Pauline Mujawamariya, program director of the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), told CNBCafrica.com that the Global Innovation Index indicated that sub-Saharan Africa accounts for nearly 50 per cent of the innovation learner economies among the low income countries.
She added that countries such as Mauritius, Seychelles and South Africa are currently leading Africa’s innovation space with Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda not far behind. Also, Morocco and Egypt currently hold the highest number of patents in Africa.
“Africans are no longer waiting to adopt solutions from outside instead they create their own solutions daily. Africans are no longer willing to be seen only as consumers of innovation, but makers of innovation which work in Africa and can also be scaled up beyond Africa,” she said.
INNOVATIVE MOBILE SOLUTIONS
One area that the continent is leading in is mobile technologies.
According to Dr Maarten van Herpen, head of the Philips Africa Innovation Hub, evidence of Africa’s mobile innovations can be seen in the M-Pesa mobile payment system introduced in Kenya seven years ago.
He explained that more than two thirds of Kenyans use M-Pesa to make and receive payments, resulting in around 43 per cent of the country’s GDP flowing through the system, increasing rural households’ income and giving rise to start-up businesses.
“This speedy adoption of mobile payments captures the enterprising spirit of African innovation. It reflects the resourcefulness with which people in Africa find local solutions to local issues,” said Dr van Herpen.
For example, mobile phones were quickly adopted among Africans due to a lack of fixed telecom infrastructure and solar panels were installed at a faster pace than the rest of the globe as the cost of kerosene, also known as paraffin, continued to increase.
A big challenge however is the lack of prototyping equipment available in sub-Saharan Africa, used to create hardware innovations.
Dr van Herpen said that he has met many African entrepreneurs with great business ideas however they are unable to attract investors as they are reliant on China or Europe to create prototypes for them, resulting in lengthy and costly processes.
While the continent has not yet reached its full potential in terms of innovation, he believes that the challenges Africa faces are opportunities in disguise.
OPPORTUNITIES IN DISGUISE
“What I personally find exciting about doing innovation in Africa is that we have the opportunity to innovate and create completely new solutions and new ways of working; this makes it much easier to create breakthrough innovations.”
“For example, in Africa there is a huge shortage of doctors, and that is not going to change anytime soon so we need to innovate to empower other health workers to become care givers, while at the same time lowering the cost of care.”
He added that Africa also unlocks many opportunities for social innovation. For instance, global technology company Philips has created business solutions to address societal issues.
“To address the issue of access to healthcare we created several innovations at the Philips Africa Innovation Hub like our automated respiratory rate sensor. This device aims to support the diagnosis of pneumonia among infants and children, which is the leading cause of death among African children under the age of five. The device will be specially designed for use by community health workers and nurses in rural areas,” he explained.
Philips also addressed the issue of electricity access through its Community Light Centers, which uses solar powered LED lighting to provide energy to off-grid communities.
“The concept of the “Community Light Center” is to create areas of light for rural communities which live without electricity, thus effectively ‘extending the day’ using the power of the sun thus providing safety and security and enabling community life after dark.”