For centuries, Africans devised means to survive. They mastered the herbs and cured the most poisonous snake bites, melted iron and made cutlasses and hoes, and formulated compounds and fixed broken bones. The Egyptians pioneered the field of geometry, out of the need to re-partition plots of land near River Nile, whenever it overflowed its banks. The Ethiopians invented an indigenous way of writing, and documented some of the earliest components of African history. The ancient trade routes from Accra through Kano to Khartoum were anchored on the ingenuity of Africans who dyed clothes, transformed hides into leather, and improved agricultural yields through self-taught farming mechanisms like fallow and erosion control. Yet, Africa had a dark period through the vagaries of slavery and self-inflicted tragedies of wars that destroyed a virtuoso system of innovation built and refined over generations.
But the good news is that Africa is emerging again, stronger. It is a land of Sankofa innovation where legends painstakingly reach back, pick old ideas on processes, concepts and tools, and improve on them, while applying new techniques. In the east, west, north and south, the spirit of innovation is being rekindled in the continent. There are sparks of African innovators who want to drive Africa’s future in their hands. They have noticed that years of mining metal and drilling hydrocarbons have not accelerated the welfare of the citizens. For them, the best roadmap for sustainable and equitable economic development, where GDP growths correlate with better living standards with better jobs and opportunities, will be African-driven and Africa-led. They envision a future where homegrown common sense policies that understand the African realities are enacted to drive trade and entrepreneurship. The results are triple helix partnerships across the continent with governments reforming, industry innovating and training being revamped.
Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that translates as “Go back and get it” (san – to return; ko – to go; fa – to fetch, to seek and take) and also refers to the Asante Adinkra symbol represented either with a stylized heart shape or by a bird with its head turned backwards carrying a precious egg in its mouth. Sankofa is often associated with the proverb, “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” (Wikipedia)
Indeed from Lusaka to Dakar, new innovation ecosystems are being formed. These are innovation spaces where Africans are congregating to create products and services that solve local problems. The players are students, makers, artisans and grassroots innovators. Some want to transform consumers of increasingly foreign obfuscated technology that permeate daily lives of Africans, into producers and creators of what they use. It is a movement, and the world is paying attention; investors are opening their wallets, the press is writing about them, and more African diasporas are coming home to join them.
While it is very early to assess the impacts, it is already clear that these innovators offer a platform for a new economic system that taps into the brainpower of Africans to seed shared prosperity. If they succeed in replicating the wonders of Kenya’s financial sector, through mPesa, that enables a mother to pay a child’s school fees on her way to the farm instead of spending a day in the bank in other business areas, Africa will exert greater influence in the world. The continent is already seeing marks of relative pre-eminent technology production cities with Nairobi in East Africa, Lagos in West Africa and Cape Town in Southern Africa.
Though there are challenges in infrastructure, education and property rights, which need to be fixed for the effervescence of change in the makerspaces and hackerspaces around the continent to become anchor firms, with capacities to provide thousands of jobs and other opportunities, the future is one of hope. The resilience of the African people is unprecedented because when the world called them “hopeless”, “dark” and “forgotten”, they persevered and today no other people can take the credit of the progress in Africa than Africans. All the challenges are opportunities for young Africans, and they will lead in fixing them.
In this book, we share inspiring stories of innovation in Africa. We chronicle the redesign taking place in the innovation ecosystem of the continent. We provide analyses on how the continent can strengthen its march to greatness by connecting the rich informal sector into mainstream ones for scalability. These analyses are not just our ideas; we tapped into the rich knowledge base of African innovators and innovation enablers.
Around the world, the study of innovation has a unique methodology and format: R&D data and patents are usually the reference points for understanding innovations in science and technology, especially in developed nations. Their numbers always correlate to inclusive domestic economic growth and participation in the global economy. By looking at the data, one can appraise the strengths of knowledge creation, R&D impacts and economic innovation. R&D data in Africa is patchy while patent data is limited for any major inference and deduction. So, we devised different ways to assess the innovation ecosystems in Africa.
We designed a survey which was sent through different networks to innovators and innovation enablers across Africa. The survey was designed to understand the perspective of thought-leaders and innovators on the state of S&T innovation in the region, the form and its trajectory. It was not structured for the data gathered to be extrapolated to represent any population through sampling. We merely sought for opinions and insights. More than 1,000 participants completed the surveys —administered in three languages (English, Portuguese and French) — and spoke with our team. Participants from 32 countries participated. Supporting the survey was extensive desk research and interviews with technology thought-leaders. Insights from these surveys and interviews were used in different chapters of this work.
The African Institution of Technology (AFRIT) has an in-depth database of African innovators and innovation enablers. The surveys were sent to the contacts, social media and Africa-focused news sites. It was also promoted in an article in the Harvard Business Review. The survey data was collected, analyzed and then incorporated into the book.
Also, in our analysis, we looked at a recent survey conducted by African Science Technology and Innovation Indicators initiative (a program of Africa Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development) that covered 19 African countries: Angola, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. They focused on R&D data with two key R&D indicators — gross domestic expenditure on research and development (GERD), and human resources devoted to R&D to assess innovation outlook in Africa. R&D data collected included those from business enterprise, government, higher education and private non-profit sectors. The work underpinned that by measuring science, technology, and innovation indicators, comparisons at national and regional levels can be made. Also it noted that indicators are critical for policy formulation, performance assessments, accountability, and market participations as investors can use such insights to evaluate ecosystem development. The perspectives from this important NEPAD work were important in our efforts in understanding governments’ innovation strategies across the continent.
Though we have used Africa in the broad sense, it is very evident that recommendations cannot be universally applied, without customizations, across countries. Also, while a continental innovation plan will be important, a regional one will serve Africa better owing to the disparity in the levels of development. We envisage a more actionable roadmap to accelerate the pace of reforms and development so that Africa can take advantages of the present economic optimism.
Finally, I thank individuals, entrepreneurs, innovators, companies, government agencies, universities and thought-leaders who took our surveys, offered their time via interviews, or assisted in this work. The reality is that my LinkedIn page is my most important source of real-time insights on Africa and its position in the world. I sincerely thank those that comment on my page for the daily perspectives which continue to shape my understanding of the continent and the world. I close by thanking my family, especially my wife Ifeoma, for being the best friend possible.
I hope you will enjoy this book.
Ndubuisi Ekekwe, PhD
African Institution of Technology
 The African Institution of Technology has relationships with more than 100 universities and institutions in Africa
 NEPAD (2014), African Innovation Outlook II---
1. Advance your career with Tekedia Mini-MBA (Sept 13 – Dec 6, 2021): 140 global faculty, online, self-paced, $140 (or N50,000 naira). Click and register here.
2. Click to join Tekedia Capital Syndicate and own a piece of Africa’s finest startups with a minimum of $10,000 investment.