Nairobi — “Innovation” – promoted as a way to find solutions to social and economic challenges – has joined “entrepreneurship” as a focus of philanthropies, governments and businesses.
One of the organizations championing innovative approaches to Africa’s problems is the African Innovation Foundation launched by private equity investors, entrepreneurs, scholars and diplomats. Ambassador Walter Fust, a former director general of the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation, chairs its board of directors.
The foundation is inviting entries for its second annual Innovation Prize for Africa in partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Prizes totaling U.S. $150,000 will be awarded for ideas that promise sustainable economic development and encourage an interest in science, technology and engineering among young African men and women.
African Innovation Foundation co-founder Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, a Swiss entrepreneur and equity investor with strong African ties, talked to AllAfrica’s Lauren Everitt about the prize and its purpose. They sat down together in Nairobi and followed up the conversation by email.
You have an extensive background in business and investing. How did you decide to get involved in sustainable economic development in Africa?
When I am in Africa, I see many opportunities and get a clear view of what can be done to address challenges the continent faces. Also, my father who is Angolan, played a big role, because he encouraged me to return to the continent and apply the lessons I’ve learned to fuel economic and social development.
After spending time in Angola – where I now reside at least 40 per cent of my time – and across Africa, I’m impressed by record growth rates and unrealized potential. I am convinced, now more than ever, that the best way to build Africa’s capacity is to invest in local innovation and entrepreneurship.
You’re a dual citizen of Angola and Switzerland. How does that shape your outlook toward aid and assistance?
Because of my deep personal connections and the fact that I am a business man, I know that aid is needed in some situations, such as emergencies. However, I believe it is by fostering the spirit of entrepreneurship and business that one can achieve a lasting impact and improve the quality of lives of many Africans.
There are so many untapped talents on the continent. We need to take advantage of African human capital if we want to achieve sustainable development. We need African led-solutions, where Africans are the ones driving the agenda of what the continent needs.
Would you classify the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) as aid?
IPA is focused on market-driven, social-impact investing. It incorporates lessons learned from aid experts and the insights of private equity investors, seed funders, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.
We are looking for ideas that move Africa forward and know that a multi-sector approach is necessary to speed up African growth. We are collaborating across sectors – and are encouraged that after learning about IPA, African ministers attending the 5th joint annual meeting of the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa passed a resolution to promote an innovation society for Africa’s social and economic transformation.
How many entries do you expect this year?
In its first year [last year], IPA received more than 450 applications from 38 African countries. We hope to expand this number as people spread the word about applying online.
The contest prioritizes a number of areas: agriculture and agribusiness; environment; energy and water; health and wellbeing; ICTs; manufacturing and service industries. Why those?
Based on the feedback received from previous applicants and other IPA stakeholders, we identified these areas because we see them as key growth sectors across the continent, as they present many needs and opportunities. We encourage potential applicants to get in touch if they can classify their innovation in any of the priority areas.
What do you hope to achieve through this competition over the long term?
We hope it will inspire African innovators and encourage leaders from all sectors to invest in innovation by Africans for Africans. Since the prize recognizes innovative breakthroughs that unlock new African potential, we also want to send a message that “Yes!” – Africans are capable of finding solutions to their problems.
The IPA website says that innovators and entrepreneurs are not highly profiled on the development agenda.
Conversations often happen in distinct sectors – we are focused on building a common dialogue and a more successful approach to fueling African innovation. Our goal is also to change the narrative on how Africa is discussed, when it comes to the best ways to move forward.
Are investors truly interested in Africa?
Yes. Investors are quickly realizing Africa’s incredible investment potential, in part, because of the impressive economic growth rates. The World Bank reported that excluding South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa’s regional growth rate in 2011 was 5.9 per cent. This beats rates in many Western regions. Investors have also realized the potential of Africa’s youth – both as a market and a workforce. Beyond minerals, oil or other wealth, Africa’s greatest resource is its human capital and ingenuity. The IPA encourages even more investors to realize the proven economic potential of the continent.
In 2012, the prize’s first year, the winner designed a multi-broadband base station antenna. Where is the product now? Has it caught the eye of investors?
The IPA’s inaugural winner, Professor Mohammed Sanad, received $100,000 for creating an in-phone and light-weight external antennae that leapfrogs current solutions to provide better mobile access, improved productivity and the potential for technology to change lives. He recently met with global investors and received positive feedback.
We know there are countless game-changing innovations like Professor Sanad’s across the continent and hope to identify them to ensure Africa’s development continues to be led by African innovation.