Seven years ago, millions of Kenyans were struggling to access basic financial services such as a bank account; they were unable to transfer money or receive microcredit. Then, a locally developed mobile payment system called M-Pesa radically changed everything. Today, more than two-thirds of Kenya’s population uses M-Pesa to make and receive payments and an estimated 43% of the country’s GDP flows through the system. This is transforming life in the country, increasing income in rural households and spawning a range of start-ups.

This speedy adoption of mobile payments captures the enterprising spirit of African innovation. It reflects the resourcefulness with which people in Africa find local solutions to local issues. It also shows how Africa’s challenges are opportunities in disguise and how the continent can bypass development stages without paying for their replacement. Mobile phones, for example, were rapidly adopted in Africa because of the lack of fixed telecom infrastructure. And solar panels are being adopted faster than in other parts of the world, because kerosene is so expensive that the payback time for investments in solar power is months rather than years.

Healthcare is another exciting area. According to a report from the World Economic Forum, Africa faces 28% of the global disease burden with only 3% of the world’s healthcare workforce. In response, Africa is adopting new operating models and technologies. By training health extension workers to focus on education, family planning and sanitation, Ethiopia achieved a 32% drop in child mortality and 38% drop in maternal mortality. In Kenya, e-learning has taught 12,000 nurses how to treat major diseases such as HIV and malaria, compared to the 100 nurses a year that can be taught in a classroom.

Africa is also embracing new business models that tap into the vitality of the country’s communities. Philips, for example, teamed up with Inyenyeri, a Rwandan NGO, to give families access to an innovative cookstove. Crucially, the cookstove is given away for free and families pay for the stove by harvesting twigs, leaves and grass. This biomass is compressed into fuel pellets, half of which are returned to the family for personal use and half of which are sold by the NGO. The cookstove is produced in Africa, highly energy efficient and, because it is smoke free, significantly healthier.

This example also shows the power of partnerships, without which many African innovations would not come to fruition. Solar-powered light centres, for example, increase the social activity and productivity of communities by generating light after sundown. These communities, however, are often unable to invest in a light centre, so this technology is rolled out through NGOs and governments. Sometimes these light centres are used to power medical equipment such as an ultrasound, or refrigerators that store vaccines. This type of cooperation ensures that innovation generates both financial and social value.

The complexity of Africa’s challenges also requires a multidisciplinary approach to innovation. Kenya, for example, is investing in systems that encourage open innovation. This sees local universities and small and medium enterprises join forces with NGOs, governmental organizations and foreign multinationals such as IBM and Philips, which have set up regional research and innovation centres in Nairobi. Nairobi is also home to iHub, a booming community of local entrepreneurs, investors and some of the world’s leading technology firms.

For innovation to really succeed in Africa, other factors need to be addressed, too. There is a lack of prototyping equipment and workshops, so local innovators depend on Europe or China, making the process costly and cumbersome. And while there are good patent laws in place, there are still too many counterfeit versions of successful products. Also, international firms should source locally and work with local distributors, whenever possible. And governments should focus their development money on stimulating entrepreneurship and innovation.

While in Africa millions of people still live on less than $2.50 a day, the continent looks set to have a brighter future thanks to local solutions for finance, healthcare and energy that could become globally relevant. M-Pesa, for example, has already been rolled out in other African countries, India, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. Perhaps sooner than we think, African innovations will help the rest of the world create lasting social and economic value.

Author: Frans van Houten, President and Chief Executive Officer, Royal Philips. He is participating in the World Economic Forum on Africa 2014 in Abuja, Nigeria. 

Image: A Safaricom sales representative arranges solar-charged mobile phone handsets for display at a retail centre in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, in this September 22, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya