How can Africa’s innovations hit the market?

AFRICA’S innovative ideas remain in laboratories for too long, missing out on the opportunity to serve their purpose. This was observed yesterday during the opening of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Global Gathering, which is taking place in Kigali.
Thierry Zomahoun, the president and founder of NEF, says that adequate infrastructure and technical skills would enable innovators to move fast. Timothy Kisambira
Thierry Zomahoun, the president and founder of NEF, says that adequate infrastructure and technical skills would enable innovators to move fast. Timothy Kisambira

AFRICA’S innovative ideas remain in laboratories for too long, missing out on the opportunity to serve their purpose.

This was observed yesterday during the opening of the Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Global Gathering, which is taking place in Kigali.

The forum brings together scientists, policymakers, and businesses to discuss how science can facilitate Africa’s growth agenda.

Deodate Mugenzi shared his experience. The 26-year old Rwandan made a WhatsApp prototype that enables users to make offline calls. It is an idea that he worked on nearly two years ago, but until now it is lying idle.

“I need some technical and educational support, as well as adequate funding to commercialise this innovation,” he told The New Times in the recent interview.

Mugenzi is among other hundreds of other African innovators whose ideas take lengthy period to go to the market where they can have impact.

Experts who were speaking at the opening panel, ‘Playing Catch Up: Accelerating Africa’s Lab to Market Process’, indicated that there was a lot of work that governments and private sector needed to do to promote innovative ideas from labs to markets.

Johannes Fruehauf, the president of Lab Central and chief executive of Cambridge Biolabs, said that often times, scientists and other innovators are not equipped to think about the world outside academia.

“Their incentive structures are very much focused on writing papers because that’s what defines their careers. There is so much that can be done here, especially through policy making and infrastructure establishment to enable them to have entrepreneurial thinking and power their ideas,” he said.

Addressing infrastructure constraints

Indeed, Thierry Zomahoun, the founder of NEF, said that adequate infrastructure and technical skills would enable innovators to move first, highlighting examples of labs like Johnson and Johnson’s which are helping young technologists and scientists to move faster in prototyping.

“It’s because they have the infrastructure, equipment, and a better environment that allows innovators to move quickly in making their ideas a reality,” he said.

Zomahoun, however, mentioned that it will require strengthening the whole ecosystem if Africa is to enable innovators to put their ideas to the market.

“What it will take is to build a strategic and systematic ecosystem in which you have education institutions, venture capitalists, investments, and everything that enables learners to transition,” he said.

Zomahoun also added that there are no excuses valid enough not to empower women innovators. “African women and girls are entrepreneurial. We cannot ignore this section if we want to accelerate the time to market for African innovations,” he noted.

Panelists indicated that innovations are slowly contributing to the growth of the continent, although there were more challenges that needed attention, which if addressed, can accelerate Africa’s innovations and the role that they play.

Albert Zeufack, the chief economist for Africa at the World Bank, said that despite the recovery of the economies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the projected growth for the next few years, the continent continues to face severe development obstacles such as boosting agricultural productivity which currently employs over 60 per cent of the population.

“Beyond this, producing human capital remains another issue in addition to infrastructure development constraints and less improvement in market stability, as well as formalising financial services,” he said.

These are some of the obstacles that Zeufack believes innovation, science and technology can help to address.

“Business-as-usual is no longer an option. Our countries need to leverage innovation to boost productivity and sustain growth. In this first changing world, Africa cannot afford to stay on the margin of technological advancements,” he noted.

Charting a new strategy

Rwanda has been charting a new development strategy to transform into a knowledge-based economy, and technology is central to this strategy. Under the strategy, one of the goals is to attract $1 billion ICT investments by 2020.

This is an inspiration that Zeufack argued that many countries in Sub Saharan Africa should adopt. But the economist said to fully achieve such a vision, few building blocks will be required. These include building skills and capabilities, establishing a strong regulatory framework, and strengthening governance.

“We should also learn how to forge the right partnerships, as well as address the financing issue. But financing is the least important because if you get other building blocks right, finance will automatically flow,” he said.

Haruo Takeda, the corporate engineer at Hitachi, suggested that African governments should invest heavily in setting up engineering academies to link great ideas to industries, adding that this should be done in collaboration with the private sector.

“This is what we are doing back in Japan, and it is working for us,” he said.

Lucy Quist, the president of AIMS Ghana said: “We have ideas but we don’t believe in ourselves. We do not need to catch up, but we need to chart our own way as Africans,” she said.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw

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