Tracing our roots: Understanding African innovation

By Youssef Travaly, PhD MBA, Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Vice-President of Science, Innovation & Partnerships, and Acting President, African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), Senegal

Africa-digital-technologyCan you name a famous African scientist?

Barely no one can answer this question, even with some thought. And yet, Africa is the cradle of humanity, and therefore logically, the cradle of science and innovation. So why can’t we name any famous African scientists? The simple answer is that we don’t know much about the history of innovation in Africa. The world’s technologically driven human progress can be divided into two parts: the “Africa” time with major discoveries, including tools, fire, mathematics and steel, and the more recent “industrial” read “western Europe and North America” time with major discoveries such as the steam engine, vaccines, antibiotics, computers and much more. In between the two, the world transitioned from more “informal” homegrown knowledge-based innovation to more “formal” scientific knowledge-based innovation. Within that context, Africa’s research and innovation, which often occurs outside the so-called “formal” innovation framework, completely disappeared from the global map of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI). Since then, “playing catch-up” has been the cornerstone of the strategy of every single African nation intending to adopt a knowledge-led economy. But do we really need to catch-up? What does catching up even mean?

In some ways, Africa is leading the pack. One prime example is adapting technology to disrupt traditional financial models using mobile money. Today, mobile money transfers across the continent have succeeded in connecting previously financially excluded Africans. This Africa-driven technology has now been exported to Europe, North America, Latin America, India and other places with success. The continent is also seeing the onset and rapid expansion of agriTech, e-Health and edTech, three solutions specifically adapted to local needs related to some of the greatest challenges Africa faces: food security and sovereignty, health, and education. This makes a compelling argument that the smart use of digital technologies can create new opportunities for economic growth, generate greater innovation and boost Africa’s competitiveness, whilst supporting the continent’s market integration and transition to knowledge-based economies. New digital trends are radically transforming the business landscape, reshaping the nature of work and the boundaries of enterprises, spurring innovation in business models, and driving the transfer of knowledge and access to international markets. The digital economy is indeed the single most important driver of innovation, competitiveness and growth, and it holds huge potential for African entrepreneurs and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the backbone of Africa’s economy.

So, what is the way forward? How do we replicate such success stories? For African enterprises (and governments) to take full advantage of new digital opportunities, we must build a shared strategic vision to guide future coordinated actions for using digital technologies. The need is critical for an operational roadmap with a unique African perspective of the global digital economy as it relates to advancing innovation across key business sectors. Today, the Next Einstein Forum (NEF), for instance, is working on creating a pan-African operational roadmap for the digital economy, which considers the many different competing forces that are shaping the world’s digital future. In this line of thought, a Master’s degree program for machine intelligence in Africa was recently launched at the Rwanda campus of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences so African nations do not get left behind. Will this create more brain drain towards the West? It will not if we keep promoting “African Brain Circulation” by establishing a strong and renowned African Community of Scientists as exemplified by the NEF Community of Scientists, creating a culture of role models and collaboration with purpose. Beyond the sole digital economy, we must build a comprehensive ecosystem of socio-economic transformation, which combines strategic foresight, innovative policy design and innovative scientific training. Ultimately, African countries must build an innovation framework that promotes a double-track to innovation, leveraging both homegrown knowledge and research-driven knowledge.