Innovation for Africa

Homegrown South African innovations are in widespread use around the world – think automatic pool cleaners, CAT scanners and dolos sea barriers – for example and the country is an attractive innovation investment destination, principally for international tech firms. US Silicon Valley venture capital funds already refer to Africa as the Silicon Savannah.

Derek Kudsee, chief operating officer for the African arm of tech firm SAP, says the company has invested in and set up an innovation centre in Pretoria to foster innovation with an African flavour.

“Mobile innovation is a particular focus for us,” he says. “Africa has the world’s fastest-growing population and mobile innovation will drive African economies in future. Bear in mind that 90% of the continent’s gross domestic product is generated by small- to medium-sized companies and virtually all of them rely heavily on mobile technology.

“There are about 800 million cellphone users in Africa which is about three times the population of the US. Since 2011, 150 million people in Africa have found themselves living within less than a 2km radius of a fibre optic node.

“We see innovation in Africa happening at an accelerated pace now because the continent is so well served by internet connections – 16 submarine cables link Africa with the rest of the world. The lines make 25TB of data per second available but less than 1TB is used – there’s huge room for growth.

“Innovation is most likely to take place around renewable energy and natural resources and there will be huge investment in mobile banking as smartphones will be used for transactions instead of ATMs,” he says.

Perhaps the current poster boy for a South African with innovation in his blood is Pretoria-born and high school-educated Elon Musk. The serial entrepreneur, engineer and inventor has established three companies, all with innovation at their core. In 2002 he sold PayPal, an online payment system, to auction site eBay for US$1.5-billion. The same year he founded SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies) with some of the PayPal proceeds. It’s a company that develops and builds space launch vehicles and has effectively made the case for the privatisation and commercialisation of space exploration in the US. Musk has said he wants to send humans to Mars in the next two decades. Here on planet Earth, Musk is chief executive of Tesla Motors, which is doing pioneering work in the field of electric cars, and he co-founded SolarCity, the largest provider of solar power systems in the US.

While Musk’s endeavours have an international and even interplanetary focus, innovation for Africa and beyond is a core focus at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria. It’s an organisation that supports innovation in South Africa with a view to improving national and international competitiveness in the fields of science and technology. Says Richard Fearon, the CSIR’s entrepreneur-in-residence: “South African innovators face significant challenges — key among them access to capital and access to markets. But all of this is underscored by problems with the country’s education system, particularly in the areas of maths and science.”

Fearon says innovation could help turn things around in education. “We’re seeing huge strides in mobile technology that delivers great educators to the masses via the internet. There’s a great deal of innovation that takes place in South Africa. One of our recent locally developed projects that’s about to be licensed internationally looks at cells in a patient and then quickly determines which treatment is the most appropriate for them — it’s personalised medicine. Another is a project with a working title of CellNostics. Using mobile technology, we’ve developed a portable device and platform that can take a small blood sample from a patient, upload its composition to the cloud for pathology diagnostics and then return results almost immediately. It can quickly screen for conditions like HIV, diabetes, malaria and tuberculosis, for example, and plugs into existing computerised health systems. Initiatives like this will pave the way for improved national health facilities that will work, given that there are too few doctors serving too many people. The cost and speed of the new system makes healthcare more affordable and the commercial research possibilities, particularly for pharmaceutical companies, means that they would get involved in funding it. “

“South Africa is a great country for research and development because you can attach a rand overhead to innovation that will usually produce earnings in euros and dollars. We have the skills, minds and infrastructure to do great work but we do try to balance profit with purpose,” he says.

Fearon says future innovation will be driven by finding African solutions to African challenges and that much of it will incorporate mobile technology as the most ubiquitous and powerful method of reaching people and communities.

This article is part of a larger supplement. This has been paid for by the M&G‘s advertisers and the contents signed off by the organisers of the Innovation Summit

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Greg Gordon
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