Interview with Dr Olugbenga Adesida, African Innovation Summit 2018

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With Africa’s fast-paced growth to become one of the World’s leading hubs for innovation, it is important that the right communities come together to share ideas and work towards achieving them. This is why the African Innovation Summit is convened annually to showcase budding innovators from the continent.

The Co-Director of the summit, Dr Olugbenga Adesida speaks on the importance of the summit and how it continues to spearhead Africa’s entry into an era of great scientific and technological advancements. Excerpts:


1. Can you tell us about the African Innovation Summit and what vital milestones it hopes to achieve at the end of the 2018 summit?

The Africa Innovation Summit is a platform which we are building to contribute to Africa’s transformation; it aims to achieve this goal partly through advocacy aimed at placing innovation at the heart of the continent’s development agenda. Our plan is also to use the platform to mobilize stakeholders for collective actions in support of building a robust ecosystem for innovation in African countries. We have initiated our efforts by organizing dialogues to bring together diverse stakeholders (including those with the power to act, investors, academics and researchers, policymakers, innovators, community and social activists, as well as corporates) to reflect and mobilize for actions in support of building innovation-driven economies and societies in Africa. The AIS is also promoting reflection on the context and key issues by inviting African experts to undertake research as well as to prepare case studies to facilitate learning, share experiences on the continent, and inform policies to promote innovation for socio-economic transformation. In addition, the AIS is also providing a platform to showcase innovations taking place in Africa with the aim of facilitating support for the scaling up of these innovations.

For us, these activities are part of our efforts to contribute to change on the continent. This is our focus: serve as a catalyst for change and mobilize stakeholders for collective actions in support of innovation. We expect through this Summit in 2018 to reach many more people, enlist many more “foot soldiers” in the push to engage and place innovation at the centre of Africa’s development and transformation. We expect to have people from all corners of the continent, and we aim to mobilize support for the innovators that will be participating in the exhibition. Additionally, we aim to enlist more stakeholders to support our effort to build AIS into a platform to drive innovation on the continent in coalition with other actors.


2. What are the focus areas of this year’s summit and what measures have been put in place to ensure that the aim of the summit is achieved?

The Summit will explore the need for and how we can build robust national innovation systems in African countries, including the challenges and opportunities of rapid technological change, the need for financing and systems to support scaling up innovations, as well as creative policies that can respond to our unique and specific African realities. The key thread that will guide the dialogue and activities throughout the Summit will be a fundamental question, which is “how we, Africans can innovate our way out of the pressing challenges facing the continent, including health, energy, water, food insecurity, and governance?”


We are doing a lot to ensure that we meet our objectives. First is the program. The AIS is probably the only innovation event of its size that is not all about technology. So, we have designed an agenda that is focused on building innovation systems and how we can address the pressing challenges facing the continent. Second, we have ensured that the diverse stakeholders needed to build robust innovation system will be present. We will make sure we have people with the power to act. This will include policymakers that will help to pursue policies which are more propitious to innovation over time. Third, we will also ensure that we have investors at the Summit and others that can help with ideas and also support scaling of exciting ideas and innovations that will be showcased at the Summit. In addition, we have set time aside for our Advisory and the Scientific Councils to plan the future of AIS and ensure that it becomes a platform to drive innovation on the continent. 


3. As a Co-Founder of the summit, what experiences did you have at the last edition and what can attendees look forward to at this year’s edition?

The AIS is full of surprises. The last Summit we had a surprise from a group of Togolese innovators that had built a fully functioning 3D printer from E-waste. The demonstration was a hit. This time around we have built two new elements into the program. A series of Innovation Labs will be organized on some critical issues. Here we will not do the what is common in major events like AIS, where stars are invited to speak to the people. In these labs, we will throw a challenge to the group and facilitators will run the sessions with the aim of eliciting creative and disruptive solutions.  We are also partnering with UNESCO’s Futures Lab to organize a series of sessions for participants to envision the future and beyond the formal foresight sessions. Additionally, we will have an event app which will present participants questions of the day and everyone will have the opportunity to film and upload their responses. The best will be summarized and presented in the feedback sessions.  Moreover, we are expecting some exciting solutions in the exhibit!  


4. Africa has the potential to become of the World’s leading generators of new innovations, following the end of this summit this year, will there any post-summit plans put in place to ensure that the many African potentials are harnessed and utilized appropriately?

Yes, Africa is innovating. Importantly, we have the potential to innovate more on the continent. But there are critical constraints. The system of innovation in most of our countries is only just emerging. The result is that the support system is weak or missing in most of our countries. Our universities are not well equipped nor are they sufficiently funded. The result is limited research. The policy framework is weak and we do not have robust policies to promote innovation. Our firms are spending very little on research and development. Many of our economies are dominated by the informal sector and innovators in this critical part of the economy face major hurdles. The lack of financing and support to scale up innovations pose significant constraints. These factors hinder innovation on the continent.

As such, our aim is to build the AIS into a collective. All stakeholders are invited and should play their part in ensuring that we build an enabling environment for innovation on the continent. Instead of managing poverty, our policymakers need to focus on building innovation-driven economies. Our elite and wealthy individuals must begin to invest in innovative ideas as angels and as venture capitalists to support and scale up innovations on the continent. They must aim to become builders instead of simply accumulating wealth.

We will work to build AIS into a platform that will bring the actors together and especially those with the power to act to begin addressing these and other problems. We will build a Pan-African network advocating for policy reforms and change to support innovation. Furthermore, the AIS will serve as a platform for innovators and investors, a place for exchange to share ideas and experiences, coordinate initiatives and to measure and track progress. This is our aim and we plan to initiate the efforts to build the platform at this Summit. 


5. What plans do the organizers of this summit have for talents and ideas that will be discovered during this summit?

The talents will have the opportunity to network, learn and to engage with others from policymakers, academics, corporates, activists to investors. We aim to create opportunities for innovators to find mentors and to talk to potential investors to seek funding and support to scale up their innovations. Additionally, we aim to build a platform for ongoing dialogue and that will serve as a support system for innovators, with the aim of driving innovation on the continent.


6. Are all forms of innovators and innovations welcome at the summit?

Yes, we do not discriminate and for us, innovation is not limited to technological innovation. Our goal is to promote innovation in all aspects of society, from policy making to the way we live. This time around we are encouraging innovations to address the pressing challenges facing the continent.

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