Summit calls for enabling environment to support Africa's innovators

Greater investment and the creation of enabling ecosystems are required to support Africa's innovators. This was one of the key messages that emerged from the African Innovation Summit (AIS) held in Kigali, Rwanda earlier this month.


The AIS is an Africa-wide initiative to mobilise investors, policy makers, researchers, the youth, innovators and thinkers into a coalition for collective action to foster an enabling environment for innovation in Africa.


Speaking at the summit, Rwandan Prime Minister Édouard Ngirente said that initiatives such as the AIS were critical for Africa's development.


"The challenge facing Africa is building robust ecosystems of innovation," the Prime Minister said. "I am happy that AIS is helping our countries build a culture of innovation as a way of life. It is a critical element of development and economic growth."


Delegates at the summit agreed that a multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approach was needed to ensure that policies, investments and enabling ecosystems were put in place to empower and propel African innovators and their solutions forward.


The summit concluded with a call to action addressed to innovators, government leaders, the private sector, civil society and academia: "Let us throw out the boxes that have caged us".


These sentiments were echoed at a satellite AIS event hosted in Pretoria by South Africa's Department of Science and Technology (DST). While the Kigali summit focused on how the continent can innovate to address pressing developmental challenges, the DST's satellite event focused on innovation in the Southern African region.


The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Industrialisation Strategy and Roadmap was discussed in this context. The strategy seeks to promote economic and technological transformation in order to enhance the competitive and comparative advantages of the region's economies.


Anneline Morgan, Senior Technical Advisor: Science, Technology and Innovation for the SADC Secretariat, said that African countries such as Zambia, Botswana and South Africa should beneficiate their material wealth instead of merely exporting it to other continents.


"African countries can get more value from beneficiating their mineral resources by transforming them into high-value products," Morgan said.


Dr Thomas Auf der Heyde, Deputy Director-General: Research Development and Support at the DST, said that in order to achieve structural transformation through innovation and industrialisation, countries in the region needed to address policy deficits.


"Government must also undertake policy reforms, promote greater investment in research and development, finance technology entrepreneurs, improve access to local and international markets by small to medium enterprises, and develop indicators that will ensure impact at every level of the innovation value chain," Auf der Heyde said.


Professor Shirley Motaung of the Tshwane University of Technology told delegates that, while it was necessary to create an enabling environment for innovation, training a cohort of knowledge entrepreneurs was equally important.


"We must not limit ourselves to the classroom," Motaung added. "Policy makers need to introduce entrepreneurship as a module or school subject. Degrees offered by our universities do not prepare students for entrepreneurship but for jobs."


Fannie Gondwe of Perisha Agro and Packaging Enterprise, and Lilitha Mahlati of Ivili Loboya, demonstrated the socio-economic value derived from product beneficiation in their respective businesses. Malawi-based Perisha Agro and Packaging grows orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, which are more nutritious than ordinary sweet potatoes and have been shown to alleviate Vitamin A deficiency. Gondwe's plans include embracing the value chain of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes by adding production of juices, chips and skin lotions.


Ivili Loboya is a wool and cashmere beneficiation enterprise based in the Eastern Cape. The company uses fibre from goats to produce cashmere, which in turn is used to produce safety footwear innersoles, clothing and homeware.


Delegates at the DST's satellite AIS event agreed that more businesses need to follow the beneficiation route, as it leads to the creation of much needed jobs and economic growth. 


Dr Olugbenga Adesida, co-Director of AIS, called for bolder thinking about the future and a greater sense of urgency around Africa's transformation. "Africa cannot simply be consumers, nor can it outsource its development," Adesida said. "We all must engage with a new sense of urgency to facilitate change."


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