The workshop’s final session focused on the importance and practice of cultivating an environment in which grassroots entrepreneurs and initiatives are contributing to the global digital landscape. The session began with a conversation between Nnamdi Oranye, an independent media contributor and author who has written about the power of technology and innovation to change the lives of Africans, and Anna Thompson-Quaye from access.mobile International. The session ended with an open discussion with the workshop participants.
Thompson-Quaye began the conversation by asking Oranye to discuss the role of African innovation, both within the health sector and more globally. Oranye began his answer by noting that Africa is projected to have a larger workforce than that of any other nation by 2035 (Fine et al., 2012). If that workforce is productive, he said, it will have a positive effect on the global landscape, but if it is a liability, then the world has a problem. His mission over the past 5 years has been to chronicle the lives of innovators changing the landscape in the health and other sectors of the economy as a means of highlighting the enormous potential of African workers and bring them together with partners who can help them grow.
When asked to address some of the trends in the innovation space in Africa that the rest of the world should pay attention to, Oranye said that African innovators are doing impressive things in their local communities, but for the most part they are not connecting with one another to produce bigger impacts. As an example, Vula Mobile, a small company in South Africa, has an app that makes it easy to refer patients to specialists. The idea for this app came about because of an ophthalmologist’s struggle with traveling to rural villages to identify patients who needed cataract surgery. The problem is, when someone travels to the city to have cataract surgery, he or she may not have the cash on hand to pay for the procedure. If he or she had access to a new form of insurance developed by MicroEnsure, an entrepreneur in Kenya, that would not be a problem, and an app called Sproxil, developed by entrepreneurs in Ghana, would help him or her make sure that the drugs he or she has to take are not counterfeit. The problem, said Oranye, is that someone has to step up and put these together to create an ecosystem. “When we are thinking about funding or talking about pilots and projects, the conversation should be about how we put these innovators together because they exist, and they
are doing great work,” he said. The important question to ask, he said, is how to support these entrepreneurs to help them scale their innovations.
In terms of the challenges that these innovators face, Oranye said he was surprised that funding to scale was not that big of a challenge. In talking to innovators across the continent, he learned that funding is available, both from funding organizations and private equity funds. The real challenge, he said, is getting access to opportunities and growth markets, and the best opportunity for getting that access is by finding partners with a bigger footprint across the continent or to work with an organization such as PATH that can help make connections with suitable partners. He noted that Silicon Valley has become interested in Africa and in finding partners who have promising technologies and need help with scaling. More importantly, these companies appear to have figured out how to scale across Africa. As an example, he described how he can use the Uber app to order a ride whether he is in Johannesburg or Nairobi. On the other hand, a company called Fyodor has developed a rapid malaria test that can be used at home, but the company has no way of distributing it across Africa. “But if you had Amazon as a partner, as an example, distributing the product, that solution exists today,” he said. “The conversation I would like to hear when it comes to innovation is about distribution, how it affects innovators, and how we can help them scale.”
Toward that end, cross-sector and cross-regional partnerships are “absolutely essential,” said Oranye. He said it is imperative that innovators in the health sector have conversations with those in the technology, telecommunications, and finance sectors to understand how their innovations can fit together and produce a sum that is bigger than its parts. “Those conversations, for me, need to start now as opposed to down the track,” said Oranye. To enable those conversations, he said he would like to see more cross-sector conferences in Africa and more innovators at workshops such as this one. One possible venue for such conversations, he suggested, would be a conference exploring how innovators and health officials in Nigeria worked together at the time of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to keep the number of cases there to a handful.
In her final question, Thompson-Quaye asked Oranye if there is a “dark side” to innovation. The answer, said Oranye, is that innovation can displace other industries and disrupt an entire ecosystem. As an example, he cited an app that was developed to pay for parking, but in South Africa there are people employed at the parking station to collect fees and make change. What happens, then, is that person, who is probably earning money to feed four or five other people, loses his or her job. The conversation that has to take place, he said, is how to bring those who are displaced by technology into the fold. Africa, he said, has a fragile economy that is not strong enough to have too many people displaced by
technology, so it is essential to bring those whose jobs are disrupted by technology into the workforce in other ways.
Another potential disruptive outcome from innovation in the health sector, said Robert Bollinger, is the development of a private health care industry, something that has taken place in India over the past three to four decades. He asked Oranye if he sees any negative effects of private-sector opportunities, such as the ones being developed by companies such as access.mobile, becoming increasingly productive and valued. Oranye replied that in his opinion, that would be a great thing, in part because it might lead to the formation of public–private partnerships in health care that would in turn create an infrastructure that currently does not exist.
Kaakpema Yelpaala asked Oranye for his perspective on innovators being crowded out of the market by foreign aid. While admitting that he is not an expert on foreign aid, Oranye said the real problem is that foreign aid organizations and private donors do not know about the innovators on the continent, and if they did, they would likely be interested in partnering with these innovators. Toward that end, Oranye is developing a heat map of the innovators in the health sector and supportive services space. He is also trying to change the way foreign aid works with innovators, which typically involves coming in with a preconceived solution that might work as opposed to presenting a problem and letting innovators present potential solutions. He noted that African innovators in Africa are fixing African problems in an African way. “What needs to happen now is when aid comes in, it is to support that to scale,” said Oranye.
When asked if he was optimistic about the future of Africa, he said he has seen enough innovators doing impressive work to see a bright future for the continent, and he believes that Africans are moving past a needs-based focus to one that is more forward thinking. One key to continuing the momentum that is occurring, he said, is to promote African entrepreneurs and innovators and introduce them to the rest of the world.