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Innovating Africa means practical solutions to unique challenges

Innovation is one of the most important contributors to economic growth in any market. Innovators create wealth, attract investment and provide job opportunities. They also create new supply chains and boost exports. This is a universal reality. However, the reasons why individuals become innovators (and the subsequent output), depends upon the context. A desire to become rich by becoming the next Apple might motivate the majority, but here in sub-Saharan Africa, there are often other, more nuanced reasons for inventing new products and services.

Africa has a context of its own. Many African nations are growing in a post-colonial and/or post-conflict environment with deficits in skills, technologies and infrastructure. By virtue of being the citizen of a developing nation, a young African adult has traditionally had fewer career choices than a western counterpart, often becoming entrepreneurs through necessity. However, the continent’s booming economies have given birth to a new wave of ‘opportunity entrepreneurs’, whereby young people see new opportunities in a growing market. Africa’s burgeoning middle class is creating new consumer demand for products and services that never existed before.

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Nigeria’s answer to Amazon — Jumia — was launched in Lagos in 2012 as an ecommerce startup selling everything from clothes to kitchenware to electronics. It won the 2013 award for Best New Retail Launch, received US$35-million in series B funding and now ships to Morocco, Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire and Kenya. It is particularly pleasing to see ecommerce flourishing in Africa as a result of home grown innovation rather than the importation of established global brands like eBay or Amazon. This is important because the cash generated remains in Africa, contributing much more to GDP and tax returns than a global brand would.

Read more: Jumia bags another award: named best Nigerian ecommerce site of the year

It is equally important that African jobs are being created through local innovation rather than being reliant on jobs from foreign companies. Young people in Africa can now bear witness to the reality that creative thinking and risk taking can reap rewards — they too can change their lives for the better through their own ideas rather than wait for a job from an international company. The context of Africa also means that young innovators are often inclined to develop innovative solutions to challenges that are unique to Africa.

The winner of the 2015 Innovation Prize for Africa, the annual innovation awards by the African Innovation Foundation, took the top prize by discovering a new anti-microbial alternative to livestock antibiotics, reducing health hazards to cattle and preventing the transmission of multi-resistant bacteria and carcinogens. This is a type of innovation that has immediate advantages in Africa but may also have far-reaching implications globally. Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis is one of the gravest threats to public health according to the WHO. Innovations in livestock such as these not only support local agri-business (one of Africa’s fastest growing industries), but also offer African farmers a livestock management solution that is environmentally ethical and sustainable, not to mention contributing to the search for new antibiotic solutions to protect human health.

Read more: 12 African innovators you need to know about

Innovators such as these are shaping the social and economic growth of their countries — they are creating African solutions for African challenges. These innovators come from a point of local understanding, social empathy and a desire to become successful by creating something that makes a positive and meaningful social impact. This may be what makes young people in Africa so entrepreneurially driven — they can see the results not just on a spreadsheet but in their communities.

Attitudes towards entrepreneurship amongst young people are positive in Africa than the majority of the rest of the world — of the ten countries with the highest numbers of start-ups, five are in Africa (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor). What does this say about Africa? It shows that Africa’s innovators are hungry for the kind of success that makes a meaningful difference to their lives and the wider community. It is often the case however that the greatest hurdle to realizing ambition is access to capital. Despite the region’s economic growth, its capital markets are not mature; banks are reluctant to lend to those without a credit history and whilst foreign VCs provide a solution they do so at a high price.

We all need to play our part in providing financial and practical assistance to African innovators. In Angola, the government has set up an innovative venture capital fund that acts as a conduit between potential foreign investors, entrepreneurs and innovators who have great ideas with commercial promise. Unlike traditional (and purely commercial) VCs, FACRA provides foreign investors with a way of tapping in to the local markets; offering guidance on how to partner with local innovators and how to do business in the country. For creative Angolans with growing businesses it provides a route to capital and the opportunity to realise their ambitions in collaboration with successful foreign firms.

Providing support for African innovators is important not only because we have a duty to support our young people but because it is African thinking that is best placed to find the solutions to African challenges. We must do all that we can to support our best and brightest so that they in turn can help to transform the lives of those around them.

Image by noel runkle via Flickr

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