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Innovation Prize for Africa 2017 nurtures home-grown talent

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Innovation Prize for Africa 2017 nurtures home-grown talent

Egypt’s Aly El-Shafei is the winner of this year’s Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA). The award ceremony was held in Accra, Ghana in July. Entries for the $100,000 award came from 52 countries across Africa. NA’s Tom Collins was there.

This year’s annual IPA garnered the biggest return in terms of number of entries since the award was first set up in 2010. Coming from some of the continent’s most imaginative innovators, the entries spanned 52 countries and marked a ten-fold increase since the award was first instituted.

The African Innovation Foundation (AIF) was set up by Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais – a Swiss-Angolan entrepreneur behind numerous businesses including Quantum Global Group and Banco Kwanza Invest, Angola’s first investment bank – in order to encourage informal innovators to bring their designs to the fore, and this year marks the sixth IPA, held for the first time in Accra, Ghana. 

Each year 10 nominees are shortlisted and given the opportunity to showcase their innovations and compete for $185,000 prize money, spread across various categories, with the top prize being $100,000. 

The ‘innovation ecosystem’ as Jean-Claude calls it, has been slowly growing in Africa, and this year the IPA welcomed inaugural pitches from the DRC, Liberia and Zimbabwe. By giving young innovators the platform to scale up their ideas, Jean-Claude hopes the innovative spirit will spread in Africa and that home-grown technology will be taken seriously. 

“The vision that drives us is that we want to shape and create prosperity through African innovation potential,” he said. 

“The prize has one core goal – we wanted to create the innovative spirit. When I started I was told I was crazy, there was no innovation in Africa – we’ve now been able to prove this is not the case.” 

Accra certainly felt like a city hosting an Africa ready for substantial innovative change as the event was packed full of young entrepreneurs, keen to make their first breakthrough. 

Innovations ranged from healthcare to communications, all the way through to security. 

The winner of the $100,000 prize, Egyptian Aly El-Shafei has invented a smart bearing – the Smart Electro-Mechanical Actuator Journal Integrated Bearing – to increase efficiency in energy- generating turbines by up to 10%. 

The implications are enormous for power-nascent-emerging-markets and Aly is hoping to take his bearings to a global stage – thereby reversing Africa’s image as a technology consumer to becoming a technology producer. 

Support from governments needed

Indeed, a running dialogue throughout the IPA 2017 ceremony was how to diversify Africa’s import-heavy economy and how to bring added value to products being exported. 

Herman Kojo Chinery-Hesse, a hugely successful African innovator, said: “The old formula of exporting goods and raw materials needs to be disrupted.” In its place he argued for an Africa which innovates goods on a basis of African needs, backed by a business-friendly and supportive public and private space. 

“Buy local. That changes everything,” he urged. At this, a member of the audience stood up and levelled criticism at Ghanaian government officials for wearing Western-made clothing and driving imported cars, when a made-in-Ghana car, the Katanka, was a perfectly decent automobile.  

Old habits die hard but there is significant cause for celebration in Ghana in terms of innovation. The new president, Nana Akufo-Addo, gave a detailed talk at the event, outlining how he is going to boost the Ghanaian economy and why innovation is central to these plans. 

A policy move enthusiastically applauded by Jean-Claude was Addo’s decision to dedicate 1% of Ghanaian GDP to innovation. The programme will be run by  Kwabena Frimpong-Boateng, Minister of Environment, Science, Technology & Innovation. 

Government participation is greatly needed and has been lacking. Africa, in general, needs to publicly support its innovative potential and understand its importance in generating a dynamic economy. 

To put it in perspective, last year China and the US filed for around 50,000 patents each, whereas in the same period Kenya filed for only 11. 

Yofi Grant, CEO of the Ghana Investment Promotion Centre (GIPC), argued that the government needs to be more proactive in helping innovators get patented and in pointing young entrepreneurs in the right direction for investment. 

Peris Bosire, a nominee and co-founder of Farm Drive, a Kenyan fintech company that has developed a mobile phone application to collect data and provide an alternative risk assessment model for smallholder farms, said: “There is a lot of room for governments to help. Most entrepreneurs need funding or access to basic resources, like office space, which doesn’t come easy when you’re starting out. I think the government can play a role in creating co-share spaces where innovators can access these resources as they start before they make the revenue to be able to pay the expense.”

In this sense the AIF can help inspire governments into recognising the importance of innovation and it can also operate as a platform between the public sphere and the young entrepreneurial class. 

Dougbeh-Chris Nyan, Liberian winner of the $25,000 ‘Social Impact’ prize for his invention of a rapid test that can detect and simultaneously differentiate at least three to seven infections within 10 to 40 minutes, said: “The AIF has been helping to guide us, in how we approach the market situation, how we approach investors, how we approach the government – making us available to the continent we serve and ultimately the whole world.”

Power to slum innovators

However, Jean-Claude was very clear about his advice for young investors. “I believe in the tight market,” he said, “constantly innovating more on the product rather than doing something and trying to protect it.”

For him, young innovators should not let intellectual property rights stand in the way of the process of creating and innovating; they should innovate first and seek structural legitimisation later. 

Nor should young innovators see government approval as their starting point; rather, Jean-Claude sees them more as an aid to innovators than a beginning: “The main job of the government is to give a base infrastructure, to give spaces where people can go. It should give equipment and machinery for design and development.” 

In one of his latest projects, the Soap Factory in Angola, Jean-Claude has provided the blueprint for what this ‘base infrastructure’ is and hopes the model can be replicated by African governments. 

The Soap Factory is a creative space in a slum outside Luanda. It offers a variety of services to young, slum-born innovators. These services include; an incubator hub for advising start-ups, an accelerator hub to discuss financing and networking, a maker space which provides tools and equipment to create prototypes and a co-working space to ensure cultural collaboration. He believes that by harnessing the power of slum innovators, of Africa’s informal architects who create on a needs basis, the continent can effectively find African solutions to African problems and it can head towards an “innovation-led industrialised continent that the world will look up to”. 

This vision is one that is shared by many in Africa, and the AIF through its annual IPA has paved the way for its realisation. 

While much has been said about Africa’s growing youth dividend, very little has been said about exactly how the huge numbers will benefit Africa. Initiatives like the IPA and the Soap Factory give concrete modelled solutions which if expanded continent-wide, would help spread the seeds of innovation and definitively break the shackles of aid-dependent-single-resource economies. 

To all the young innovators, Jean-Claude’s advice was: “Continue to act like a child, be consistent in your idea, don’t abandon them, show your emotion, be creative, involve others, share, and most importantly, have fun.”

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