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Africa’s Innovative Spirit: Taking on the World

By Jay Ireland December 20, 2013

There is no such thing as “African innovation.” There are clear differences among African countries in terms of attitudes and approaches to innovation.

The word “innovation” was long synonymous with the IT programmers of Silicon Valley or the design engineers of Tokyo. But the world is changing fast and now the latest designs, products and ideas are as likely to come from Accra or Nairobi as from the U.S. or Far East. Africa’s innovative and entrepreneurial spirit is taking on the world – whether it is apps for farmers, medical diagnostic devices, cleaner cooking fuel or new seed varieties, exciting advances are being made every day across the continent.

However, GE’s Innovation Barometer, which surveys senior business executives from around the world on their thoughts on innovation trends, has demonstrated that there is no such thing as “African innovation.” In fact, there are clear differences between Nigeria and South Africa, for example, in terms of attitudes and approaches to innovation. While business leaders in these two countries share some priorities and challenges, the reality is that they are operating in very different environments, with different policy and operating constraints.

The survey of business leaders revealed that, in many markets, numerous barriers to innovation remain. For example, the framework for innovation in Nigeria is perceived to be highly challenging – Nigerian respondents identified the need for a more enabling environment for the development of venture capital as a particular priority. In South Africa, meanwhile, respondents suggested that the country needed to do more to create an entrepreneurial culture through stronger links between educational establishments and businesses. In both countries, there is a perception that governments are failing to provide sufficient support for innovation.

Governments certainly have a role to play in creating a more conducive environment for innovation to flourish. There needs to be improved access to credit for small business and entrepreneurs – governments can facilitate this through support for microfinance institutions and savings clubs, and by improving the regulatory environment by, for example, strengthening laws on bankruptcy, regulating access to credit, and protecting intellectual property. Building infrastructure is also crucial – as we have seen in Kenya, for example, widening access to affordable and reliable ICT networks has kick-started an entire industry built around mobile technology.

Role for Private Sector in Innovation
The private sector also has a crucial role to play in working with African governments to address some of these barriers to innovation. Companies can work with small and new businesses to share their expertise through mentoring programs. They can promote innovation and entrepreneurship through outreach with schools and universities. And they can help create an environment that nurtures innovation by supporting the development of clusters centered on excellence in a particular industry.

Africa is already home to a growing number of such tech hubs, such as iHub in Nairobi and InnovateLagos in Lagos. These hubs are helping to build a cooperative community of start-ups and entrepreneurs, who are working together to share expertise and ideas. Providing a space for collaboration that is tied to the local community through partnerships with local business, schools and universities will help to unlock the tremendous potential for research and innovation.

As GE’s business grows on the African continent, we are seeing first hand the crucial role that innovation can play – as well as the barriers that can prevent innovative solutions from flourishing. We are committed to investing in local innovation capabilities and collaborating with African partners to develop tailored solutions for Africa – whether that is improving access to healthcare or energy, finding ways to improve learning in schools, or developing environmentally friendly household devices.

For example, developing solutions for the chronic power shortages faced in much of the continent means finding reliable, sustainable and economically viable power generation methods. This is why we are working with the U.S. Africa Development Foundation (USADF) to run the Off-Grid Energy Innovation Challenge in Kenya and Nigeria. Over the next three years, this program will give 20 grants of up to $100,000 to African individuals and companies to develop and expand off-grid solutions for communities and businesses that would not otherwise have access to electricity. In this way, we hope to find exciting new ways of tackling one of the most significant challenges across much of the continent.

The first winners, three each from Nigeria and Kenya, have already found creative solutions. For the Nigerian winners, GVE Projects limited designed an 18 KW solar-powered off grid electricity project that will generate electricity for not less than 140 homes through a mini-gird in the Egbeke community of Rivers state.

For Trans Africa Gas and Electric PLC their project was a standalone cold storage facility embedded in two rural communities in Dandanrua Road and Tudun Wada both in Jos, north central Nigeria. The storage facility, with an 8kW solar nameplate generator, will allow farmers to cool and store their produce before bringing to market.

The third winner, Afe Babalola University, plans to generate 2.5 megawatts of electricity through a renewable hydro-electric power system that will serve over 10,000 members of the university community and beyond. To achieve this, the university plans to construct a dam in a community river.

The entries from Kenya were just as innovative. Solar World (E.A.) Limited is working to construct 5 solar powered water points in Samburu County in Northern Kenya.  Afrisol Energy Limited’s plans to construct a bio-digester to produce electricity and biogas in the slums of Nairobi while Mibawa Suppliers Limited proposal is working on distributing IndiGo lights, using an innovative ‘rent-to-own’ payment scheme, that will allow low-income households in rural areas to replace kerosene lamps for a much cheaper source of energy.

Meeting the “innovation challenge” will be increasingly important for success in the globalized world and governments, civil society and the private sector must work together to ensure that conditions are in place for African countries to be part of that success.

Whether it is designing previously unimaginable products using new materials and techniques, developing new modes of collaboration, or finding a more cost-effective and reliable way of delivering technology to remote areas, we must continually strive to bridge the gap between technology and everyday problems to ensure that innovation is at the heart of everything we do.

Jay Ireland is President-CEO of GE Africa.