Transforming Africa: Funding of innovations is the way forward
Publish Date: Feb 27, 2014
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By Matsiko Kahunga

In yet another case of moving ahead of the pack, Rwanda is the driving force behind the new African initiative dubbed Transform Africa, whose blue-print is the Smart Africa Manifesto. Launched at a summit attended by seven Heads of State and over 1,500 delegates from 75 countries, the emerging consensus over the four days of deliberations was innovations by Africans in Africa for Africans.

This, it was agreed, would make Africa an active witness and participant in the ICT evolution, instead of the passive consumer that she has been to-date. And this was evidenced by the two Youth Programme events that were an integral component of the summit. One was the launching of an innovation centre called k-Lab (knowledge Lab) where young innovators are hosted to develop their projects in ICT.

Supported   by Rwanda’s Private Sector Foundation, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), k-Lab is open to young innovators in ICT who are supported by voluntary mentors; while the other event was the Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Venture Capital) competition gala, where young innovators from across Africa pitched their innovations before a panel of judges. The winners were awarded at a related event, Transform Africa Awards, by President Paul Kagame.

Innovative Brains and Creative Minds Abundant in Africa

Demography has it that geniuses are evenly distributed globally. As one delegate at the summit put, ‘...African mothers are not short of wombs to produce wakina Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Shuttleworth and others…only that we lose these along the way,  to maternal death, neonatal death, infant mortality, malnutrition and stunting, illiteracy and innumeracy,  juvenile delinquency…plus all the other monsters that besiege young Africans…’

The Youth Programme events vindicated this delegate. At the k-Lab stand in the main exhibition tent at the Kigali Serena, and the Venture Capital pitching at the nearby Hotel des Milles Collines, the young innovators are a living testimony to this. Innovations for virtually every day-to-day challenge: city traffic jams, personal health management, construction, purchases, daily Bible readings, employer-employee linking, domestic security, and others.

 And they came from all over Africa: Rwanda, Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, the Gambia, Kenya. The zeal and focus of these young brains was summed up by my classmate since primary school days (now a senior government technocrat in Kigali), thus: ‘… this generation has been accorded the opportunity to make their contribution to Africa, the way the pro-independence generation did…simply look at the youthful minister for Youth and ICT…’

Notable among these were the innovators in the agricultural sector, which, as President Museveni argued during the Presidential Panel Discussion, remains the king-pin sector for Africa. An innovator from Rwanda, Prince Dukundane, a student of Electronic Engineering at the College of Science and Technology, ( former Kigali Institute of Science and Technology-KIST), now a constituent college of the University of Rwanda; show-cased a prototype of a device that could transform Rwanda’s and Africa’s agriculture to unprecedented levels.

Under the working brand ‘ Fertiliser Logic’, Dukundane’s innovation tests soil fertility in a given piece of land. Using sensors, it will determine the levels of the essential fertilisers (notably sodium, phosphorous and potassium: NPK) and recommend the required amount to apply. The potential success of this innovation is anchored on another government initiative, namely the mapping, surveying and numbering of land plots in Rwanda, alongside the national ID success story. Dukundane says his Fertiliser Logic will combine all this data: the land owner’s names and ID number, the size, number and location of his land plot.

This data is then fed into the central control at each sector( sub-county), where the agronomist will interprete the data, useful in the allocation of fertilisers to farmers, another government programme to boost the sector. And Smart Agriculture is among the key component pillars of Smart Rwanda, under the Smart Africa Manifesto. Indeed as a sequel, at the same venue of the Transform Africa Summit, the first week of November was taken up by a related international conference on ICT for Agriculture (ICT4AG).

All that is needed is substantive financing of these innovations, beyond awards. Research, as evidenced in medicine, requires deep and wide financing and to achieve this, governments must prioritise it, while the corporate world needs to refocus its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to the level of Ford Foundation, Rockfeller Foundation or closer home, the Equity Bank Foundation. Only then will this new generation of leaders drive Africa’s transformation. It takes leadership, to achieve this, as emphasised by President Paul Kagame, beyond summit commitments and conventions to specific figures that rarely get implemented. Virtually all innovations needed small amounts of money for development of prototypes before eventual commercial production. The highest amount was USD 35,000 by the budding regional ICT starling, Clarisse Iribagiza, CEO of Hehe Ltd. Others needed as little as USD 5,000.

Developmental State at Work: Rwanda Government Steering the Transformation

One other emerging factor key to the realisation of the Smart Africa goals is the role of the state. This was underscored by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development-UNCTAD, Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, former Minister of Trade in Kenya. His argument is that we need to have a new paradigm shift from the SAP gospel which negated the role of the state in active economic activities. And Dr Kituyi has a perfect disciple in the Rwanda Government. Just a few highlights in respect to Transform Africa and development in general:

·     The Rwanda Development Board (RDB) the government planning think-tank  is the noyau in the Smart Rwanda programme. In a joint venture with Korea Telecom, (a parastatal and largest ICT company in Korea), RDB  started a Special Purpose Vehicle(SPV) company, Olleh Rwanda Networks  and targets rolling out 4G LTE internet link across 95% of Rwanda in the next three years. The implications for this need no further elaboration. ICT giants wakina Nokia Solutions and Networks, Ericsson, Liquid Telecom, and others are all upbeat about this world-class connectivity and the opportunities it offers

·     A Technopark, another brain-child of RDB, in the Masaka area of Kigali City, is all but welcoming investors. Its master-plan, much like Nairobi’s Konza City, was RDB’s key exhibition during the Summit.

·     Carnegie Mellon University, one of the premier universities in the world, is offering world-class ICT post-graduate degree courses in Rwanda.  The first and so far the only in Africa. With its permanent campus to be located in the Technopark, CMU-R is a joint venture between the Rwanda Government and the Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. East African students have an automatic 50% scholarship. In Rwanda; the government foots the other 50%.

·     The International Telecommunications Union( ITU) is setting up a regional entre of ICT excellence in Rwanda

When you have a country ranked among the best in respect to Ease-of-Doing-Business, targeting 95% 4G LTE high speed connectivity, with a young energetic and innovative population, you cannot but see the Future Delivered. Today. This happens to be the theme of Transform Africa 2013. A la prochaine: Transform Africa 2015!!.

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