By Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa
Africa must start by focusing on the low-hanging fruit. Innovation needs to be based on current needs. The more solutions for immediate needs are met, the more people will be encouraged to innovate for future needs.
I recall that as a child my grandmother boiled guava leaves to treat me when I had a cough. She had other natural remedies for ailments she claimed did not warrant the inconvenience of a trip to the hospital. As I grew older, I stopped using her remedies and immediately resorted to “Western” medicines. Perhaps I was convinced that “medicine” should be processed, that is come in a box or a sealed bottle rather than from a tree or a root.
Now I question such naiveté considering the current state of affairs ie the increased flow of counterfeit medicines in Africa and the need for innovative solutions such as mPedigree, the mobile platform that allows a patient to text in the bar code of a medicine to verify its authenticity. With age and travel, I have discovered that many cultures used traditional remedies for ailments. The irony is that now many Africans are using traditional Chinese medicine in unprocessed forms and not indigenous African medicines.
Additionally, the Swiss corporation Ricola manufactures herbal sweets with healing properties and exports them around the world. Rather than ignoring indigenous medicines or providing unprocessed ingredients for medicines, more manufacturing should take place in African countries protected by African patents. It is such solutions that I claim are right under our nose. What lessons can Africa learn from other parts of the world? Africa needs to build on existing knowledge; some solutions will be more difficult than others.
Bearing in mind the numerous constraints, innovation must be based on current needs. The more solutions for immediate needs are met, the more people will be encouraged to innovate for future needs. At the same time, the more local needs are met, then there can be a focus on global needs. Second, innovators should go ahead and start innovating now. The more insistent people are about following the conventional route of first seeking investment, the longer they will wait. In the steps of people like the teenage William Kamkwamba, who created a windmill that produced electricity with several scraps he found in his local community and instructions in a book or mobile phone programmes, innovators need to foster a culture of curiosity and risk-taking while improvising with what is at hand. Time is of the essence, and Africa cannot afford to wait!
For innovation to succeed, African countries need to create a conducive environment. It is without a doubt that in order to create the most valuable innovations financing is necessary, intellectual property protection and other legal regulations must be respected, value addition and commercialisation of the products should be carried out. How can African countries earn money for the process above? Perhaps following suit of Nepal with the Himalayan caterpillar fungus also known as Himalayan Viagra (a sexual stimulant) might help.
Though controversial from an ecological standpoint, the media attention and the commercialisation of this root have attracted a lot of attention and a growing amount of investment to areas where this insect is found. The money earned has the potential to fund an industry, though at the moment taxation of harvesters seems to be the extent of money earned by the state; however, this is a start. The premise of innovation is creativity, flexibility and adaptability, therefore innovators will need to push the bounds not only for innovations, but also for financing.
Though technology has received a lot of attention in the recent past, that is not the only area with opportunities to innovate. Oftentimes other types of innovators are present, but they do not receive the attention due to them. In secondary school in Zambia I was a member of the Junior Engineers, Technicians and Scientists (JETS) club. In that club we were tasked with creating with science and engineering experiments for competition. Our experiments went as far as a showcase competition with other schools. I am sure that many of those projects could have become the beginning of a scientific discovery that could later be commercialised. Like the iHubs which encourage techies to innovate and have venture capitalists on hand, similar incubation hubs need to be encouraged in schools and universities.
Everyone has a role to play. Even though supporting innovation might compete with other pressing social and economic needs, government needs the political will and to prioritise innovation. Thereafter, it needs to provide money and the necessary policies to support innovation eg protect intellectual property, encourage local consumptions as well as the export of products. The private sector has to further fund research and development, branding, local value addition and commercialisation domestically and abroad. Civil society and society at large must foster a culture of curiosity. Lastly, innovators need to wear several hats. Beyond innovating, they must educate and lobby government, the private sector and civil society to support their various needs. They need to be prepared to fight an uphill battle against the perception that there are other more pressing and significant development deliverables.
Walking around neighbourhoods in different African countries, I have seen many little boys with homemade motorised cars and boats and other creative homemade toys. One can only imagine what they could produce given the necessary support. Collectively, society is responsible for Africa’s innovation future. If one is not an innovator, maybe one is a marketer that can market someone else’s goods or maybe a consumer that is inspired to buy local products. Rather than looking for the latest product from another country, how about looking for and promoting locally made products? A significant driver of Africa’s innovation is Africa’s consumption of its own products. Exporting to other markets is an option, however, because of the knowledge of local needs, until locally made goods are appreciated and consumed, how should Africa expect its products to appeal to other consumers?
Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa runs Hoja Law Group, a boutique New York and Kigali (Rwanda) law firm that uses the law to bridge the African development gap through advising on deals that create wealth for Africa.
The article was first published by the African Innovation Summit.