African Innovation Foundation (AIF): On the Founder, Its Objectives and Africa as the New Innovation Hub

Article by The Editor
Posted: April 20, 2016  


I recently got to interview Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, Innovation Influencer and Founder of African Innovation Foundation (AIF) and Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl, the Director of Innovation Prize for Africa, one of AIF’s key programs. They shed some light on what AIF is all about, sharing insights on Africa’s untapped potential and its innovation opportunities.

Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais: Innovation Influencer & Founder, AIF
Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais AIF

1| As the founder of AIF, what was your inspiration to create this organization and what objective were you looking forward to realizing towards the innovation industry in Africa?

My late Angolan grandmother has had a tremendous influence in the creation of the AIF and the initiatives that it stands for – I made a promise to her many years ago, telling her that I would find a way to make an impact in Africa. As a result of that promise I founded the AIF in 2009. Although Africa has a vast range of natural resources, it has significant untapped human potential..

Ultimately, the AIF is a platform that serves to enhance the living standards of all Africans through need-based innovation. We support Africans to create local solutions to local challenges. The Foundation’s core initiatives are focused on innovation & technology, access to law and governance, and social impact development.

2| That's interesting! I'm sure your late grandmother would be really proud of your achievements. Now Jean, how has the scalability of AIF within the African continent and internationally grown since AIF’s conception till date?

Seven years on, the AIF has become one of Africa’s most credible and respected innovation-focused platforms, with three key programs that are innovation-led.

We have the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), which was launched in 2011 in initial partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), which has been at the helm of this achievement.

There’s also the African Law Library (ALL), founded in 2012, which aims to support knowledge transfer in vital areas such as access to legal information; and the third program, Social Impact Program for Angola (SIPA),  focused on addressing social challenges through innovation

3| I know we'll tackle on IPA a little later, but could you also tell us a little more about the African Law Library (ALL) and the Social Impact Program for Angola (SIPA)?

There is an interesting story behind the ALL actually. Some years ago I tried to buy land in Africa. I went through the standard legal and administrative procedures but found that the land still didn’t belong to me as I had not performed the traditional rites to assign ownership. These parallel legal realities confounded me, but it was also what inspired me to set up the ALL to ensure that Africans can freely access legal knowledge that impact their communities. Today, the ALL has over 50 partner entities in 20 African countries, and we will continue to empower African citizens with freedom of information through increased partnerships across the region.   

SIPA is focused on social impact innovation and partners with organizations in Angola to provide rural communities with basic access to medical diagnostics, low-cost services in health, water and sanitation or energy provision, education and rural development. Through these flagship programs, all of which are very special to me, the AIF is helping to drive innovation-led socio economic growth and sustainable development in Africa.

4| And since we’re talking matters innovation, how has AIF contributed to the growth of the innovation sector in Africa, especially in terms of:

In the five years of the IPA, we have seen thousands of African-centric innovations across the agriculture, farming, environment, transportation, healthcare and mobile technology spectrum. Today, the IPA has more than 6,000 innovators in its database. This year alone, the Prize has attracted more than 3, 600 participants from 50 African countries. Governments now bid to host the annual awards because they are increasingly putting innovation ahead on their national development agenda. This is how the AIF is impacting the African innovation scene.

And what about Creation of Jobs?
The Foundation’s role is not tied to growing a particular sector nor is its mandate to create jobs. Rather we build synergies, collaborations, and partnerships with innovation enablers who are committed to innovation-led growth in Africa.  
From what I have observed, many African innovations have the potential to become sustainable businesses but quite a number are still not investor ready. The key reason is lack of know-how and access to funding. The AIF aims to bridge this fundamental gap by connecting Africa’s innovators with innovation enablers and creative minds to exchange critical skills, mentorship and knowhow. We provide them with enabling environments, tools and platforms to help them build and launch sustainable businesses.

5| Let’s bring it closer to home in Kenya (or East Africa); what is AIF’s impact in our innovation market/ industry?

Kenya’s innovation scene is really impressive, and I believe that its innovation community and leaders are well on their way to creating an African Silicon Valley, or “Silicon Savannah” as it’s being called. Its tech cities such as Kilimani and the planned Konza Techno City are playing a vital role in attracting start-ups and venture capital firms. Global organizations like Google, Intel and IBM have set up shop there, which is a big deal.

The AIF is no stranger to some of Kenya’s innovation ecosystem players like iHUB and 88mph Garage Nairobi, and we will continue to look to them to create synergies that can support African innovators on a Pan-African level.

One of the IPA 2015 winners, Alex Mwaura Muriu, who developed Farm Capital Africa, a risk sharing agri-business funding model that draws in investors for a share of farming profits was invited to showcase his innovation to the Kenyan president at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in 2015 in Nairobi. He also has gone on to raise US$100,000 from investors and has amplified his partnership base and expanded his operational reach with cultivation increase to 20 acres from 8. I really look forward to seeing what new East African innovations are brought to table at the IPA this year.

I believe the rest of Africa has a lot to learn from East African innovation influencers. In fact, I look forward to inviting them to partner with the AIF to develop mentorship and collaborative programs at Fábrica de Sabão, Angola’s first hybrid innovation hub. The hub is still being developed but when complete will comprise of incubator and accelerator hubs, co-working and maker spaces, a cultural exchange platform, local radio station and a residence program for visiting mentors and artists. The opportunities for cross collaborations are endless.

6| What’s next for AIF… any new plans or projections for the future?

Without doubt, knowledge and innovation are key to unlocking African potential. The plus side is that as early adopters of technology, Africa is in a unique position to leapfrog education and embrace innovation to harness knowledge and enable productivity in new and creative ways. Today, many African governments are realizing the correlation between innovation and economic diversification as well as job creation and the continent is beginning to see the steady emergence of innovation ecosystems in the form of technology hubs, scientific clusters and startup colonies. 

So the AIF will continue to leverage these trends to support the development of African innovation ecosystems through increased partnerships across the region. 

Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl: Director, IPA
pauline IFA

1| Tell us more about the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), when was it founded and what was essentially, the reason for its foundation?

The IPA is an initiative of the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) started in 2011. IPA honors and encourages innovative achievements that contribute toward developing new products, increasing efficiency or saving cost in Africa. Specifically, the award targets technological breakthroughs in 5 main areas: manufacturing & service industry, health & well-being, agriculture & agribusiness, environment, energy & water and ICTs. The AIF’ works to increase the prosperity of Africans through catalyzing the innovation spirit in Africa. As its landmark program, IPA primarily focusses on strengthening innovation ecosystems in Africa through:

•    Mobilizing leaders from all sectors to catalyze and drive innovation in Africa
•    Promoting innovation across Africa in key sectors through the competition
•    Promoting science, technology and engineering as a rewarding career path among African youth.
•    Encouraging entrepreneurs, innovators, funding bodies and business development service providers to exchange ideas and explore innovative business opportunities.

2| That's quite impressive, Pauline. And would you give us some examples of the past nominees’ different markets in innovation?

Sure, we have loads of examples that we can share. I am happy to share that our results touch the length of breadth of Africa, from Cape to Cairo!

For example, in Cape Town, a team of researchers and entrepreneurs in Cape Town, AgriProteinwon the IPA 2013 first prize of US$100 000 for their innovative approach to nutrient recycling – a method that uses waste and fly larvae to produce natural animal feed. After winning IPA, they attracted many investors and were able to raise US$11 million in less than a year!  

In Cairo, IPA 2012 Grand Prize Winner Professor Mohamed Sanad, an engineering professor, created a new in-phone and mobile antennae that operates on all frequency bands and addresses challenges faced by the existing antennas. This innovation helps people stay connected, ensuring improved cellular access and productivity across Africa and around the world. He was able to sign a contract with Vodaphone after winning IPA!

More recently, in 2015, Professor Adnane Remmal of Morocco, and Grand Prize winner of IPA 2015 received US$100 000 for his patented alternative to livestock antibiotics. Professor Remmal is now exploring scale up opportunities with investors to take his innovation to other African markets!

As these few examples demonstrate, IPA has been able to confirm that Africans are capable of coming up with world class innovations which solve African problems and the rest of the world. It has also helped attract the necessary investments for these innovators who are creating jobs and solving pressing African challenges.

3. You're right, these examples are quite inspiring! Speaking of nominees, what do winners get from IPA?

This year, besides the US$150 000 grand prize, there are special incentives for young people and women, fostering a spirit of innovation in Africa.

The IPA 2016 consists of three (3) cash prizes and various additional supports:

•    US$ 100 000 for the winner with the best innovation based on marketability, originality scalability, social impact, scientific/technical aspects and clear business potentials;
•    US$ 25 000 for the Second Prize with the best commercial/business potential;
•    US$ 25 000 for the Special Prize for Social Impact Innovation which awards the innovation with the highest social impact in the community/country.
•    A US$ 5 000 voucher is given to each nominee, and used in post-prize technical support to move the innovation to the next step. The nominees also benefit from the AIF-IPA brand, receive ongoing local, regional and international media coverage, and support and training opportunities can be mobilized for the nominees.

4| How has the IPA platform helped in scaling up innovation for previous winners, in terms of financing and, has it gained any value to the sectors their innovations are involved in?

IPA is Pan African, representing 50 countries. Immense value has been gained through all five thematic areas, for example in the sector of agriculture. In Ethiopia, Dr Melesse Temesgen developed the multi-purpose Broad Bed and Furrow (BBF) maker, a low cost farming device that easily drains excess water from waterlogged fields. It is the only known effective BBM device that is capable of creating drainage furrows for excess water while building a broad bed for planting.

Farming is a challenge in 5 million hectares of land in Ethiopia and a much larger area in Africa because the land is water-logged. Using the Aybar BBM through drainage of excess water helps farmers, improving food production. The Aybar BBM builds on 2000 years of old Ethiopian farming technology, is easy to use and cost effective. Over 44 000 units have been sold in Ethiopia since 2009.

5| Now, this year’s theme is “Made in Africa” , tell us more about that, why this specific theme and what are you looking for in the participants/ nominees?

The IPA “Made in Africa” theme for this year embodies the vibrancy and spirit of the continent, with the strong message that Africa can and is doing it for herself. Thus, all AIF-related activities in Gaborone, Botswana, will be tuned into an African rhythm!

IPA extends beyond a mere one-day event; it is a platform that mobilizes African innovators, not only unlocking their potential, but building bridges for collaboration. IPA 2016 will offer a host of activities like story opportunities for news makers and media practitioners attending and covering this innovation jamboree, including a village maker spaces with tailor-made workshops, demos and African food, music, dance, art and craft.
We are once again looking for African ingenuity: home-grown solutions that are marketable and scalable, addressing African challenges in a sustainable manner.

6| IPA 2016 is being held in Gaborone, Botswana. Why this country in particular?

Yes, the prestigious African award marks its 5-year milestone boasting the “Made in Africa” spirit and we are looking forward to hosting the event in Botswana. Botswana has been one of the fastest growing economies in the world, moving into the ranks of upper-middle income countries. It is a sound example of a nation invested in prioritizing innovation to drive socio-economic progress and growth.

The decision also received the highest endorsement from H.E. President Lieutenant General Seretse Khama Ian Khama, the President of Botswana.

About the author

The Editor


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