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In My View

September 10, 2017

Africa: Add Value and Diversify!

Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais

We already know that some of the most successful businesses across Africa are those that have delivered simple solutions to issues that are particularly pertinent to Africa. Liquid Telecom is an example of a home-grown idea that provided a solution to a common issue in Africa – connectivity. The company is now a leading independent data, voice, and IP provider in eastern, central and southern Africa. Yet like many of the continent’s success stories, it began by creating a simple solution to a widespread African problem, with a simple belief - ‘Everyone in Africa has the right to be connected.’  

Now, Liquid Telecom uses the motto ‘AfriCAN’ – a statement borne out in its success in providing payment solutions to African financial institutions and retailers who are now able to grow their businesses and connect with customers in a way they never could before. By recognising the challenge and finding a simple and commercially viable solution, African innovators are able to add immediate value to local communities by doing the right thing from the outset.  

Local innovations also stand a greater chance of growth and long-term survival because they have transformational capabilities: a contribution to the local supply chain, the development of skilled workers and the retention of all profits. This grassroots approach may arguably be a more sustainable model than foreign templates imported by foreign investors and multinationals.  

There are however, downsides to the local, value added approach. Small companies and innovators grow at a slower pace because they either cannot find the capital they need to grow or they do not have the skills and experience required to scale-up. They also risk being lost or unheard amidst the noise of foreign firms rapidly eating up market share. The good news is that African innovators are now creating their own solutions to these very problems and they are gaining support from an increasingly diverse range of stakeholders.      

One of the loudest voices in the African innovation landscape is the African Innovation Foundation (AIF), whose annual Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) competition searches for African innovators with home-grown solutions to issues or problems that are prevalent in the region. IPA is now the leading platform on the African innovation landscape, with a network of over 6000 African innovators across 50 countries – and it offers innovators a Grand Prize of $100,000. Every year hundreds of ambitious entrepreneurs come to the fore, presenting IPA judges with home-grown innovations that have a meaningful social impact. Crucially, innovations must also be commercially viable so that they are self-sustaining.  

Nigerian innovator Godwin Benson was nominated for IPA 2016 for his development of a mobile app that links students to qualified tutors in their own area, within their personal budgets. His innovation was recognised for its intrinsic value as a home-grown concept that is commercially viable through its simplicity and its capacity to widen access to education for those who may otherwise lose out. After his nomination by the IPA in 2016, Benson went on to win $32,000 from the UK’s Academy of Engineering Award and he faces a bright future.  

Lofty ambitions are not unusual in Africa, which is why hundreds of incubators, makerspaces and collaborative working spaces have appeared across the continent over recent years. Africa is one of the youngest continents, population wise. We are a continent of people who are coming of age in times when technology is moving at such an incredible rate and increased connectivity is changing how young Africans are learning, banking, shopping and doing business. I have personally seen what can happen when you build an innovation hub in middle of a slum, like I’ve done in Angola. I converted an old soap factory into a hybrid incubator, accelerator, makerspace, co-working space and cultural connector. It’s called Fábrica de Sabão. In the early stages, youth and children from shanty towns were intimated by what was going on in the hub but within a short span of time, curiosity got the better of them. Today they are part of the organic transformation that is happening at the hub, literally before our eyes. There are kids involved in prototyping of alarm systems and solar powered mobile charging devices. They are using CNC machines and 3D printers to manufacture tiles and furniture from recycled materials.  

Zimbabwe’s TechVillage, which is a collaborative working space for early-stage entrepreneurs that offers meeting rooms, desks & chairs, advisory services and ‘TechVillage Communities’. These act as small specialized networks of entrepreneurs working in the same field, such as HackShack Creatives. It calls itself a ‘maker ecosystem that is building hardware by Africans for the African context.’ Girls 2.0 calls itself a ‘guild of female founders and entrepreneurs built to promote women in technology and encourage girls to innovate.’ In some respects, and despite the obstacles, there’s not a more exciting place to be an entrepreneur in 2017 than the dynamic, ambitious, entrepreneurial communities that are thriving right across the African continent.  

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have recognised that their economic fortunes lie in the hands of today’s young entrepreneurs. It is through practical support – particularly training and production facilities, advisory services and experienced networks – that African innovators can be afforded the space and opportunity to develop products and services that are right for the local, national and regional markets. Like Liquid Telecom and others, entrepreneurs in Africa do well when they focus on what works – getting it right from the very beginning. Getting it right, finding the right solution and applying it in the most cost-effective way to the intended audience is the very best route to building a business that is sustainable and – over time – scaleable.  

Getting it right for the right reasons is how many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs realized their dreams, and this is the right route for Africa to take as it looks forward to adding value to; and diversifying the African continent.  

Africa: Innovate, Add Value & Diversify!