Sustainable entrepreneurship. Innovation ecosystem. Technology platform. These are some of the catch-phrases bandied about during the first-ever Open Innovation Africa Summit, which was held in Kenya from November 29 – December 1st.
The Summit brought together over 200 selected thought leaders from 25 countries across the world to stimulate critical thinking about the role of innovation in sustainable socio-economic development and to contribute to creating a conducive environment for innovative entrepreneurial activity in Africa. The OIAS was designed as an energetic learning environment that featured visualisations, parallel working, feedback, and open dialogue.
“Every individual in this room already possesses an answer”. This was just one of the interesting quotes displayed in the plenary hall throughout the Summit. True to this, delegates came up with a joint vision for an innovation ecosystem and sought to foster trust between stakeholders. This was partly through building networks and establishing partnerships to stimulate collaboration. Delegates also highlighted critical policy recommendations and best practices in sustainable, open innovation as well as the vital role played by mobile and other technologies in building an information society and stimulating entrepreneurship.
The Summit also identified priority projects in an attempt to answer pertinent questions. Some of these included: how can we stimulate innovation? How can we create an environment that allows innovations to trickle down and positively impact society? Who are the players in innovation? How do these players interact? Can entrepreneurship be both profitable and sustainable? How can we stimulate local content and software development? What role does technology play in stimulating human capital growth?
Discussions on these and other topics took place under four thematic areas of African Innovation Ecosystem: enabling innovation for sustainable socio-economic development; Emerging Market Business Models: building African success stories; Technology Platforms: leveraging technology to deliver public and private services to the underserved; and Human Capital – Education for All: developing skills using technology.
The vision for an open innovation ecosystem
From the Summit, it emerged that an open innovation system demands that a variety of players from diverse dimensions of innovation be involved. These players work together to develop and make available new products and services that sustainably improve the livelihoods of members of society, and particularly low-income earners. An open innovation system therefore recognizes the unique roles of all players including (grassroots) communities, academia, and the private sector and fosters their substantive participation in innovation.
The 2020 Africa open innovation ecosystem recognizes innovation as a systemic activity and therefore facilitates interaction between key stakeholders. There is a clear, interactive policy process; partnerships are innovative and aligned such that the unique strengths of each actor are optimally combined. There is meaningful cross-collaboration between ministries and multi-sectoral plans and platforms are in place. This enabling environment provides private sector/innovation support services, innovative funding mechanisms and breaks down barriers to business so that small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which play an immense role in innovation, can flourish.
The envisaged Africa innovation ecosystem incorporates the other tenets of innovation such as improved investment in research and development, multi-helix arrangements that go beyond public-private partnerships and commercialisation of innovations. The 2020 ecosystem also considers the changing nature of innovation from an isolated “ivory tower” activity to one of networking where players bring ideas together online through simulations and other contemporary approaches. This results in the creation of wealth and jobs.
Local innovations and the role of “new” education
People are inherently innovative. In the 2020 Africa innovation ecosystem, local/grassroots innovations based on the potential of communities and on ready opportunities re particularly encouraged and prized; entrepreneurs from all spheres play a role in transforming impoverished communities to basic-needs consumers. This means that the 2020 innovation ecosystem recognizes the central role of education in building creative, confident, inquisitive and problem-solving mindsets and fostering a culture of continual learning. Traditional, exam-centred education systems are not applicable in the envisioned innovation ecosystem. Instead, there is a move towards creating a more flexible education environment to foster and facilitate progressive learning, experimenting, innovation and keeping up with global trends. Such an environment equips students with the relevant knowledge to stimulate ideas and translate these into innovations that benefit society.
Thought leaders in the ICT sector have often considered mobile phone technologies as a wasted resource in “Education for All” policy and advocacy. “Education for All” is one the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that are set to be achieved by 2015. Mobile phone technologies are especially important in the African context considering the increasing orientation towards new media and the astounding growth of mobile handset penetration on the continent. Africa is a book-poor but relatively mobile-rich society; while only about 7% of schools have a well-stocked, functioning library, mobile handset penetration ranges from 45-50%. Mobile learning (m-learning) therefore presents huge potential for both learners and educators in Africa. The introduction of m-learning and other contemporary approaches to education begs the question of content for Africa – what are the possibilities for the continent regarding the generation of local and affordable content that is relevant in the global context?
Africa must harness the immense human capital that it boasts. One way to do this is to develop holistic “ICT for Education” policies to harness the power of the numerous emerging new technologies as well as to participate in the development of new technologies for better learning.
Sustainable innovation “by users, with users and for users”
The resulting new, profitable and user-driven products and services developed by, with and for the so-called Base of the Pyramid (BoP) are sustainable as they are relevant to the market and can attract private sector investment. Base of the Pyramid is a socio-economic designation for the 4-5 billion people that live at the base of the income pyramid and an emerging business strategy that focuses on products, services, and enterprises to serve this income segment. 60-95% of Africa’s population can be considered as belonging to the BoP.
Africa should develop new models which will sustain delivery of services and provide new opportunities for wealth accumulation and empowerment at the BoP. These new models would partly consist of sustainable value chains and services which incorporate policies that stimulate community innovation, support the creation/scaling up of new businesses, enable wider and faster distribution of services and products, and expand the role of the BoP from being mere customers to becoming distributors and suppliers. Sustainability models for the BoP should strengthen the link between BoP consumers and Research and Development (R&D) and provide creative financing to support consumer-oriented innovation. BoP innovators also need help in articulating a clear value proposition and building trust and confidence in the value chain.
Room for high-tech thinking
Innovation entrepreneurship in Africa would also benefit greatly from designated innovation hubs “i-hubs” that provide the infrastructural and knowledge links across the region and make use of various technologies to stay abreast of global trends. Already, a number of African countries have set up “i-hubs”.
Increasing interest in the role of the internet and growing capacity in the development and use of mobile technologies on the continent provides fertile ground for Africa to compete effectively in the technological marketplace.