A big question that has yet to be fully answered is whether innovation can sufficiently deliver the continent’ long-held dreams and aspirations. Or will innovation just become another strand of the ‘Africa rising’ narrative that benefits an elite few and leaves the majority of the continent’s people behind?

In today’s world of emerging technologies and new solutions to old problems, what does Africa need to do to become relevant? How long are we going to remain consumers of innovations that other people have sweated over? Is there a case to be made for locally driven solutions that address the fundamental challenges that the continent faces?

In today’s world of emerging technologies and new solutions to old problems, what does Africa need to do to become relevant?

These questions weighed heavily on my mind when I recently participated in the African Innovation Foundation’s landmark programme, the Innovation Prize for Africa, held in Gaborone, Botswana, from 22 to 24 June 2016. The award, now in its fifth edition, was themed #MadeinAfrica and attracted people from the length and breadth of the continent. I found the innovations that scooped the top prizes particularly interesting, providing a signpost to the kind of disruptive innovation that needs to happen to propel the continent forward. On a continent that has been plagued by disease, it is no surprise that it was innovative healthcare solutions that scooped the top accolades. The prize-winning solutions offer ground-breaking responses to Africa’s prevailing malaria and HIV and AIDS burdens.

Ground-breaking healthcare solutions

Dr Valentin Agon of Benin was the unanimous winner of the US$100 000 Grand Prize for his innovation Api-Palu, an anti-malaria drug treatment that has hit the market in Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR). Made from a natural plant extract, Api-Palu is significantly cheaper than the anti-malarial drugs currently on the market. It has great inhibitory effects on the 3D7 strains of plasmodium falciparum, the causative agent of malaria.

IPA awards winners. Photo: Masimba Biriwasha
IPA awards winners. Photo: Masimba Biriwasha

Imogen Wright of South Africa scooped the second prize of US$25 000 for Exatype, a software solution that enables healthcare workers to determine HIV-positive patients’ responsiveness to ARV drug treatment.

The Social Impact Prize of US$25 000 was awarded to Dr Eddy Agbo of Nigeria for his urine test for malaria, a rapid non-blood diagnostic medical device that can diagnose malaria in less than 25 minutes.

As is evident from these pragmatic prize winners, problems will be solved in Africa if we can accelerate innovation, while retaining a focus on improving the lives and livelihoods of its people.

I am sure of the fact that people in Africa are more important to driving innovation than the outcomes alone. It is African people who should generate disruptive ideas that have the potential to dislocate established practices.

Like many other people, I thought for a long time that technology was the ultimate expression of innovation. I have now come to the realisation that it is necessary to demystify the perception that innovation is something that can only be undertaken by the super talented, or that innovation is purely technology-driven (gadget centric). Truly speaking, everyone can be an innovator – it is people who make ideas.

Fostering a culture of innovation

What Africa needs is to instil a culture of innovation as an essential part of everyday life, accepting that failure is part of the pathway that finally gives birth to new ideas and tapping into the capabilities of ordinary people at all levels. We need to make innovation routine so that it involves the active participation of ordinary people.

As is evident from these pragmatic prize winners, problems will be solved in Africa if we can accelerate innovation, while retaining a focus on improving the lives and livelihoods of its people.

Africa faces huge, multi-faceted challenges. To overcome these problems requires new, innovative solutions. These solutions must be informed and driven from the ground, by the needs of Africans themselves. Innovations that do not improve the lives and livelihoods of the people of Africa are doomed to fail.

Bottom-up approaches that harness the massive and beautiful energy and spirit of Africans are key to inculcating a spirit of innovation.

Helping to unleash, channel and connect the millions of innovative minds across all regions of Africa, all disciplines and all walks of life is a valuable investment, and a sure method to propel the continent forward. Put simply, building a culture of innovation is a certain way of sustaining Africa and the way we live, think, make and create. Africa is already taking great strides in this direction as she re-writes her success story.

In addition, fostering a spirit of innovation in Africa requires connecting people so that they can share problems, opportunities, promote learning and exchange. Ultimately, innovation matters for boosting growth and improving the living standards of the millions of people in Africa.