Building a resilient innovative Africa: Djembe Consultants and AfriLabs discuss latest report findings


Mitchell Prather, CEO of Djembe Consultants

Press Office: Djembe Consultants

Today, Djembe Consultants officially launches its latest Djembe Insights report in collaboration with AfriLabs as part of the Annual Gathering 2020. AfriLabs, the largest pan-African network of 225 technology and innovation centres across 47 countries in Africa, partnered with Djembe, the award-winning pan-African communications consultancy, to develop the report as a tribute to the region’s innovation spirit and youthful ingenuity and to provide policymakers and stakeholders with insights and an understanding of the realities of the innovation ecosystem across the continent during a time of unprecedented international crisis.

The Report surveyed over 1,000 pan-African innovators and features the unique perspectives of some of the continent’s most experienced and informed social and economic experts and commentators. Djembe’s CEO, Mitchell Prather, and AfriLabs Executive Director, Anna Ekeledo discuss some of the most interesting findings from this important study.

Who took part in the latest research between AfriLabs and Djembe?

Mitchell: We conducted this research using the depth and breadth of both of our organisations. Innovation is in Djembe’s DNA and as an international communications consultancy rooted in Africa, we advise clients every day on how innovation is the key to a prosperous African future, particularly against the backdrop of COVID-19. Similarly, the AfriLabs network is unrivalled with the largest network of innovation hubs across Africa.

Anna: Our 1,000+ respondent innovators, entrepreneurs and start-ups from across the region also cover a broad range of sectors such as agriculture, technology and telecoms, education, healthcare and e-commerce. This gives us a clear view of the realities of entrepreneurs in key sectors, making it even more prescient when noticing similar patterns of experiences, issues and needs. To support these findings, we also have expert insights from a range of stakeholders in our network such as; Prudence Nonkululeko Ngwenya, African Union Commission; Kevin Urama, African Development Bank; Joseph Nsegnimana, Mastercard Foundation; and Oulimata Sarr, UN Women; amongst others.

What are some of the most encouraging findings?

Anna: Despite the economic and societal turmoil COVID-19 has placed on the globe this year, innovators across Africa are motivated towards international expansion, with almost three-quarters of respondents currently exploring international markets, all the more hopeful against the backdrop of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Furthermore, many African innovators have risen to the challenge to become part of the continent’s COVID-19 solution. Many innovators and entrepreneurs have rapidly evolved their business models from pure bricks and mortar products or services towards greater online sales, delivery methods, digital alternatives and solutions to help fight the virus and its impact. SMEs across the formal and informal sectors have moved swiftly to think on their feet to bring new products to market that tackle challenges posed by COVID-19, ranging from the mass production of PPEs, to community support programs that reach out to those affected, either economically or from a wellbeing perspective.

Mitchell: A key insight, which is really an affirmation of what Djembe sees in our extensive daily interactions within the African innovation ecosystem, is that Africa is a region that has innovation in its DNA, which is best demonstrated by the fact that over 15% of innovators are working on entrepreneurial endeavours – all at various stages – directly after completing secondary school. This percentage validates the growing importance of fostering entrepreneurial skills across all levels of education to ensure young people enter the world of work equipped with the right skills to thrive. This goal is increasingly more critical for Africa’s development when reflecting on the power of SMEs as key drivers of job creation and economic growth. Young people in Africa must therefore be equipped with the skills required to obtain gainful employment, and a solutions-oriented adaptable mindset to become their own job creators. There is also a need for policy makers to look at the ‘opportunity youth’ – those who are aged 16 and above who are neither in school nor in work – and to drive them towards skills-based programs that allow them to enter the world of work or start a business with an entrepreneurial mindset.

How should Governments work alongside the private sector to better support entrepreneurs?

Anna: Innovators raised issues and factors that we all know too well; access to funding; eradicating corruption and the need for policy to better encourage and foster entrepreneurship through enhanced policy. Unfortunately, only 10% of African entrepreneurs surveyed believe that the support provided by their governments is adequate and effective. The experts we convened to add further contributions to the report echoed these findings, stating that despite the immediate reassignment of funding due to COVID-19, governments must look to do more to support SMEs in the short-term because they are critically important for economic development, job creation and value creation along supply chains.

Mitchell: Insights from several regional hubs in Africa point towards the need for stronger synergies between themselves and the public and private sector to support the scaling of homegrown innovation. Insights include the need to support hubs that cater towards local innovations that can play a role in lessening the impact of COVID-19, to embracing open innovation, and prioritising innovations that are intricately linked to national development agendas and community needs. What is highly evident is that COVID-19 has given rise to opportunities for homegrown innovations to thrive. It is up to African governments and the private sector to be more strategic in tapping into this readily available innovation pipeline by working closely with hubs and making them a part of the continent’s long-term, socioeconomic development masterplan.

How should inclusivity be encouraged in the innovation sector, so that women, youth and those in informal markets have the opportunity to thrive?

Mitchell: We were keen to understand how the continent’s innovators and entrepreneurs view potential solutions to inclusivity – particularly in the informal markets where the majority are women and youth whose life chances and livelihoods have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and the total lockdown of entire supply chains.

Overwhelmingly, the largest single solution to driving inclusivity in informal markets considered by our respondents is the creation of expanded market opportunities for homegrown businesses (45%), followed by the provision of support services (21%), the curation of capacity development (17%) and synergies between R&D and needs-based innovation (15%). There are also various ways of exploring opportunities by taking a sector-specific approach. For instance, in education, the pandemic acted as an accelerant to EdTech adoption and increased demand for these services in both urban and rural settings across Africa.

How can hubs support greater expansion of entrepreneurship and innovation across the continent?

Anna: According to our recent findings the continent now has an estimated 643 technology hubs, with half consisting of non-profit or donor-funded organisations. Additional research from GSMA points to a 40% surge in the number of technology hubs in Africa in just one year – from 442 in 2018 to 618 in 2019. These ecosystems are the ideal central nerve to be drawn upon for ingenious homegrown solutions.

African innovation hubs, in addition to bringing cost-cutting, problem-solving, and locally relevant answers, house tremendous knowledge and capabilities. More importantly they offer a steady pipeline of potentially workable local innovations that the public and private sector can invest in, nurture and scale. The study shows that the majority of young startups (42%) see hubs as potential platforms to access funding, followed by networking opportunities (28%), capacity building platforms (16%) and R&D (12%).

Click here to download the full report.