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Friday 18 January 2019
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Rethinking innovation spaces in Africa

For as long as the existence humankind can be traced, innovation has always been at the centre of our development, from ancient tools, cultivation techniques, Abacus, ENIAC to nanotechnology and smartphones. Today, technology has become an essential component in our livelihoods; interfacing in all aspects of our lives, at the centre of all these technological advancement is innovation and creativity. Nowadays, how we use technology and manage our innovations will determine our path to overcoming the challenges facing the continent today; eradicating poverty and creating a sustainable future for everyone.

This article highlights importance of innovation. Moreover, outline why Africa needs to rethink its innovation practices to foster wider social impact from her inventions. Today, many definitions on innovation exists, in this context we define innovation as “a new idea, product or method”. Yet, others see innovation as an improved solution that meet new customer requirements or existing needs that has never been fulfilled before.  Though, many inventions involve technology, an innovation can be low tech, high tech or may not involve technology at all. Over the last few years, we have seen innovation become a buzz word in business, driven by business desire to have a competitive advantage over competitors. Moreover, multinational companies are trying hard to harness the distributed knowledge and intellect across the globe by establishing innovation labs and co-creation space, where individuals can work together to develop useful tools that solve societal challenges. These kinds of initiatives started in the western world, but are increasingly becoming a norm in Africa. Africa is the next frontier where the next big innovation is expected to emerge from. Companies such as Google and IBM have created and invested millions of dollars in research labs and living labs to facilitate creativity, thus empower young Africans minds with resources they need to become inventors and problem solvers.

Though innovation spaces are good co-creation places, the model has not really worked for some countries on the continent. In some countries, innovation and ICT hubs have become white elephants, while in other countries they have become incubators instead of co-creation and co-design places. Thus, it is crucial for developing countries to develop strategies that will ‘Africanize’ innovation hubs and innovation in general to work for the continent. For example, in Namibia we have a Fab lab, which is supposed to assist and inspire local entrepreneurs and students turn their ideas into products. However, this is not happening, instead Fab lab has become a visiting hub for ambassadors and foreign delegations, diverting from the original aim. I have visited so many fab labs in Europe where the concept came from, but never did I encounter an empty fab lab, in all Fab labs I visited I always found young people using laser cutters, 3D printers and using other materials in the labs to complete their academic or personal projects.

Technology has the power to solve pressing challenges on the continent, unlike in other parts of the world where innovators are using digital technologies to enhance entertainment and quality of life through gaming such as Pokemon Go. In Africa, innovation can be tailored towards easing access to health care, education and providing clean drinking water. Additionally, we also need to localise innovation, thus contextualising it to have greater impact on communities. No doubt, new technologies have capabilities to advance education through mobile applications, teaching kids to read and write. In Africa, these tools can have greater impacts, and rural children can use these tools to learn while looking after cattle thus do not need to skip classes. In cases where education is weak, children can use digital learning tools to subsidies their learning. To improve, we can use drones to deliver critical medicine in remote areas, thus ensure that mortality of preventable diseases is drastically reduced.

Some of these initiatives are already happening in some countries on the continent, the biggest challenge is that no one is scaling them, thus, ensuring impact across the continent. So, collaboration among African innovators is paramount for the success of innovation on the continent. Today governments are trying to replicate the success of innovation in the private sector, many governments are looking to innovation to overcome the challenges they face. Therefore, create prosperity for all citizens. However, this is not possible if government do not allow creativity to reign over bureaucracy. Additionally, more reforms are needed to reinvent the public sector, thus fund creative ways to solve challenges facing citizens. Therefore, make government work better for the people. It is well established knowledge that needs are the greatest drivers of innovation. Today, Africa the mother continent is faced with so many challenges and needs to be solved. We are at interesting cross roads for the continent, I strongly believe the narrative ‘This is Africa’ will drive digital transformation in ways never experienced before, thus revolutionise how things are done on the continent and uplift millions of people from abject poverty.

* Lameck Mbangula Amugongo is country Ambassador of 1 Billion Africa in Namibia. He holds B.IT: Software Engineering, B.Hons: Software Development (Cum Laude), MSc. Computer Science & PhD Candidate




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