Emily Smith

Social Capital Markets 09: Innovation in Africa

We often hear about the challenges facing Africa, but seldom do we hear about the innovation and creativity emerging throughout the continent. In an afternoon session at SoCap09 entitled “Identifying Opportunities for Innovation in Africa”, the panelists had a passionate and revealing discussion around the quantity of underexposed and underinvested talent in Africa. The panelists included Emeka Okafor of Timbuktu Chronicles and Maker Faire Africa, Nii Simmonds of Afrobotics and Maker Faire Africa, and Erik Hersman from Afrigadget and Ushahidi.

Maker Faire Africa is a program where African innovations, inventions and initiatives can be brought to life, supported, amplified and propagated. It is an event where African entrepreneurs can come together to discuss locally generated, bottom-up technologies that solve immediate challenges to development.

All three panelists are organizers for Maker Faire Africa and independent bloggers. Collectively, they work to unmask the innovative talent in Africa and ignite a larger scale of economic growth across the continent. Reading their blogs and hearing their stories, you can instantly feel the potential of a continent that is often overlooked.

At SoCap09, the group discussed how a small amount of money can have a large impact, if only invested in the right places. The question becomes, how do we identify these opportunities? One theme that was repeated by both Emeka and Nii was the need to create a platform for innovators; an ecosystem where entrepreneurs are encouraged to develop their ideas. In a region where Intellectual Property is not protected, it’s hard to find people circulating their ideas to the masses. Individuals need to be empowered to share their ideas in order to be discovered, incubated and developed to their full potential.

A second, critical part of identifying opportunities is the need to be on the ground. You need “boots on the ground”, Erik emphasized, and even then, he continued, it’s hard to really see everything going on without having a strong cultural context. In this sense, it’s vital that we build local capacity to help identify on the ground opportunities. Each of these panelists plays a critical role in that identification, communicating on the ground technologies and creating awareness on a global scale.

Another re-occurring theme throughout the panel was the idea of the “missing middle”; the lack of investments larger than informal micro-enterprises and smaller than large scale multinational firms. This leaves a huge funding gap for innovators looking to build any complex, entrepreneurial venture. Many Africans cannot develop a credit history, and instead turn to the most readily available source of capital, micro-loans.

But in order to really create an innovative and scalable enterprise, more than informal micro-lending is necessary. Some organizations such as Acumen Fund and Kickstart, are working to address this need, but more investment at this level is necessary to truly push the economy forward.

Erik posed a question towards the end of the session: “Is every African entrepreneur a social entrepreneur by default?” In a region where development is often thought of through grant giving, it may be time to shift our thinking towards more market based approaches to poverty alleviation. Investors may consider Africa a risky region for investment, but it’s often risk that yields the greatest return.