Four challenges African innovation needs to tackle


Innovation is highlighted as a key driver for Africa’s long-term development. In the words of Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s Vice President for Africa: “Innovation is absolutely key to African stability and growth in the coming decades”. However, the continent faces the difficult challenge of innovating its way through development in an environment unlike any region of the world has experienced before it.

We know issues like security and corruption are holding back innovation in many African nations. We also know some countries are struggling to cope with short-term issues like food shortages and environmental disasters that push innovation further down the list of priorities.

Regardless, experts largely agree that innovation is the best route for Africa to solve its own problems. And countries like Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa are proving that African nations can turn innovation into sustainable development. However, even in Africa’s most innovating nations to date, there are a number of hurdles holding back progress.

#1: Africa’s disconnected youth

Speaking at the 2017 Innovation Prize for Africa event in Ghana earlier this year, African Innovation Foundation (AIF) founder Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais, highlighted the disconnect between young innovators in Africa and the support structures in place.

He says the government, banks and other institutions need to adapt their approach to supporting smaller ventures. The risk-taking attitude that sets innovators apart from more conservative businesses minds isn’t being nurtured by banking sectors who distance themselves from risk, he warns.

“It literally kills the ability to do business for small companies and start-ups,” he said at the event.

#2: African business environments

To create a more connected, innovative youth Africa first needs to address a number of factors holding back business environments across the continent. Corruption is high on the list of issues for African nations to deal with and it will be hard to get young business minds excited about innovation until corruption is drastically reduced.

Corruption isn’t the only issue, of course, though. Doing business in African nations can be impossibly difficult for those who are sitting on the outside. Breaking into innovation for the average African is no easy task. African nations need to rethink their regulations on how businesses operate and bring in reforms that allow innovation to flourish, rather than make it more difficult.

#3: Small business financing

One of the biggest challenges for new businesses and startups in Africa is securing the funding they need to get things up and running. Once again, the business environment simply isn’t geared towards the kind of businesses that drive innovation.

The cost of financing and taxes involved with running a business make the prospect financially unviable for many would-be innovators. While there’s a growing number of programmes and schemes design to secure financing for start-ups and innovators across Africa, the continent won’t be able to maximise its potential until the private sector starts providing the majority of this funding.

As things stand, this simply isn’t happening.

#4: Intellectual property protection

Innovators want to know their intellectual ideas will be protected – particularly when the process of turning an idea into a market release takes a long time. Many argue that the best form of intellectual property protection is getting a product released as soon as possible – aka the “time to market” principle.

However, this isn’t always possible and it does nothing to prevent foreign companies taking an idea and securing IP rights for themselves. This is a genuine problem in a global business environment that results in Uber facing local competition against Grab in Southeast Asia.

Africa needs to consider how it can guarantee as much intellectual property protection for its innovators and protect its innovations from international mimics.

A long way to go for innovation in Africa

For some African nations, the challenges addressed in this article won’t be the most pressing concerns standing in the way of innovation. Education systems, insecurity and food shortages rightfully take the limelight in time of needs, but innovation is singled out as one of Africa’s best opportunities to solve wider, ongoing issues.

Progress is being made, though – and you can see this in countries like Mauritius and Rwanda. The concern is that not enough is being done for African nations to make the most of innovation due to fundamental constraints in the business environment. This is where African nations need to start innovating first; by rethinking the way they do business in order to allow innovation to flourish.

Featured image: “Youth technology training in South Africa” flickr photo by BeyondAccessInitiative shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.