African Innovators Celebrated in Prize

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Innovation is increasingly being recognized as the key to tackling long-standing development problems in Africa, as well as across the developing and developed world. While it is easy to draw up a list of challenges facing the global South, it takes a special person to see not problems but solutions.

Innovation tends to mean fresh thinking brought to bear to old problems, or completely radical new technologies, insights and ways of doing things that are transformative.

The Oslo Manual for measuring innovation (http://www.oecd.org/innovation/inno/oslomanualguidelinesforcollectingandinterpretinginnovationdata3rdedition.htm) has defined four types of innovation: product innovation, process innovation, marketing innovation and organizational innovation (OECD).

Product innovation is a good or service that is new or significantly improved. This includes significant improvements in technical specifications, components and materials, software in the product, user friendliness or other functional characteristics. Process innovation is a new or significantly improved production or delivery method. This includes significant changes in techniques, equipment and/or software. Marketing innovation is defined as a new marketing method involving significant changes in product design or packaging, product placement, product promotion or pricing. And finally, organizational innovation is a new organizational method in business practices, workplace organization or external relations.

How quickly these can be brought to the marketplace, and the level of innovation in society, will be critical to a country’s success in the coming decade, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Importantly, innovation is being seen as the big driver of economic progress and well-being and the best way to deal with the plethora of challenges facing human health and the environment.

As an example, in the past decade, communications innovation has given more and more of the world’s population access to mobile phones and the Internet. This has led to the success of many new companies, from the search engine giant Google to multiple software innovations such as Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile phone banking application (http://www.safaricom.co.ke/personal/m-pesa/m-pesa-services-tariffs/relax-you-have-got-m-pesa), to small and innovative companies spreading the innovation bug such as Pico Crickets (http://www.picocricket.com/) or the Raspberry Pi (http://www.raspberrypi.org/).

As the OECD has said, “Not only has innovation moved to centre stage in economic policymaking, but there is a realization that a coordinated, coherent, ‘whole of government’ approach is required.

“Even countries that have generally refrained from active industrial policy in recent years now seek new ways to improve the environment for innovation in order to boost productivity and growth. Today, innovation performance is a crucial determinant of competitiveness and national progress.”

In the past, African innovators mostly went unacknowledged, unsupported and unrecognized. But this is changing, as new resources come online to support, finance, encourage and champion African innovators. Until very recently, people outside the continent heard little positive news about what was happening there. But the African innovator story is an inspiration to people around the world.

The Innovation Prize for Africa (http://innovationprizeforafrica.org), begun in 2011, awards US $100,000 for the top innovation that matches its criteria of marketability, originality, scalability, social impact and business potential.

The prize aims to encourage people to come up with practical solutions to the continent’s long-standing problems. This year’s prize received 900 applications from 45 countries.

The 2013 prize went to the South Africa-based AgriProtein (http://www.agriprotein.com) team for an innovation that uses waste and fly larvae to produce animal feed. The solution collects biodegradable waste and then feeds it to flies. The larvae the flies produce are then ground into a protein which is used as a feed for animals. Not only does this approach improve the nutritional quality of the feed, it also lowers the cost for African processors and farmers.

This year’s finalists offer a mixed bag of innovations, including creative ways to find new energy sources, improving access to clean water and preventing diseases.

Joining a clutch of other South African finalists, Dr. Dudley Jackson has created the SavvyLoo, a waterless toilet for use in rural areas and makeshift settlements. It separates the waste into liquids and solids to reduce the risk of disease, odour, and harm to the environment and eases waste removal.

Another South African, Professor Eugene Cloete, is the inventor of the TBag Water Filter that cleverly uses material recovered from tea bags to filter polluted water until it is completely safe to drink.

When it comes to the thorny issue of finding new energy sources for an energy-hungry continent, the prize unearthed some interesting solutions. One is Justus Nwaoga, a Nigerian finalist, who developed a way to turn a common weed into a source of renewable solar energy.

Nwaoga, a researcher from the Department of Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (http://unn.edu.ng/), found the common tropical weed Mimosa pudica (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimosa_pudica) surprisingly provides a way to tap into the sun’s energy.

The weed has leaves which fold in on themselves when touched, but spring quickly back into their normal form when exposed to daylight. The plant opens up in the morning and closes in the evening – an indicator of how sensitive it is to sunlight.

Nwaoga began to experiment with the plant, subjecting it to artificial light at night to see if the leaves would open up again. But they didn’t. He came to the conclusion there were properties in the leaves that only responded to natural, solar light. He further concluded it had something to do with electrical transmission in the leaves. He isolated the element that was making the leaves respond to solar light, finding it more sensitive than the silicon solar cell used in solar panels.

Other innovators recognized by the prize include a Tunisian research and development startup called Saphon Energy (http://www.saphonenergy.com/), which makes bladeless wind turbines, and Muna Majoud Mahoamed Ahmed from Sudan, who has created the Agroforestry Model Farm in Khartoum.

“We see a strong trend emerging of innovations that have significant social impact for Africa,” Dr.Francois Bonnici, director of the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, told Ventures Africa.

The call for applications for the 2014 Prize will be announced in July 2013.

Resources

1) Innovation Prize for Africa: Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) is a joint initiative of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) started in 2011. Website: http://innovationprizeforafrica.org

2) Appfrica: Accelerating the Growth of Africa’s Tech Sector: Appfrica has launched “The Cheetah Code”, an ongoing web series documenting the African tech and creative space. The series is a collection of mini-documentaries chronicling Africa’s young entrepreneurs, creative class, and emerging technology sector. The goal is to record high-quality video content that is entertaining, educational, and inspirational all at once. You can find all of this content and more at tv.cheetahcode.com. Website: http://blog.appfrica.com/2013/05/12/a-web-series-about-africas-entrepreneurs-creatives-and-technologists/?utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=twitterfeed

3) Innovation and Growth: Rationale for an Innovation Strategy: Publisher: OECD. Website: http://www.oecd.org/science/inno/39374789.pdf

4) Reverse Innovation: Ideas from the Global South. Website: http://urbantimes.co/2012/09/reverse-innovation-ideas-from-the-global-south/

5) African Innovator Magazine: Technology insights for Africa’s decision makers. Website: http://www.africaninnovatormagazine.com/

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London Edit

31 July 2013

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