Ventures Africa speaks to Emeka Okafor about Africa’s innovation space, where it is now, and what it will look like in the near future.

Emeka Okafor is a one-of-a-kind individual who has had his eye on Africa’s innovation space before the rest of the world thought it was even newsworthy. An architect by training, he has been a champion of Africa’s many unrecognised doers and thinkers through his work directing the 2007 TED-Global Conference held in Arusha, Tanzania. In addition, he runs two blogs, Timbuktu Chronicles and Africa Unchained, which celebrate the best of African innovation, thought and creativity.

VENTURES AFRICA (VA): Let’s start with who you are and what you do. You’ve called yourself a venture catalyst. What do you mean by that?

EMEKA OKAFOR (EO): Well, it means that I work in a number of different areas that speak to the creation of ventures of different sorts. They could be entrepreneurial, they could be education driven, they could be research driven, they could also be around the area of commentary. It’s a term I came across, and I felt it was fitting because when I look at the area of ventures – and when I speak to ventures I’m not just purely speaking about profit based ventures – I’m talking about activity that creates value, that is generally self-sustaining in any of a number of ways. And it’s usually activity that cannot exist in isolation. Its ability to succeed is based on the fact that all the component parts are working away like gears in a machine. So to look at the venture space or the innovation space, and I’m not saying that they’re one and the same, I think there’s a tendency to break them down into these isolated components and not really see them as a system-wide organism, that if you don’t have it working at various levels, even if it at a fractal based level, it’s not going to work no matter what you try to do with resources just poured into one aspect or the other.

VA: You’ve spoken before about the difference between top-down innovation and what you’ve called fractal or emergent and self-assembled innovation. What do you mean when you use these terms?

EO: If we look at the emergence of hubs across the continent – some of them are called maker hubs or some of them might be tech hubs or creation spaces, whatever you might use in terms of terminology – the beginnings of those hubs were very, very bottom-up. Now I was quite close to the thinking and setting up ideation around one of the first hubs that occurred in Kenya, which is iHub, and I remember when I was speaking to the founders. At the time, it was something that no one understood what it was about, and if anything, when that particular hub was being put together, it was founded without the knowledge or resources. Well, let me back up a bit. It was founded without dedicated resources being applied to it. What they spoke about when that particular hub was being set up was getting the culture right.

Because if you didn’t get the culture right, if you didn’t get basic aspects of how people were identified, whether they brought a certain sensibility to the table, whether they understood what mattered, if there was going to be this level of meaningful cross pollination, nothing would work. And some of the attributes that I think, looking from afar, that allowed that to succeed, is they looked for people who were generally “doers”. They were smart, but they were doers. They were people who would get up and actually say, “we are going to get this done.”

It’s a very different type of sensibility, and unfortunately, within Africa – and I’m speaking very broadly – the overarching tendency has been to identify people who have the appearance of ability as opposed to those who actually have the ability. People might say this might have something to do with the legacy of colonialism and the fact that the extractive economies that were in place when most African countries achieved independence emphasised administration and the ability to oversee, as opposed to the ability to create, because, if anything, creativity and innovation and production were things that would go against the overarching policy of the colonial powers. So the tendency was for us to – for them and ultimately for us, and we haven’t actually changed this – to nurture an elite that was very poor about [getting things done]. So the top-down approach within Africa that I’m speaking to is largely the result of a legacy that we largely haven’t been able to shake. Because those in positions of power don’t have the necessary attributes. Whenever they see a problem or see a challenge, they see it as something that needs to be outsourced elsewhere. Their first instinct isn’t to go to those who are able to solve any number of problems on the ground. It’s to look for someone else who can do it for them. We have this imbalance between the productive thinking, the creative thinking, the doer-maker type of philosophy at the highest levels, and this more extractive, administrative, “let me give orders and things will work” kind of behaviour.

VA: There is a global tendency to connect innovation and the tech scene. For example, I’m thinking of Silicon Valley. How would you characterise innovation in Africa where we are clearly dealing with different challenges and a different resource, educational, and infrastructural environment?

EO: I think that we do ourselves a disfavour if we define innovation as something that speaks to tech. We need to look at it much more broadly. I’m alarmed when I see this almost central emphasis on STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics]. I think that we need to look at the entire landscape. We need to ask ourselves what is it about those who are working in the areas of theatre, why can’t they aspire – and I’m not saying that’s the only necessary aspiration – but why can’t they aspire to be like an Andrew Lloyd Webber? I think there’s a strong need for people in the science space, in the tech space, in the arts, to have conversations with each other. I think it’s great to have writers’ retreats, but why don’t we also think about having writers speak to people in tech as equivalents? Or why don’t we have people in the agricultural space have conversations with those who are in biotechnology?

I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that the conversations shouldn’t be these narrow, divided silos about what innovation is and what it isn’t, but “what will enable us to propel ourselves forward”? By having those kinds of conversations take place, the partnerships will happen almost as a matter of fact. So I think having the creative people speaking to the scientists, talking to those who are all about technology, having these broad conversations across many more industries will allow us to see innovation in a much broader and richer way than this sort of innovation is over here, and over here is something else.

When we see the success of the United States, you spoke to or brought up Silicon Valley; it’s because they’ve got that very broad conversation happening. And they’ve been having it – fortunately for them – for maybe a couple hundred years. That’s what we need to do. And it’s happening. It’s not as if it hasn’t started. It’s just that it’s much more in fits and starts than in this more flowing manner that we need to see across the board.

VA: You speak – and have written quite a lot on your blogs – about education and its connection to innovation. What is the link for you and how should we approach building this connection?

EO: Well, I think that education in many parts of the world is putting up this big mirror and asking what it is doing wrong. When we look at African educational systems – and I think this is largely the case almost everywhere – we have systems that do not enable people to think. We have systems that do not encourage critical thinking, that do not promote curiosity, that do not allow self-learners. Yes, we’ve had any number of extremely successful people come out of those systems, or experience those systems at one point in their life, but largely, they’re outliers. They’re not representative of the system as a whole. So when you look at this massive challenge, you almost wonder how you go about even addressing it. Yes, people need to read. Obviously, that’s critical. If they don’t read, they won’t even be in a position where they can glean information that will allow them to do all the things I mentioned earlier on… But how do we move beyond that? How do we find ways to inject the curiosity virus into existing systems, and – or create adjacent, parallel methods that, by their success, hopefully will allow the existing systems to see where we’re doing things wrong, and then we can learn from them.

I think those are the major tasks, and there are demonstrable examples of people who are able, who by the ventures they’ve started or the initiatives they’ve gotten off the ground, are showing how it can be done differently. For example, you have an initiative like the Songhai Centre in Benin that was founded in the mid-eighties, that has become this exemplar of how you can build enterprise, “skilling”, and production, all at once. It was very organic in how it was built. The founder, whose name is Father Nzamujo, for me he’s a very good example of this covered type of education that speaks to people’s ability to feed themselves, to be producers of things, to be problem solvers and thinkers, regardless of their background and pedigree.

And he, for me, is representative of how we can look at education being all of the critical things we need to be, but something that adds ultimate value to society.

VA: Innovation cannot happen unless the environment is enabling. This takes infrastructural support and, of course, money. How are we funding innovation on the continent? What are governments doing to provide an enabling environment?

EO: It’s interesting. I remember visiting a place in Enugu a few years ago called, SEDI [Scientific Equipment Development Institute, Enugu]. This was a centre set up by, I believe, the [Nigerian] Federal Government to support scientists and technologists using local material. What struck me at SEDI – and I remember when I was a lot younger, going to a similar place in Enugu called PRODA [Project Development Institute, Enugu] – is the fact that you had all these prototypes, all this research, funded, at least in this case by the government, well intentioned, more or less sitting or standing where it didn’t move to anything beyond the shelf. So one could say that that was a very good example of well-intentioned, well-meaning, funded research that actually succeeded to a point. The funding – in terms of the government funding – actually worked. This is across the board. In some of the work I’ve done, I’ve come across prototypes, from across any number of African countries that are actually really very interesting. And if you were to move beyond the prototype stage, it could become world beating in some cases. And if it’s not world beating, it could lead to the creation of really interesting and very substantial industries. So government funding is not largely failing – and I know that is a very general statement. The bottleneck, it seems, is in moving from the prototype to the production and the manufacturing. This is where you need a much more imaginative mix of funding to come to the fore. Maybe it’s not necessarily funding as in money. It’s more about different types of resources, different types of spaces. People and organisations and those with varying backgrounds could come and go and glance off each other, but [that] leads to the next evolutionary phase, which is what some could call design for production, or design for manufacturing, or design for presentation. When I say presentation, I’m speaking more to the creative arena. That is where we’re lacking in terms of resources. Funding is an issue, but it’s not the only issue.

VA: What about business? How is business engaging with innovation or innovative concepts across the continent?

EO: It’s very uneven. It depends on the industry you’re in. Some businesses, you get the sense that they have to innovate to survive, because the level of competition is so intense that they have no choice but to. In the very competitive industries – let’s take the tech space, for example – you can’t afford to sit still, because there are just so many other people with the equivalent amount of resources, with as many smart people who could do what you’re doing on a weekly, daily basis, that the tendency to innovate is so much quicker. But when you come to the more “physical businesses” where you have large monopolies, where you have captive markets, the ability to enter is quite steep. Then there’s less of a need to innovate. Because what you find is that the industries, they’ve captured the market and incomers find it extremely challenging to overturn what the established marketplace is.

I think we would like to see much more innovation. For example, in something as innocuous or maybe as commonly known as the beer industry, why should we have our beer industry just run by these giants? Why don’t we have more craft breweries. We have any number of fruits, grains and what have you to create some of the most interesting beverage companies in the world. Having that kind of very intense, multiple entry will actually be a benefit to society at large. I pointed out the beer industry because it’s ubiquitous and many Africans know about it. But in many ways, it’s a market that has been shared up amongst the very large players.

I guess my point is that we are seeing more innovation in the areas where the barrier to entry is low and people can get involved because they don’t need massive capital requirements to get started. But I believe that if we see what is happening elsewhere in the world – and this is where models from elsewhere actually come in handy, and I use the example of beer as one of them – we can find ways to build more local industries, more personal businesses that will allow more people to get involved in a larger set of enterprises. These sort of broad, overarching businesses, that I know we applaud across the continent – I sometimes take issue with that – it’s one of the areas I think we need to focus on.

VA: Finally, where should we be looking for innovation in Africa?

EO: For me, the key thing that we need is looking at innovation that exists, but we don’t see it because we don’t have the right lenses on. It exists around us, and we’re looking for the wrong set of things. I think if we begin to examine our environments locally, regionally, country-wide, continent-wide – and this is something I’ve been doing for a while now – we’ll see innovation in places we least expect, but it was always there. It doesn’t have to come in polished. What I’m trying to say here is we don’t need to see innovation as something that people in the US or Europe see as innovation. It might be innovation that is in one of our local markets. We should look for innovation in the most unlikely places, and ask ourselves, “Why didn’t we see it for what it was?” I think the more we begin to do that, the less we’ll see a lot of the challenges we have as problems, and actually as opportunities, meaningful and realistic opportunities.

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