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Creating a Legacy for African Innovators

Entrepreneurs are disrupting sectors and changing lives across Africa. The successes and stories of these innovators and programs are too often unknown or overlooked. Nnamdi Oranye, the author of Disrupting Africa and “Innovation Guru” on South Africa’s Power FM 98.7, has made it his mission to chronicle the lives of entrepreneurs who are changing the African landscape. He hopes that the next generation of African innovators will be able to look up to the innovators making an impact now and relate to their stories.

Oranye and access.mobile CEO, Kaakpema Yelpaala, reconnected in Washington DC to speak at a workshop on “Using Technology to Advance Global Health” hosted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Forum on Public-Private Partnerships for Global Health and Safety (PPP Forum) gathered global leaders from business, government, foundations, humanitarian and professional organizations, academia, and civil society. Yelpaala offered his experience and perspective on bottom-up innovation and push-pull development process while Oranye spoke on grassroots entrepreneurs. More specifically, Oranye discussed the importance of cultivating an environment where the work of African entrepreneurs is better recognized and supported, both in terms of investment and scaling across Africa and globally.

The workshop included many important perspectives from a diverse and international group of participants including technology companies, NGOs, government, and academia. It provided a space to learn from successful public private partnerships like Tableau’s malaria project and USAID’s information systems during the Ebola outbreak, but it also provided a space to discuss flaws in the systems including fragmentation. A few speakers discussed the need to better engage with African innovators and companies in a more coordinated way. Neal Myrick of Tableau stressed that there’s lot of power in teenage tech companies and mentioned that the lessons from Zambia have been applied back to the global tech company. Oranye however stood out from the other speakers, offering an important view of African entrepreneurs who are succeeding in an environment that offers little to no support for growth. We caught up with Oranye after the workshop to learn more about the African innovation landscape and his hope for African entrepreneurs.

1. How do you see the African innovation landscape?

Oranye: I am very optimistic and I am not speaking in a vacuum when I say this. There is a hunger for tech in the African continent. Many sectors are realizing the power and potential of technology, and organizations - from banks to telecoms - are taking action and creating incubation hubs and looking for new technologies.

2. And more specifically, what is the landscape for health innovations?

Oranye: In Lions on the Move, McKinsey reports that Africa will have the largest working population in 2034 with an anticipated working age population of 1.1 billion people. If that population is not healthy that is a problem, not an African problem but a global problem. How can we ensure that we have a healthy working population? Digital health will go a long way. We need to leverage health technology solutions and determine how to foster and grow current innovations in urban and rural locations.

3. What are the tech investment opportunities and challenges in Africa?

Oranye: We have yet to see great investment strides beyond the seed and angel phase. Most of our innovators are moving past the seed stage into the growth stage and looking towards private equity. The challenge is that our innovators are proving their businesses and wanting to scale, but then find that there is very little growth stage funding for African companies. Growth stage funders [in Africa] tend to be very picky, seeking an African ‘unicorn.’ I get it, there are only a handful of proven African technology companies and investors understandably tend to be very rigid. In my opinion, there isn’t enough flexibility or room for negotiation. Investors that can look beyond the numbers have a great opportunity to change the environment. A few investors should take a chance, make a bet, and take the lead. With a few more established wins and investors taking the lead, others will follow.

4. What are the current innovation trends in Africa?

Oranye: Innovation trends are a focus in my upcoming book but I will share a couple of key ones here. First, there aren’t enough female innovators on the continent. Perhaps this is due to the plight of the African girl child, but whatever the cause, we need more female innovators to disrupt. Women understand certain sectors, areas and activities more deeply or differently and we need their contributions.

Second, we need our innovators to think Pan-African from day one. While innovators build a solution to a local problem, many of the challenges that innovators are solving for are similar across the continent; for example, a malaria solution that works in Zambia should work in Tanzania and in Ghana. In Silicon Valley, companies are not limited to geography, thinking about global industrial changes from day one; Uber, AirBnB, Facebook, and Whatsapp were all built to scale. Pan-African solutions increase the potential for value, impact and investment.

But even if we shift the mindset of innovators, our systems do not easily allow for scaling. Regional economic blocs are a great concept but the trading agreements and implementation are often flawed. Similarly, the regulatory bodies and banks aren’t set up to allow for easy expansion of businesses. Innovators and the infrastructures around them need to quickly solve for market expansion.

5. What is your hope?

Oranye: I hope and believe Africa will produce visionaries. Currently, most innovators see a problem and solve for it – we are working largely with needs based innovation. We don’t have enough visionary innovators thinking of bold ideas. We need to foster the next generation of leaders now in order to fix things 30 to 40 years away. I look to people like Fred Swaniker who founded the African Leadership Academy to help support a new generation. And I look at innovators throughout the continent to be role models. Take Kaakpema Yelpaala, the founder of access.mobile, he was born in the U.S. to Ghanaian parents and is successfully disrupting in East Africa; he is a great example of the power of the diaspora. There are many great innovators and successes, we just need to hear their stories, scale their businesses and support their solutions across the continent and beyond.

If you have an innovation story or want to participate in creating an African legacy, please reach out to Nnamdi Oranye.

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