Viewpoint: What If African Nations Operated As One Big Innovation Ecosystem?
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
With the fourth edition of the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) around the corner, I am eagerly waiting to meet the creators of the latest innovations that were shortlisted for the Award. I find myself preoccupied with a subject that both excites me and exasperates me in equal measures: building African innovation ecosystems.
As an optimist, I can see these ecosystems playing out beautifully in my head. I see African nations as innovation economies where knowledge and creation are seamlessly transformed into products, processes and services that fuel economic growth, create employment and wealth, and raise the living standards for all Africans. This vision never ceases to excite me, until reality kicks in.
I am then forced to acknowledge that the seamless picture in my mind has some way to go before it can be fully realized. Not because Africans lack innovative ideas, but because many crucial pieces of the puzzle are still missing – they either haven’t yet been conceived into existence or they exist but haven’t understood that they form part of the great African innovation ecosystem puzzle.
Africa needs to create parallel ecosystems that can support wider innovation
Since innovation rarely succeeds in isolation, innovation ecosystems must be aligned with business and education ecosystems that can support and perpetuate parallel innovation. So this means that for an innovation ecosystem to function, its players must include innovators, entrepreneurs, researchers, academia, venture capitalists, investors, as well as training consultants, legal consultants, business and professional development experts, and marketing gurus amongst others. All of this needs to be underpinned by strong government policies, ethical practices and African cultural understanding.
The source of my exasperation is exactly this. Africa’s innovators and social entrepreneurs are roaring to go, their ingenious innovations address African-specific challenges, and often also have important global relevance. Where we fall short however is the lack of research to back up these innovations, expertise to promote knowledge transfer and funding to upscale innovative ideas into full-fledged commercialized products and services. It’s not that we don’t have these variables in place, it’s just that they don’t sync up at present.