An entrepreneur, innovation specialist and founder, African Innovation Foundation, Jean-Claude Bastos-de-Morais, spoke with Emma Okonji on the importance of African technology innovation and his plans to expand the ecosystem. Excerpts:
AIF recently announced the seventh edition of the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) awards initiative. What are the expectations for the awards?
For the seventh edition, we want to expand our ever-growing network of innovators, enablers and partners to build stronger, more sustainable innovation ecosystems that will propel the continent forward. The theme for the next awards, ‘Investing in Inclusive Innovation Ecosystems’, is a wake-up call for African governments and innovation stakeholders to invest in building bridges for more inclusive ecosystems that will accelerate and scale African innovation at all levels of society. The aim is to increase access to innovative financing and know-how and to enhance collaboration between African nations to enable local innovators to access higher value markets for their solutions at a faster rate.
We also want to encourage more support for African women innovators as they are greatly under-represented within the innovation ecosystem. Diaspora entrepreneurs and investors too are a focus as they are uniquely positioned to recognise opportunities in their countries of cultural origin as ‘first influencers’ in fostering economic growth and we hope to see increased support and investment from this group. And of course, let’s not forget the African youth, the largest demographic on the continent who stand to benefit the most from inclusive innovation ecosystems.
Technologies are fast evolving and African countries are only playing the catchup. How will the IPA awards initiative help Africans in the area of technology development?
Numerous trends continue to show how much progress has been made on the African continent. More importantly, there has been a lot of technological advancement that the majority of the world, are unaware of. Africa’s youthful demographic has come of age in the digital era, making them early adopters of technology and the vanguard of innovation on the continent.
The continent has witnessed a cultural shift from consumers of technology to innovators, capable of disrupting traditional sectors such as agriculture while pioneering relevant African-focused solutions in healthcare, financing and clean energy. IPA 2018 is a call to action for African leaders to create inclusive ecosystems that leapfrog education and promote faster ways of learning on the ground. It is a call for African leaders to recognise the demographic dividend to be gained by investing in the next generation of young African innovators who are poised to transform their economies and improve the standards of living for their people.
One major challenge of technology startups in Africa is funding. How will the IPA awards initiative help to address the issue of funding?
For the countless African startups benefiting from new technological developments, growth isn’t simply hinged on a burgeoning smartphone-carrying middle class. Many of the small startups and businesses which are driving Africa’s technological revolution are heavily reliant on investment.
IPA offers African innovators and startups exposure through our network of 8000 strong innovators and over 400 innovation enablers from across 52 African countries. During the 2018 edition, AIF and its partners will increase the exposure and opportunities for African innovators through a series of investor-related events. This is an opportunity for private equity companies, venture capitalists and seed investors to have first-mover access to the latest African innovations.
Most times local investors turn away from local technology solutions developed by Africans because of the perceived low quality of the solutions to meet their needs. What is AIF doing to address this?
Each year we observe a great number of innovations coming from Africa that do not benefit from the outputs of science and research. The result is that many of the solutions being proposed are old and redundant; they do not reflect the current state of the art in the specific field and therefore lack commercial viability. Additionally, a number of solutions are not technically feasible because they are not based on sound science.
This is where Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) applications in Africa are falling short. At present a lot of scientific ideas are driven by abstract research that may not necessarily be responding to African needs. There is a need to disseminate the outputs of primary research to the wider public and allow these outputs to form the basis creating solutions by African innovators. This will make them more viable.
With this in mind, AIF has recently signed MoU with the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) this November. The partnership is a vital step towards enabling research-driven innovation in Africa and underscores the importance and value of innovation by providing capacity building and skills development programmes for innovators across Africa.
What are your plans to expand the African innovation ecosystem?
Africa has the fastest growing youth population in the world. About 60 per cent of its population is under the age of 24. This youth bulge represents an important opportunity for sustainable development in Africa. These youth segments will have specific needs different from developed or first world nations. Therefore, there is an urgent need to invest in local innovation ecosystems which respond to these real needs. My ideology for developing African innovation ecosystem is based on an inclusive model that will drive needs-based innovation and bring opportunities to these segments of African society. I believe in an innovation hub model that allows grassroots innovation to evolve in an environment where collaborative knowledge, intellectual know how, mentorship and creative exchange are accessible in a linear manner.
In Angola, I have built such a hub. Fábrica de Sabão is located in the heart of Luanda’s largest slum. It is a hybrid incubator, accelerator, makerspace, co-working space and cultural connector. The hub is accessible to all Angolans, and already the hub has a number of niche youth-led enterprises that are in various stages of incubation. To name a few, there is a small production of plastic tiles made of recycled PET bottles, which is very successful. There is a prototype electronic door access system and mobile phone solar charger that will soon go into series production. One group is also working on a charging station made of recycled oil barrels that will charge up to 16 mobile devices, like those you find in airports.
The hub is proof that our youths can create innovative solutions if the ecosystems are set up to nurture their abilities. I’d like to see this model replicated across other African nations.
What is your advice for young technology startups that are looking for global exposure?
With the world gradually evolving into a global village, geographical boundaries are no longer constraint for businesses. This makes it all the more important for technology startup founders to keep their eyes and ears open to the ‘business buzz’ around the globe and to seize the right opportunities.
Platforms such as IPA and other innovation-related competitions can also act as launch pads for global exposure, not just for technology startups but for any startup. These platforms connect innovators and entrepreneurs with other key innovation stakeholders as well as potential investors.
What is your projection about technology growth in Africa in the next five years?
In terms of economic potential and growth, Africa has never been more important on the world stage. Africa is also at the start of a technological renaissance. That said, much of that opportunity lies in the future. As of today, internet penetration is just 29 per cent throughout Africa, meaning that the majority of growth and network effects are still to come. In particular, the continent has a unique wrinkle that also presents a huge opportunity. According to the African Development Bank, about 55 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic activity is informal.
Although agriculture and natural resources will continue to be important drivers of Africa’s economic growth, it is the application of modern technologies that will have the most significant impact on the growth trajectories of most African economies. Specifically, the greatest opportunity for growth will come from technological innovation and the adoption of new technologies in services sectors, such as banking, insurance, health, education and agriculture. New opportunities have arisen that make it possible for low-income economies to leapfrog other countries by adopting technologies that are suitable to their specific circumstances.
To sum it up, technology will play an increasing role in Africa and Africans will play an increasing role in technology. Having embraced the digital revolution, local innovators are using technology to open up new opportunities and access new possibilities to manufacture on a much larger scale.
You have been involved in the formation of several successful companies, with focus in Africa, what is your inspiration?
My inspiration has been to empower the large population of African youths through technology innovation, and this has led me into the formation of several successful companies, driving several initiatives, with the recent being the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) initiative, which was launched in 2011, in partnership with the UnitedNations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and driven by African Innovation Foundation (AIF), which is an organisation I founded in 2009 to drive African-led development through fostering innovation.
In 2007, I founded Quantum Global Group, an international group of companies focused on African development, particularly in the fields of corporate finance advisory, asset and private wealth management, real estate and investment consulting.
In 2014, I established Quantum Global Research Lab, which aims to provide bottom-up econometric models for inclusive development in Africa.
In 2008, I founded Banco Kwanza Invest, Angola’s first investment bank. In October 2011, I founded the Kitangana Tennis Project for orphans in Angola, and I am the co-editor of the book Innovation Ethics. African and Global Perspectives, co-published by Globethics.net and the AIF.