Letters

Make Africa innovators partners, not beggars

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An African American female Scientist writes formula on a glass whiteboard. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

Summary

  • The opening line in a 2019 article by the Financial Times suggested that “foreign-owned start-ups are driving African tech revolution — and prompting fears of exploitation.”
  • The article which drew reference to some of Africa’s finest innovations, had a sad but interesting reflection of Africa’s recent past, terming the period as where “most value is added to commodities after they leave the continent”.
  • It is a shame that Africa is stuck at a place where innovators are looked at as beggars and not as partners when it comes to funding their ideas.

Although Africa has proven its potential as a fast-rising home to brilliant innovations, many innovators here are struggling. Opportunities are hard to come by, and resource allocation to what could be viable trend-shifting ideas is a mirage. Even worse, some of the stakeholders that support innovators struggle with sustainability to the extent of shutting down their operations, significantly reducing the level of available support to the innovators.

On the bright side, however, the opportunities for Africa’s innovative brains are not all lost. Just last month, Google released about $2 million grant for non-profit and social enterprises using technology to improve lives in Africa.

The Huawei South Africa-based Cloud and Artificial Intelligence (AI) Innovation Centre is another facility that is open to developers and promotes innovation, knowledge transfer and economic growth through app development. Including the African Telecommunications Union’s Africa Innovation Challenge Series, these openings are bringing hope.

The opening line in a 2019 article by the Financial Times suggested that “foreign-owned start-ups are driving African tech revolution — and prompting fears of exploitation.” The article which drew reference to some of Africa’s finest innovations, including Kenya’s M-Pesa, Rwanda’s forays in health apps, Nigeria’s Cars45 as well as Jumia, had a sad but interesting reflection of Africa’s recent past, terming the period as where “most value is added to commodities after they leave the continent”. While this may entirely not be the case today, there is the likely danger that the situation may recur.

In 2019 when Jumia, for instance, became the first exclusively Africa-focused e-commerce company to be listed on the US stock exchange, that perhaps should have been the golden break for Africa to initiate penetrating the global scene.

It is a shame that Africa is stuck at a place where innovators are looked at as beggars and not as partners when it comes to funding their ideas.

This explains how, according to a 2019 study by Afrilabs and Briter Bridges, more than 110 hubs have shut down operations within the past half-decade.

Confronted by these unfortunate realities, stakeholders across the continent such as regulatory authorities, entrepreneurial support organisations, incubators, accelerators and learning institutions, must come together and support young ICT innovators.

This way, we are likely to build a system that eases the desire of stakeholders to inject resources into prospects, with the likelihood of creating income for youth, market expansion, improved livelihoods, upscaling of businesses, and funding.

Looking at the situation from an insider’s perspective, it is possible to not only have multiple organisations onboarded, but also have them work together.

Competing interests must remain at the market place, and at no time should they stand on the way of progress for the African youth. This year’s edition of the African Telecommunications Union’s Innovation Challenge is one example of how international actors can work together for the betterment of the ‘local man’.

Taking notes from the lessons learnt over the years dealing with innovation, and especially from the classroom that was the first edition of the ATU Africa Innovation Challenge, a general agreement that many of us championing a partnership-led approach to innovator’s support have come to, is that it is not impossible to pull together.

Common ideas offer the starting point to generating useful engagements and reserving a seat at the table of partnerships.

Just like we expect innovators to build new ideas, innovation support must also be founded by unique concepts and ideas. Undeniably in this regard, I do anticipate to see some of Africa’s best practices that have created an enabling environment for youth ICT innovation to thrive, award and showcase them.

We must admit that the process of innovation is complex and for innovators to thrive, they require resources, capacity building, effective policies, valuable networks, cultural change and a conducive economic environment.

Africa must guard against being seen as a continent that has no regard for innovation, and therefore no regard for the future.

John Omo, Secretary General of the African Telecommunications Union