Why Africa is innovating more than you think

by Nnamdi Oranye* 24 views0

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Earlier in July I read an article by David S. Levin on CNBC Africa [link: /news/financial/2016/07/07/why-africa-is-missing-among-the-worlds-top-innovators/] about why Africa is missing among the world’s top innovators. The article seemed to be loosely based on the Bloomberg Innovation Index’s “Fifty Most Innovative Economies” in the world. As the author rightly pointed out, Africa hardly features on this list. However, it would be incorrect to deduce that Africans (beyond Morocco and Tunisia) do not innovate. The lack of visibility of African innovators and their inventions does not mean they do not exist. From my work and research about innovators in Africa, I would argue that Africa faintly featuring on the global map of innovation has less to do with whether Africans are innovating, and more to do with the faulty perceptions about the continent and, frankly, poor understanding of what innovation – and its purpose – is.

African innovation is alive and well. Much has been said about theAfrica Risingnarrative, which was popular several years ago but has been waning recently. Nevertheless,Africa Risingpaints the picture of a continent that is slowly tracking its way from a “developing” to a “developed” status. The definition of a developed country (according to Wikipedia) is “a sovereign state that has a highly developed economy and advanced technological infrastructure relative to other less industrialised nations”. The word “industrialised” jumps out quite vividly for me. For most people, I imagine it invokes the imagery of factories, production and manufacturing on a large scale. Fair enough. This is important and I don’t discount it. However, what is implied is that the future of African countries – the path they must travel – is defined by the past of other nations. It supposes that in order to transform, Africa must copy and paste the trajectory that other continents undertook. This view of development insinuates that there is only one way to a bright future, and that to transition from “developing” to “developed”, Africa must follow the industrialisation trends of other continents that have “emerged”.

I beg to differ.

The Bloomberg Innovation Index, which every year attempts to measure the top 50 most innovative countries in the world, scored South Korea at the top, with the U.S. coming in at eighth. Only two African countries made the list, both in the bottom ten. According to Bloomberg, this makes South Korea ‘the leader in the world of ideas’. But what definition does Bloomberg use in this context? Bloomberg looks at how much money is invested in research and development, manufacturing and patent activity, and other metrics. When one looks at the details, an interesting pattern emerges: the ideology of industrialisation still drives the metrics by which we measure success in development. Is itreallyinnovation if it’s measured by theoldstory?

Speaking to African innovators, entrepreneurs and paradigm-shifters from across the continent over the past four years, it is clear to me that Africans want a new story, not an old one. We’re living in the 21st century, which calls for a new path to development. The old story is not going to cut it in this world’s future. That is why Africa needs to be defined by what is uniquely African. It is in African innovation that theAfrica Rising narrative is becoming a reality. Nobody understands African challenges the way Africans do – they experience them every day. They are best placed to find innovative solutions to their problems – and they do, beyond Morocco and Tunisia. Innovation is about changing people’s lives intheirworld. It should not be limited by what peoplein a different context think is valuable.

Recently, I spoke to Dr Valentin Agon from Benin, whose Api-Palu solution presents a new, cheaper, and more effective way to test for malaria, using a simple plant extract. Dr Eddy Agbo, from Nigeria, is also an African innovator and he invented a new 25-minute test for malaria that costs approximately $2. Until now, the only way to test for the disease has been through blood samples, the results of which can take days to receive. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 214 million deaths in 2015 in Africa were due to malaria. Dr Agbo’s innovation is revolutionary for the continent. It changes lives.If both these innovators allowed themselves to be defined by the so-called ‘tried and tested’ methods, how many lives would they save? Malaria is one of Africa’s biggest challenges. Two Africans have found innovative solutions. When we look at the innovations coming out of the 2016 Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), we cannot help but be positive. It is interesting- and disheartening – to note that these kinds of innovation do not fit the definition of what the Bloomberg Innovation Index and other references define as innovative.

Ntuthuko Shezi, a South African innovator, is another example of an African approach to finding solutions to African problems. His app, Livestock Wealth, is a uniquely African innovation in the investment space. The majority of South Africans may not understand what shares, unit trusts and bonds are, for various reasons. But they do understandcows- in many African cultures, cows are considered an investment. Shezi’s starting point for his innovation was a simple question: what if there was a way to own a cow and have it taken care of without having to house it? The concept would appeal to many African urbanites. And that’s what Livestock Wealth does – through the app, users can put money into a traditional African “asset class” (in other words, cattle) as an investment. One buys a cow for about R10,500 and pays Livestock Wealth R295 a month to take care of it. Another R99 buys insurance for the cow. The cow’s offspring is sold to abattoirs and the owner gets a dividend from that sale. Once the cow turns eight years old, a replacement can be acquired at no extra cost. The owner can even visit the cow, or see it through a ‘virtual kraal’.

I can understand why someone in the U.K. or North America cannot relate to this sort of innovation, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t innovative. It is solving a local problem for local people. Sure, innovations like Uber or Airbnb are changing entire industries, and they are disrupting Africa, too. However, much more is happening on the ground, where it matters, than too many people realise.

Ugandan born Ashish J. Thakkar – CEO of the Mara Group, a highly successful global conglomerate – once heard a young African girl say, “Don’t blend in – blend out.” In other words, be a unique individual. This wisdom, I believe, is for the Africa continent as a whole. No longer do Africans want to blend in with the old story. On the contrary, we want to blend out, to forge a new way, and to innovate according to our realities. Is there some sort of natural law that means development and progress can only follow one path?Of course not. Through collective creativity, Africans can find a unique path. The old ways of thinking are simply proving not to work for Africans, who have a different context and a different history to deal with. As I’ve argued in my book “Disrupting Africa”, if Africans put their innovations together, something exciting emerges: a new eco-system that creates a very exciting future.

A few weeks ago, Bill Gates spoke at the 14th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa. He noted that when he asks students in Ethiopia if they think about what they are going to do when they graduate, they look at him with a puzzled look on their faces. They know what they’re going to do. They’re not weighing their options. They go to university to get the training and skills they need to make Ethiopia a prosperous country. “They saw themselves as members of a community with needs, and they were going to dedicate themselves to serving that community by meeting those needs,” Gates said.  “I see that sense of purpose whenever I come to Africa, and especially whenever I talk to young Africans. I think this is unique. I meet with students all over the world, and they aren’t all so committed to giving back. Students here believe in themselves, and they believe in their countries and the future of the continent.”

Yes – Africa is rising, andon its own terms. Perhaps redefining development is just what it needs. African innovation is tangibly changing lives, even without garnering the visibility it deserves, because it does not seem to fit into the pre-determined, acceptable metrics for what development and innovation are.  I have no doubt that consistency, creativity and support will get us there.

*Nnamdi Oranye is author of “Disrupting Africa: The Rise and Rise of African Innovation”