Africa needs African Innovators to solve African problems

by Dr. Nhlanhla Msomi (a 2016 IPA Judge)

Those of us in Africa know that lasting change is best achieved when it comes from within; that solutions to seemingly intractable problems can be created by those of us who have witnessed them. Luckily for Africa, the continent is teeming with highly talented and dedicated innovators and entrepreneurs who are working hard to find solutions. We are all however frustrated by varying degrees of access to capital, support services and the tools needed to bring new ideas to life.

I have been privileged to get involved in a noble initiative focusing on mobilizing for African innovators and enablers. I am referring to the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), an initiative of the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) created in 2011 to identify and reward innovators with needs based and market oriented solutions to African challenges. Beyond the lucrative cash awards, IPA offers many more opportunities which help unlock African innovators’ potential. Supporting innovators is crucial not only because it helps us to develop much-needed solutions to issues such as poor access to basic healthcare services or a lack of clean drinking water; but because home-grown solutions create jobs and contribute to socio-economic growth. Skilled innovators and entrepreneurs who succeed in areas such as agriculture have the ability to create jobs for fellow Africans – but they also reduce reliance on imports and contribute to the creation of a diverse supply chain. There are also issues that are particularly pressing in many African countries such as Malaria that the developed world simply doesn’t have to face. This means that the solution for such challenges must come from Africans themselves. The IPA recent grand Prize winner, Dr Valentin Agon has just done this: his innovation, Api-palu is an anti-malaria drug treatment made from natural plant extract.

Let’s take another example of Professor Lesley Erica Scott from South Africa, one of the IPA 2015 winners who was awarded the Social Impact Innovation prize, (US$25,000) for creating Smartspot TBcheck. Her product, Smartspot TBcheck, examines the accuracy of machines used to detect TB diagnosis. Accuracy has been a problem – and if an individual is given a false-negative for TB, they are likely to go home and spread the infection. TBCheck immediately assesses whether these machines are functioning optimally. For individuals who are HIV and Tuberculosis (TB) co-infected, rapid and accurate diagnosis of TB itself is vital in order to commence the right kind of treatment.  Unlike other products, TBcheck is easy and safe to use and can be delivered to laboratories safely and economically. This will make diagnosing TB far easier and might go a long way in curbing the TB epidemic in Africa. Today TB is second only to HIV and AIDS as a leading cause of death in the continent.

Success stories such as the aforementioned play an important role in encouraging other African entrepreneurs to come to the fore. And, in the context of Africa’s weak capital markets, which make it very difficult for small businesses or those with an idea to get off the ground or grow, competitions such as IPA are doubly important. Product development, research and developing prototypes cost money and innovators should be considering the IPA as a viable commercial conduit for their funding needs.

Looking ahead: the kind of innovation Africa needs and filling the investment gap

The buzzword in today’s South Africa is “free wifi” and although access to bandwidth plays a fundamental role in increasing access to global information, it is easy to forget that the bulk of South Africans, and Africa as a whole, are still in need of basic services such as water, food and shelter. I believe that the kinds of innovation that Africans should be creating are those that meet the basic needs of the local community whether it is finding a way to provide access to clean drinking water or efficient ways to deliver health care services.

Entrepreneurs and innovators have been hailed as the backbone of the economy as job creation and the alleviation of poverty is accelerated primarily by SMMEs. Over the last couple of years, the investment landscape in Africa has grown to encompass venture capitalists, crowd-funding, government initiatives, competitions from private sector and incubators have all played a noticeable role in encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. Although, entrepreneurial activities in South Africa have declined, it is important for the investment ecosystem to keep growing to encourage more Africans to create solutions that are necessary and beneficial to their communities.

The Innovation Prize for Africa plays a significant role in facilitating a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation in Africa as they provide an enabling environment that somewhat circumvents the struggles of many innovators in Africa such as access to market, funding and continuous support . I urge innovators, researchers and entrepreneurs to look deeply at the challenges in their communities and transform them into opportunities to create solutions that make a tangible impact to making Africa a better continent to live in.

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