Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl, Innovation Prize for Africa Director spoke shared time and ideas with us on the coming Africa Innovation FOundation event in Accra Ghana.
Tell us about the African Innovation Foundation
The African Innovation Foundation (AIF) was established in 2009, and its purpose is to increase the prosperity of Africans by catalyzing the innovation spirit in Africa. We want to see needs-based innovation and change happen. Six years ago, the AIF initiated the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) with the main goal of strengthening African innoation ecosystems through supporting a culture of innovation and competitiveness, whilst spurring growth of innovative, market-driven African solutions to African challenges. AIF seeks to- 1) Increase Africa’s prosperity through investing in home-grown innovations and entrepreneurship. 2) Strengthen African innovation ecosystems through our platforms and mobilize a network of innovation enablers, driving business development and cross-collaboration. 3) Demonstrate that African ingenuity exists at a Pan African level through honouring outstanding innovations and recognizing their positive impact in Africa and beyond.
When you chose “Investing in Prosperity” as theme for the awards, what are you envisioning would be the outcome?
Our envisioned outcome is that this will trigger more investiments towards home-grown innovations –innovations by Africans for Africa. As you probably know, Africa receives a substantial amount of different kinds of investments, however most of these investments are allocated towards large-scale projects such as natural resource extraction and infrastructure development. Moreover, the venture capital (VC) ecosystem in Africa is still weak. Most analysts link the weaknesses of the VC ecosystem to shortcomings in the continent’s innovation ecosystems. While investors are unable to identify viable deal flow, African innovators are unable to secure funding to benchmark, commercialize and scale their ventures. In actual fact, Africa is an early stage market offering tremendous potential for VC investors in particular. At this 6th edition of IPA, we plan to demonstrate various outstanding African innvoations which present excellent opportunities for investors ready to bet on African ingenuity. Moreover, the theme Investing in Prosperity is in line with the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 9 which calls on countries to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation. AIF believes that funding streams, investment and resources are critical to obtain a clear value chain for innovation in Africa, contributing to sustainable development.
To what extent has IPA influenced and driven innovation in Africa since you embarked on this project 6 years ago?
While we can not fully claim that the current state of innovation in Africa has been influenced only by IPA, one thing is clear: IPA has provided a unique platform to acknowledge, reward and mobilize for African innovators. The feedback we have received from past winners is that IPA positioning helped them attract additional investments and support they were unable to get before winning IPA Awards. The validation that comes with IPA is seen as key to attracting investors. Moreover, some winners informed us that their own governments decided to support them only after they were recognized by IPA as top innovators. There are several stories of IPA impact that we have recorded since inception and this might have influenced and driven innovation in Africa. Lastly, IPA platform also connects various innovation enablers across Africa and this has led to partnerships among those enablers which help strengthen African innovation ecosystems.
Do you have core areas that you focus on or do you look at all areas of life?
The Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) focuses on five key areas- 1) Agriculture/Agri-business, 2) Environment, Energy and Water. 3) Health & well-being and 4) Information, Communications and Technologies. 5) Manufacturing & Service industry. Beyond the aforementioned areas, the Foundation’s programmes involve multi-sectoral audiences and focus on diverse industries and disciplines where innovation is needed in Africa, always exploring opportunities for making impactful interventions in line with living up to our purpose of increasing prosperity of Africans.
What determines the choice of theme for each year’s awards?
The abovementioned priority areas were selected after consultation with our partners across Africa. They believe that innovation in these key areas will solve pressing challenges and spur sustainable growth which will transform Africa.
We understand you have 2 Nigerians on the list of prospective recipients this year? What were the critical deciding factors that influenced their selection?
First of all, all entries must be outstanding innovative solutions to real challenges with potential for scaling, commercialization and high social impact . All nominees were selected based on 5 criteria: Originality, marketability, scalability, social impact and scientific/technical aspects. The Nigerians nominees were exactly selected because they ticked the boxes on the abovementioned criteria.
How do you think these innovations would impact on the rest of Nigeria and other parts of Africa?
The two Nigerians nominees are: 1) Omolabake Adenle who developed a voice Recognition and Speech Synthesis Software for African Languages and Olanisun Olufemi Adewole who developed Sweat TB Test. These two innovations are very important for not just Nigeria but also the rest of Africa. Beyond solving the communication challenges linked to African languages and TB testing, these two innovators are inspiration to other Nigerians and are best Ambassadors for Nigeria. As you might know, Abake’s innovation is software that can understand and digitize spoken African languages, and synthesize speech from African languages presented as digitized text. This innovation can open access to the benefits of technology for illiterate Africans who can access phones. On the other hand, Olanisun’s innovation, Sweat TB Test, is a non-invasive rapid diagnostic test to detect tuberculosis (TB). Sweat TB Test leverages on TB specific marker in sweat of patients, to produce a point- of- care test to detect TB, within ten minutes, without any needle prick. In simple steps, reports are read and patients commenced on medication as needed at the same clinic visit. It has the potential to contribute towards effectively controlling TB, reduce TB related deaths and holds promise to prevent drug resistance TB in Africa.
How do you monitor the application of the funds you would be giving out to ensure they are invested in scaling the project?
All 10 nominees signed an agreement conforming that they will utilize the money to ensure the success of their innovations. Through our post-prize support activities, we collect a feedback on the achieved milestones and plans to grow their ventures and scale.
In selecting Ghana as host for the 2017 event, what were the reasons for your choice?
The number one reason was the leadership and commitment to put innovation at the center of the country’s development agenda.This is demonstrated by a commitment to dedicate 1% GDP to innovation. In its 60 years of independence, Ghana has been an example of progressive successes that have made the country and its advancements marketable and well respected globally. With the presence of world class accelerators and incubators, Ghana in recent years has become a noted sub regional hub for excellence in innovation. The Ghanaian technology and innovation ecosystem, led by a new generation of change-makers has received much international and local acclaim, making Ghana the ideal host country for IPA 2017.
Africa is seen as a consumer of Innovation rather than an innovator. Are there plans to explore the platform of IPA to inspire a change?
Due to platforms such as IPA, Africa is no longer seen as a consumer of innovation but also a maker of innovation. Each year, IPA showcase 10 best African innovators who are solving African challenges innovatively. Moreover, some of the innovations presented by the selected nominees are world class innovations, addressing global challenges.
$185,000 is huge sum but it may not be enough to make huge commercial value out of an innovation. What in your programme ensures the beneficiary is granted access to enabling capital to ensure the innovation is commercial success on a mass scale?
As you might know, the first prize is US$ 100K, and this is not a small amount for any entrepreneur. If used strategically, it opens up more opportunites to grow the business, attract more investors and scale. In fact, due to high volume of publicity linked to IPA, past winners were able to attract more investors. One winner was able to raise US$ 11 Million in less than 1 year after winning the Prize. It is also important to mention that what distinguish IPA from other competition is our post-prize support with includes connecting selected innovators with our partners and networks for more support and opportunities.