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Don’t rush to get backers, African Innovation Foundation head tells hubs

Those running tech hubs in poor areas of Africa should not rush to get corporate and government sponsors, but should rather grow their hubs organically and produce success stories before getting outside partners, says entrepreneur Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais.

Speaking on the sidelines of the 2017 Innovation Prize for Africa event in Accra, Ghana, Bastos de Morais, who is also the founder of the African Innovation Foundation, detailed his new project, an innovation hub in the Cazenga slum in Luanda, Angola.

The 49-year-old Swiss entrepreneur founded Fabrica de Sabao, a former soap factory, in 2015. It includes a co-working space, a MakerSpace with equipment such as 3D printers, an incubator and accelerator, a radio station to communicate with the community and a research lab to track the informal market.

“Companies like the telecom companies and the banks and things ask me if they can be here (at the hub). And I say no, not yet, because it’s not the right time. If you put this money world there already they’re going to destroy the organic growth and the belief of the people,” he says.

“As soon as you have a little bit of maturity then you are going to call the banks and others, and that’s when they will also be willing to pay more because they can see there is some success.”

Wait until you have developed a track record before getting sponsors, African Innovation Foundation head says

Bastos de Morais employs 50 people at Fabrica de Sabao and he estimates that about 300 to 400 people pass through the hub’s doors everyday. The co-working space has 20 people so far, including a team developing design animation and others working on a security access solution.

Those at the MakerSpace are involved in taking recycled or used materials and transforming these into new products.

He says demand is growing fast with the co-working space already fully subscribed and the number of those being trained on machines at MakerSpace at full capacity.

“I believe you have to be close to them (the poor), in the centre where they live, because the transfer of information should not go through any technological vehicle but from mouth to hear, so that their belief is like a spreading fire,” he says.

Self-made entrepreneur

In the last two decades, the self-made Swiss entrepreneur has started a number of Swiss and Angolan companies including a Swiss venture capital company.

In 2002 when the civil war in Angola came to an end, he launched an investment advisory firm there and a year later founded the Quantum Global group, an international finance advisory firm focused on African development.

He also launched Angola’s first investment bank, Banco Kwanza in 2008, before setting up the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) a year later.

The idea for the foundation was born about nine years ago when, just before she passed away he promised his grandmother, who is from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda, that he would do something to give back to the continent.

While he says he has benefited from having attention deficit disorder (ADD), which has given him untapped energy to focus on a lot of things at the same time, he adds that his tactic in being an entrepreneur has over the years remained the same.

“I have always gone where I had no big other players… (sic) because if you go where others are, the big fishes, the big sharks, you will get serious problems fast. So you’re always having to innovate and to seek this segment that they (competitors) are not in, because then they let you do it, they don’t see that market they don’t understand that market, don’t bother you,” he says.

African opportunity

He says the absence of legal structure, data, systems and infrastructure on much of the continent provides an opportunity for those who are able to see solutions rather than problems.

In an opening address to the event, which is being held at Movenpick Ambassador Hotel in Accra until 18 July, Bastos de Morais said the African population is growing fast and jobs are needed — innovation will help drive homegrown products. People need to believe African products are as good as others, he added.

“I have been told that when I started that I was crazy because there is no innovation in Africa. I have now proved them wrong.”

He said though the foundation was small compared to many multinational NGOs, it has been driven by a passion which has seen it support 7500 innovations from 52 countries.

In addition, since its launch in 2012, the competition has given out $1-million in prize money, while nominees have been able to raise over $30-million in investment which has helped generate about $200-million in combined revenue for these firms.

This year’s competition garnered 2530 submissions from 48 countries, including 482 from women innovators. Bastos de Morais pointed out that the number of submissions from women had increased from 115 in 2015 and 155 last year.

Ten finalists have been chosen to attend the IPA event, which takes place on the evening of 18 July and includes a grand prize of $100 000, as well as a runner up prize of $25 000 and a special prize for social impact of $25 000.

Read more: AIF reveals names of 10 shortlisted for $100,000 Innovation Prize for Africa
Read more: From smart bearings to group-buying app, meet Innovation Prize of Africa finalists