Last month I was pleased to be invited, by the Royal Academy of Engineering, to open and to participate in the first “Africa Innovates” Unconference. This format is the invention of a group of young entrepreneurs, each with a lifetime’s experience of successful global start-ups (despite being less than 30 years old for the most part) yet who also take on advocacy and mentoring in addition to running their own businesses. The two-day event began with tailor-made interactive workshops focusing on supporting peer learning for technology entrepreneurs in the region with participants made up of alumni from programmes the Academy has run in London and sub-Saharan Africa, including the Leaders in Innovation Fellowship and the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. The programme also included the announcement of the finalists in the 2017 Africa Prize.
I had two mentees in the Africa Prize final, Andre Nel from South Africa for the GreenTower Microgrid system, which reduces the energy used to heat water by 90%, and Hindu Nabulumba from Uganda for the Yaaka Digital Learning Network, which teachers and students can use to share academic knowledge and materials. A third finalist was Kelvin Gacheru from Kenya for his Mobi-Water system, which allows water tank users to monitor and control the water in their tanks remotely using a mobile phone enabling them to save more than 30% of their water. Each of these won £10,000 to advance their companies; not a lot, I hear you say but read on and note the prevalence of solutions to Africa’s known problems, environment and education!
The winner of the £25,000 first prize was a 27-year-old Nigerian systems engineer, Godwin Benson, who designed Tuteria, an online platform that links students to qualified tutors in their area and within their budget. Users find the skill they want to learn on an app on their phone, set their budget, and wait to be connected to the nearest tutor.
Benson developed the platform based on the experiences he had as a young tutor. An important part of the service is that both students and teachers are thoroughly vetted before being allowed to use the platform. A wide scope of life-long skills is available together with a range of academic subjects for all ages. The platform is based on supply and demand software and has a mutual ratings system and an upfront online payment system.
The unconference bubbled with energy and enthusiasm for the mission of innovation from right across the sub-continent. The issues to be discussed and solved were the same as ours, education (are we educating for the past or the future?), intellectual property (is it a boon or a bane to 21st C entrepreneurial human advancement?), funding for early stage engagement and keeping in touch with a diaspora.
Our Ministers used to say when they wanted a charge of energy, they would come down to the Science Park. Well, when I want a charge I go to Africa!
We’d better watch out is all I can say. Those small prizes get amplified by their society reaction. The winners become celebrities; investors and first customers step up to try the new technology. Each of the winners and runners-up that tracked is doing well with sales and impact rising exponentially.
I confess a certain irritation on my return home to the parochial themes of our June elections. I can tell you from first-hand experience, the World is innovating on without us! We need to smell the (Kenyan) coffee!!