Africa is also embracing new business models that tap into the vitality of the continent’s communities. Philips, for example, teamed up with Inyenyeri, a Rwandan NGO, to give families access to an innovative cookstove. Crucially, the cookstove is given away for free and families pay for the stove by harvesting twigs, leaves and grass. This biomass is compressed into fuel pellets, half of which are returned to the family for personal use and half of which are sold by the NGO. The cookstove is produced in Africa, is highly energy efficient and, because it is smoke free, it is significantly healthier than other cooking methods.
This example proves the power of partnerships, without which many African innovations would not come to fruition. Solar-powered light centers, for example, increase the social activity and productivity of communities by generating light after sundown. These communities, however, are often unable to invest in a light centre, so the roll out of this technology is done through NGOs and governments. Sometimes these light centers are used to power medical equipment such as an ultrasound, or refrigerators that store vaccines. This type of co-operation ensures that innovation generates both financial and social value.
For innovation to really succeed in Africa, other factors need to be addressed too. There is a lack of prototyping equipment and workshops, so local innovators depend on Europe or China, making the process costly and cumbersome. And while there are good patent laws in place, there are still too many counterfeit versions of successful products. Also, international firms should source locally and work with local distributors, whenever possible. And governments should focus their development money on stimulating entrepreneurship and innovation.
While millions of people still live on less than $2.50 a day in Africa, the continent has the opportunity to leapfrog into a brighter future by creating local solutions for finance, healthcare and energy that could become globally relevant. M-Pesa, for example, has already been rolled out in other African countries, India, Afghanistan and Eastern Europe. Perhaps sooner than we think, African innovations will help the rest of the world to create lasting social and economic value.