10 June 2013

Africa: Can Innovation Solve Africa's Problems?

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Cape Town — allAfrica's Mantsadi Sepheka talks to the Africa Innovation Foundation and winners of the 2013 Innovation Prize to find the link between Africa's development challenges and nurturing and rewarding creative thinkers...

Founders of the Africa Innovation Foundation (AIF), aim to contribute to prosperity in Africa by encouraging and supporting innovation in Africa.

"Its the only way to address or gain real contact with the population. If one understands what the population needs in a very innovative way and how to resolve the problems of these needs, you are going to create jobs, which I believe is what Africa needs,” said AIF founder, entrepreneur and investor Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais.

With the unemployment rate still too high on the continent, Bastos de Morais believes that it is important for Africans to come up with their own self-sustainable innovations. "First it creates a spirit of belief, it gives back pride, it gives hope that African innovation is possible. This hope then generates in people following it, and through the Africa Innovation Prize we can also generate a platform of believers and this leads to investor interest and hopefully job creation."

Innovation according to Bastos de Morais is often misunderstood as it is generally technologically defined. "It has been very narrowly defined, I believe that it has to have a broader notion, specifically for Africa, as it involves many areas like business and production methods. It's very important to enlarge the definition and the notion of innovation."

AIF CEO David Keller says innovation needs, and has to be, encouraged specifically among women and the youth. "When we received applications for the Innovations Prize for Africa we realised that we don't have enough women and we don't have enough young people, so we do have to invest additional effort into bringing these female innovators to the foreground and helping the young innovators to blossom,” Keller said.

South African innovators Agriprotein walked away as winners of the Innovation Prize for 2013, for using waste and fly larvae to produce a sustainable source of animal feed. The team was selected from more than 900 applications spanning 45 countries to bag the U.S.$100 000 prize.

Researcher Jason Drew says their business is about nutrient recycling.

"We have seven billion people to feed today, nine billion by 2050, and one billion of those extra people will be on the African continent, we cannot continue to take fish from our seas, it's not sustainable. We can use nature to take our waste, convert it using flies and make a perfectly natural food for chicken and for fish."

"It's a beautiful, brilliant natural process," Drew said.

Africa has many good innovators and innovations but the challenge is trying to get an investor to buy into an idea and help turn it into something that could benefit communities and the rest of the continent. "It's very difficult to find the adequate money to back an innovative idea,” Bastos de Morais said.

Dr Iqbal Surve, chairperson of Sekunjalo, a group of companies that funds youth innovation, says that the challenges of product creation and development depends on the specifics of the product. "There are simple innovations which have a multiplying effect, as you innovate and scale the innovation you get greater challenges as well."

"Innovation has played a huge role in getting at least 500 to 800 million people out of poverty in countries like Brazil, China and India, but it's not just innovation that will help, it's also investment. It's giving belief and opportunities to people and developing their skill set. What we need to do in order to support innovation is to make sure that people are adequately skilled and, if you have the potential, you must be given the opportunity to develop,” Surve said.

Having skilled people will develop more than just business, it will develop the world's economy. "It's a good thing to skill people but also it's a good thing for the country and ultimately if you have skilled people it's going to benefit your business, whether it's directly or indirectly, because business and economic growth isn’t dependant on machines, it's dependant on highly skilled people, so we need to invest in people."

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