Geographies in Depth

It's time for an innovation revolution in Africa

Image:  REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi
Minister of Foreign Affairs , Republic of Botswana
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In an increasingly globalized world, innovation has become a key differentiating feature that can define long-term business success, which in turn leads to economic growth and consequent job creation. Fostering innovation has however often been the privilege of wealthy nations, given the high R&D costs associated with it and the investments in human capital required to succeed in this undertaking.

Paradoxically, innovation in Africa has existed despite a prevailing developmental environment plagued by deficits in skills, technologies or infrastructure. Likely, African innovation stems from the extreme need there exists to find immediate, sustainable solutions for critical problems the continent has been facing, and which threatens to hinder its next phase of development, if not addressed properly. It also relies on Africa’s extensive supply of ideas, which are quietly nursed within the minds of its own people. With the fastest growing population on earth, Africa has therefore more human capital potential than anywhere else on earth. Increasingly well-educated, African youth have the potential and motivation to think of suitable African solutions to widespread African problems. Entrepreneurship also plays a role. Among the 10 countries with the highest number of start-ups in the entire world, five are in Africa according to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.

This tells a clear story: African innovators live in a new era of opportunity enterprise where there is enormous need for innovation. In nurturing Africa’s people development, we foster an environment prone for distilling such groundbreaking ideas that meets the challenges of African communities, or even nationwide, depending on the scope of the innovation in question. Support to areas directly impacting human capital development such as education, vocational training, healthcare as well as access to basic infrastructure can strongly contribute to the realization of this potential.

Thousands of talented individuals stream out of our universities every year, from great institutions such as the University of Cape Town, Lagos Business School and the African Leadership Network’s MBA programme in Mauritius. In the absence of rewarding opportunities, where this brainpower can be utilized to make a meaningful contribution and continue their personal edification, we take the risk of losing these bright minds altogether. Hence the importance of further investment in higher education institutions and training hubs as a complement to any educational initiatives for primary and secondary schooling.

A collaboration between the public and private sectors can help to foster an environment that promotes an innovative mindset and encourages and nurtures of our brain potential. Regional programmes, such as the AfDB’ s Innovation Weekend launched in 2015, rewards technology-led innovations that better the lives of women and children in Africa. The “Innovation Prize for Africa” (IPA), an annual awards programme, has brought to the fore thousands of young entrepreneurs and inventors. The 2016 winner, Dr Valentin Agon, has created a natural anti-malarial drug treatment that is significantly cheaper and has superb inhibitory effects on 3D7 strains – the causative agent of malaria. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 88% of malaria cases and 90% of death cases worldwide. Some African countries are spending in the region of 40% of their annual budgets on malaria treatment. A natural drug that is significantly cheaper and highly effective is advantageous for both patients and governments. Also on the healthcare innovation segment is South African Professor Lesley Erica Scott’s development of a new diagnostic tool for tuberculosis – the Smartspot TBcheck – which examines the accuracy of machines used to detect TB diagnosis, a major problem in Africa. On the fintech segment, Kenya SafariCom is now a leading telecommunications company in Africa – it created the now ubiquitous mobile money payment brand, M-PESA, which is used by millions of Africans to pay their bills and transfer money, save or withdraw cash. M-PESA has transformed the lives of millions who had no access to any financial services and it has created employment for around 3000 people in Nairobi.

Such innovative discoveries also have the potential to promote economic growth. The development of drugs inside Africa gives legitimacy to the development of intra-continent pharma production, arguably not only for self-consumption, but also for export, which should support a leveling of the trade balance. The TB diagnosis solution is now being manufactured, and has been contributing to economic growth and job creation in South Africa. Innovation in the food, textiles, services and technology are additional industrialization opportunities in addition to the healthcare elements described above.

Domestic production of home-grown products equates to home-grown jobs, and helps to re-dress the enormous trade imbalance across our continent, with the caveat that we have what it takes to deliver on it: talent and infrastructure. On the former, a significant increase of industrialized output will require the creation of a wider pool of talent and skills than we have today. One idea to address this issue swiftly entails tapping into the African diaspora talent pool by creating attractive sector specific programmes and leadership opportunities that would allow them to contribute to the development of their motherland. As for infrastructure, it goes without saying that infrastructure is today arguably the cornerstone of progress in Africa. It is the divide between success and failure. Making the right decisions on the right investments in the sector will be a fundamental step towards meeting Africa’s goals for 2030 and beyond.

Unleashing the power of innovation in Africa can create an important platform for widespread development across the continent. In order to achieve that we need to invest in the two pillars driving the wealth creation of our continent: our people and our infrastructure.

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