Recalibrating innovation: science at the center of Africa’s development

Author:Nathalie Munyampenda
Position:Managing Director, The Next Einstein Forum, Kigali, Rwanda

A pan-African vision for the digital economy

For the last 18 months, we have been working on a Pan-African vision and roadmap for the digital economy. We believe the digital economy is the single largest driver of innovation in Africa. What we have discovered in our roundtables with public and private sector actors is that Africa lacks a collaborative innovation framework to accelerate the digital economy and the gains that can flow from it. We need to redefine what innovation is and how innovation can transform our economies and societies.

Our message is simple. If we want to benefit from the digital economy, we need to view education as a value chain that requires different interventions at each level. At NEF, we have defined five pillars to accelerate the transformative impact of the digital economy or, in other words, to speed up the process of taking ideas from the lab and scaling them for the market.

The first and second pillars relate to the need for basic and digital infrastructure. For many, it may seem that digital infrastructure (including last mile efforts) somehow removes the need to improve basic infrastructure. This is a shortsighted assumption. Africa needs to accelerate efforts to build and improve infrastructure. The ability to buy raw product online from farmers 500 kilometers away in another country may seem like the perfect solution, but a good road network and efficient custom services are still required to take possession of that product in an affordable way and to accelerate business growth.

Funding innovation

The third pillar focuses on factors that support an enabling environment or ecosystem. Without a sound policy and regulatory environment that actively brings the public and private sectors and civil society together at an early stage, we will continue to advance at a snail’s pace. How then can we speed up the process?

First, we need to explore what types of new financing instruments and partnerships are required to support the lab to market process at a Pan-African level. Until now – although this is likely to change soon – no mechanisms have been in place to finance pilot and demonstration projects in Africa in a systematic way. No comprehensive research and innovation fund exists in Africa.

Second, we need to improve awareness about the way in which intellectual property (IP) rights can add value to innovation and creativity and foster business growth. A recent study by WIPO covering the 19 African countries...

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