Domestic and regional challenges offered a fertile market opportunity for the development and commercialisation of innovative, home-grown solutions. But the precommercial support of innovation and small businesses was necessary to accelerate development, a panel of experts argued at the recent Innovation Summit.
“Innovation requires space independent of an immediate return on investment. A possible model is the triple-helix structure of public, private and academic organisations to provide this space. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is seen as a successful model of this structure that can be applied in other countries,” said SKA site bid manager Dr Adrian Tiplady.
“Developments and work done for the SKA originated from setting difficult tasks that had to be achieved and international collaboration was leveraged to produce the necessary innovation,” he said.
“The US dominance in the innovation space is based on active support and innovation cannot be improved with a laissez faire strategy. Providing a space is a way of generating solutions for societies’ problems, which will lead to products and a better society,” said investment company Sekunjalo Group chairperson Dr Iqbal Survé.
“There is no shortage of needs on the continent, which is one of the drivers to create an environment for innovation. However, the localisation of innovation and its integration into local community needs are important and require an understanding of local market needs and patient investing,” said diversified technology company 3M MD Len Moult.
Understanding market needs would help companies to develop products for sub-Saharan Africa to meet the needs of communities and this should drive increased funding for innovation, he added.
“Africa should avoid being trapped in innovation catch-up, and we should start by acknowledging the fact that Africa has different needs and opportunities and that African innovation must make a difference in the lives of people on the continent. We should support innovations at the research and development level, as well as at workshop levels as these different types of innovations reflect African reality and are all needed to move the continent forward,” said Swiss nonprofit organisation African Innovation Foundation programme manager Pauline Mujawamariya.
For innovation to be effective in Africa, innovators must define the benefits for societies to adopt the innovations or solutions. These solutions must consider the realities facing users and possible changes in the future. Solutions or products must, therefore, be able to adapt and integrate into new developments, she said.
Establishing goals that must be met helps to drive innovation, but technologies might not be developed enough, which necessitates support so that innovators were not concerned with the immediate commercial success of solutions, said Tiplady, citing the development of SKA operating technologies as an example.
“Innovation is the right idea in the right context and with the right support infrastructure, often under difficult circumstances, which makes it risky. We all want to innovate in our comfort zone, but the challenge is to take risks. However, purposeful, calculated risk taking requires entrepreneurial flair in a corporate environment,” said Survé.
“Africa has the skills and the people required, but we need to create space to innovate,” said Tiplady.