In the 21st Century, Innovation offers the world a great opportunity to shape and change the future of Africans. It gives the continent an opportunity where malaria, poverty and other challenges facing the continent would gradually become things of the past. In order to help achieve this, the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) initiated the Innovation Prize Award (IPA) to support African innovators by unlocking their potential and catalyzing the African innovation spirit, promoting home-grown solutions for Africa’s prosperity. A few months ago, the 6th edition of the prestigious Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA2017) took place in Accra. The event themed “African Innovation: Investing in Prosperity,” was a gathering of top innovators in Africa.

Ventures Africa spoke with Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl, IPA Program Director to find out more about the Innovation Prize for Africa and what they have done so far to help change the innovation space in Africa.

Ventures Africa (VA): What makes the IPA significant?

Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl (PM): IPA is important because it provides a platform to mobilize for African innovators, showcase their innovations and position them as being able to come up with world-class innovations as well as being more suitable to solve African challenges. Moreover, IPA is the biggest African innovation focused Prize with substantive cash (US$185K) and the largest networks of African innovators and innovation enablers (over 7500 from 52 African countries).   And what has been the impact of IPA on the winners and their inventions? IPA has opened up opportunities for its winners because due to IPA related media coverage/publicity and positioning, once back home, winners received more local supports by local authorities (including meeting or receiving congratulations from their own President, grants and support to facilitate markets access). In addition, due to IPA credibility and rigorous process involving validation by world’s renowned technical experts, various IPA winners went on to attract additional funds, which allowed for creating more jobs, scaling operations to other markets in Africa and beyond.

VA: How is the IPA different from all other innovation awards in Africa?

PM: Unlike other Awards, IPA is more than one-day event since the support continues after winners have been announced. Thus, IPA is seen as a movement to mobilize and unleash the potential of African innovators because it goes beyond the winners and also supports nominees on top of providing a platform for all key African innovation stakeholders to meet, network and explore collaboration and business opportunities. Specifically, the post-prize support to selected innovators includes pitching opportunities to investors; facilitating relevant contacts, which help selected innovators, move forward on their innovation journey and get to their next level. Besides, as mentioned above, it is the biggest Pan-African Awards with substantive cash ($185,000) and which focuses on multiple sectors and targets all types of innovators.

VA: The theme for this year’s event was “African Innovation: Investing in prosperity” what informed the choice of theme?

 PM: This was linked to our belief that it is important to invest in African homegrown innovations if we truly want to increase the prosperity of Africans. It is a fact that innovation leads to socio-economic growth, and research also demonstrates that Innovation can solve structural challenges and reduce inequality in a given society. Therefore, this year’s theme was a call to action where our invitations and event activities focused on how to attract more investments which will unleash the potential of African innovators focusing on selected key sectors  /sub-themes (e.g. agriculture, women and setting up an innovation marketplace).

VA: Where are the previous IPA winners?

PM: All IPA past winners are doing extremely well and some have exceeded their own expectations/objectives linked to the initial milestones they had set up for themselves. (See a summary below which shows what the IPA 2016 winners have achieved)   Do you follow up with them to know what they are doing? Yes, and we continue to link them up with opportunities as much as possible. Do you keep track of how they spend their prizes? We do not keep track of how they spend each penny, however, they give us updates on what they have achieved (outcomes and impacts) linked to them winning IPA Awards.

VA: What have IPA winners been able to achieve?

Valentin Agon (Benin) – Api-Palu, Winner of the Grand Prize of US $100,000, IPA 2016 Invented Api-Palu, an anti-malaria drug treatment made from natural plant extract:

  • Increased monthly turnover net to around 67percent; increased staff and production capacity to meet African market needs
  • Registration of Api Palu by Benin’s public health authorities as an essential medicine, leading to Api-Palu availability in public and private health facilities across the country
  • Established commercial partnerships for the distribution of Api-Palu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo Brazzaville and Angola, and currently negotiating new partnerships in Nigeria and Uganda
  • Support from the Government for further clinical trials

Eddy Agbo (Nigeria) – Urine Malaria Test, Winner of the Social Impact Prize of US $25,000, IPA 2016 Created a non-blood diagnostic medical device that can diagnose malaria in less than 25 minutes using technology that detects malaria parasite proteins in a patient’s urine

  • Nominated for the “Honors List of 100 Nigerian Entrepreneurs” who has made significant impact and created noticeable value in different sectors of the Nigerian Economy.
  • Received more than 10 business partnership requests since winning IPA 2016
  • In negotiation for investments to scale his innovation to other African markets

Imogen Wright (South Africa)  – Exatype, Winner of the 2nd Prize of US $25 000, IPA 2016 : Exatype is a software solution that enables healthcare workers to determine HIV positive patients’ responsiveness to ARV drug treatment.

  • Awarded a grant by the South African Medical Research Council’s Strategic Health Innovation Partnership of 7.6 million rand for her TB work (about US $540,000 in less than 4 months).
  • Hired six new people including two developers, a scientist and an administrative assistant, bringing the total company size to 10
  • Tested  around 150 people successfully as part of pilot studies, and are continuing to grow with a look to a commercial release in the second quarter of this year
  • She was invited to give a TED talk!

VA: Have there been any significant changes in innovation since the inception of the IPA?

PM: Yes, there has been a change in innovation landscape and people’s perception:  people did not even believe that one could find innovations in Africa, and IPA helped change that perception by demonstrating that indeed, Africans innovate and have been innovating for a long time.  We have contributed to building African innovation ecosystems and there are now more opportunities for African innovators than they were in 2011 when we launched IPA. Due to such opportunities, African innovators are coming forward with outstanding innovations solving African challenges, and some also have world-class innovations, solving global challenges and which are made in Africa!

VA: Are the governments doing enough to help boost innovation on the continent? 

PM: It is hard to speak in general terms because different African governments have established different opportunities for their citizen innovators while some are still lagging behind. What is encouraging is to see that more and more governments are setting up innovation funds, dedicated to incubating, accelerating and scaling up homegrown innovations. This is the way to go and as news about such programs go out, it will influence other governments to do the same. So, slowly but surely, more Governments might put innovation at the centre of their development agenda. For instance, during the recent IPA 2017 Awards ceremony in Accra, it was very inspiring and exciting to hear the President of Ghana, H. E.  Nana Akufo-Addo, speak about how his government has dedicated one percent of its GDP to innovation and how this figure will go up to three percent in few years! Our hope is that sooner than later, other African governments will emulate Ghana!

VA: What advice do you have for young innovators?

PM: If you see a problem, turn it into an opportunity and innovate to solve it. Take advantage of this era of ICTs and mobile activities and join relevant networks and platforms where you can gain support and relevant information to solve local challenges. Don’t miss out on opportunities such as IPA which not only allows you to get the seed cash but can also provide opportunities for publicity, coaching, mentorship and access to markets and other opportunities. Lastly, don’t be shy: show what you are working on and let others decide whether they can bet their money and on it or not. Lastly, innovation is not an easy road, however, it is rewarding for those who know how to stay focused, persevere and believe they can do it! Reach out to a successful African innovator and learn from him/her.

VA: Can you give us five impacts of innovation on the African continent?

PM: To avoid generalizing, I will refer to what IPA past winners told me:

  1. Innovation is creating jobs: Almost all IPA past winners have added a number of jobs. We know that the rate of unemployment is high in many African countries, and this is very bad for the economy but also for the continent stability
  2. Innovation solves structural challenges and opens up new opportunities for the owner and these users:  Africa still has many challenges to solve which might not be the case for the rest of the world. Thus, if we want to ensure these challenges are solved, we need to innovate: come up with new or different solutions than what is already being tried and is not working. For instance, innovations in health are saving lives (e.g. m-health-related innovations; new tools to detect and cure malaria, TB etc; new delivery mechanisms – such as drone technologies to deliver blood in Rwanda etc.)
  3. Innovation leads to prosperity and is a good example of true trickle down economy:  IPA 2014 Logou Minsob from Togo informed us that after winning IPA Award, he was able to increase the salary and provide health insurance to his staff. This allowed his staff to take care of challenges they had at their own households including ensuring education for their kids.
  4. Innovation keeps Africa competitive and respected on International stage: Many people complain about the fact that Africa is seen by some as a dumping ground and Africans are seen just as consumers of technology and innovations made elsewhere. The only way to address this is to invest in homegrown innovations which allow Africans to come up with competitive solutions not just in Africa but the world over! The respect of Africa will increase a lot if it is seen as also a maker and producer of world-class innovations. IPA offers a unique platform to demonstrate that indeed, Africa is a producer of world-class innovations -as well as local innovations uniquely done to ensure they will work.
  5. The future of Africa depends on its ability to innovate: With the highest growing population and majority of the youth, Africa has no choice but must unlock the potential of its youth by providing the opportunity for them to innovate. Innovation allows Africans to script the future of Africa they want to see and the legacy they want to leave for the next generation… We must innovate in order to capitalize on our demography dividend; there are no other ways!

VA: Please tell us five ways to catalyze the innovation spirit in Africa.

PM: AIF catalyzes the innovation spirit in Africa by focusing on the following:

  1. Providing platforms for local innovators to showcase their products/services, network, share knowledge and explore opportunities to collaborate and do business together
  2. Celebrating and rewarding the top African innovators and sharing their stories widely so that they become an inspiration for the younger generation. The younger people are then able to see and celebrate local heroes and do not have to look up to the Silicon Valley for role models
  3. Building a network of innovation enablers and providing platforms for them to also exchange, share knowledge and collaborate so that they stop reinventing the wheel –which also saves cost. In addition, such platforms allow to define agenda together and work towards achieving mutual goals linked to promoting home-grown innovations
  4. Bring together key actors of African innovation ecosystems who usual do not mingle (high-level government officials/policy makers; academia/research & technical institutions; civil society; investors/funders; key players in innovation hubs/science and technology parks etc.) so that they can join forces and strategize on how best to unleash the potential of African innovators
  5. Advocating for policies, which guarantee an enabling environment for African innovators (and entrepreneurs) so that their only worry is to focus on innovating and competing on global markets. Moreover, such policy shall address issues linked to trading and scaling up successful innovations within African countries and different regions.

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