benefit beyond profit within the target community and other stakeholders

Scientific/technical aspects: For tangible technical/scientific products; the extent to which the technical/scientific specifications of the innovation are grounded on established science and sufficiently address anticipated product risks.

As the lead official responsible for ‘catalyzing market-oriented solutions for African-led development across the continent’, in your opinion, what would it take for Africa to industrialize?

For Africa to ‘industrialize’, the continent must invest in home-grown innovations and its people. As we all know, no country has even been able to industrialize without investing in innovation and human capital. Of course, we don’t need to follow the same exact path as the currently called developed countries because there are many areas where Africa has been and can continue to leapfrog the rest of the world. We must also remember that we still have basic needs and challenges which we must solve first. Therefore, we need to start by investing in our own people to allow the capabilities needed to solve existing challenges effectively. As we all know, those experiencing challenges have the right incentives and cultural sensitivity of how to solve them.

On the other hand, keeping in mind that Africa is not a country, it goes without saying that not all African countries will industrialize at the same time, same level, therefore, we must open our borders and facilitate intra-Africa trade and collaboration. This will facilitate true technology transfer and know how, and can accelerate the whole continent’s industrialization process. Lastly, the manufacturing sector is important for industrialization, therefore, we must create industries which allow for production of goods in our own countries. We are blessed by a youthful population ready to work and contribute to their continent, and the manufacturing sector will allow the creation of many jobs needed to occupy many unemployed youth.

Unemployment and famine have been the most pressing challenges to a number of African countries. How has African Innovation Foundation fared in taming these key vices in the continent so far?

Our focus at the AIF is to increase the prosperity of Africans by catalyzing innovation spirit across Africa. Based on our experience working with African innovators whose motivation is to solve African pressing challenges such unemployment and famine. We believe that investing in these talented and driven Africans can lead to eradication of many challenges Africa faces.  As long as we are depending on handouts from abroad and we are not empowering local innovators and entrepreneurs, no new jobs will be created and achieving food security goal will remain a dream. It is known that the majority of Africans depend on substance farming agriculture. Many African substance farmers have no access to financing needed for them to secure agricultural tools, inputs and insure themselves in case they have a bad year or sustain other shocks. Fortunately, the following African innovations created by IPA nominees and winners are tackling various issues faced by small scale farmers head-on: Farm CapitalFarmDrive, iCow, Aybar BBM–to name just few

Who are some of the partners AIF has worked with in Africa and how have they enabled the organization to achieve its mandate?

We work with partners whose vision and purpose is in line with ours and with a common goal of unlocking the potential of African innovators. Thus, we have been working with various innovation hubs such as Jokollabs, The Innovation Hub, Botswana Innovation Hubs, Fabrica de Sabao, AfriLabs members  as well as with past host countries innovation stakeholders for all our outreach activities. We have also signed various MoUs with key institutions working in areas of innovations. We have around 400 innovation enablers we work with across the continent.

What are some of the projects in the pipeline or currently underway in the ICT sectors of Sub-Saharan countries such as Kenya who have in the past been credited as technology hubs in the continent?

While Kenya has been leading with its I-Hub, Gearbox, Ushahidiand BRICK, more is happening in the innovation space across the continent. Innovation hubs are mushrooming with a goal of providing co-working spaces at affordable fees and platforms for attracting support to incubate and accelerate innovations and other entrepreneurial projects. Some incubator hubs typically offer seed funding in exchange for an equity stake – a model that continues to be relevant but is restricted to ventures that demonstrate strong commercial viability. There are also Maker-spaces, an evolution of the traditional hubs format; they are community-operated work spaces that are designed as a perfect platform for entrepreneurs interested in working with their hands, to make things, prototype and receive feedback from peers with common business interests. Maker spaces are also good platforms to meet, socialise and collaborate.

What are some of the challenges grappling African Innovation Foundation in Africa and how does the organization mitigate them?

The challenges we have come across are shared by other organizations focusing on unleashing the potential of African innovators. I would list the four main ones:  weak innovation ecosystems, lack of the right kind of funds (some people call this “smart money”) needed from ideation to scaling up, challenges associated with intra-African trades, and branding. As per the goal of the Foundation and IPA, we are working with various stakeholders to build strong innovation ecosystems which allow knowledge sharing and collaboration. Our ZuaHub platform and IPA annual event focus on bringing together the right stakeholders and triggering actions need to build strong ecosystems for local innovators. Our Cash prize allow us to give seed capital needed by innovators to benchmark their innovations and take them to markets whereas the post prize support provides opportunities to pitch to investors and attract other kind of support innovators need to grow their ventures and scale-up. As our post-prize support also include outreach and communications, this provides an opportunity to brand African made products and position them in relations to competitors in the markets.

What plan(s) does African Innovation Foundation have for the continent in the next few years?

We plan to continue to catalyze innovation across the continent and mobilize innovation influencers and stakeholders to build strong innovation ecosystems which make it easier for African innovators to benchmark their innovations, take them to the market and scale. We would like to see more African innovations scaled across the continent and the rest of the world. We believe this is achievable but we cannot do it alone. We invite anyone and any organization interested in promoting home-grown innovations to join forces with us to support more African innovators.




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