“We need African governments to work with stakeholders to design and adopt policies and laws that support entrepreneurs and create an enabling environment for entrepreneurship and innovation to thrive.” – Anna Ekeledo
Dreams Talks: Our conversation with Executive Director of AfriLabs, Anna Ekeledo
Anna Ekeledo is the Executive Director of AfriLabs, a network organization of 225 innovation centres across 47 African countries. AfriLabs support hubs to raise successful entrepreneurs that will create jobs and develop innovative solutions to African problems.
Thank you for accessing this interview with Dreams Talks for Africanian News.
Dreams Talks: AfriLabs is a key player in creating a technology and innovative ecosystem in Africa. Please share with us, as a platform that promotes the creation of African made technology with a special focus on the social, economic and environmental sectors. What are the great challenges the Network has faced during this pandemic period and what are the lessons you have learnt from Covid-19?
Anna Ekeledo: Thank you for this opportunity to share with Dreams Talks.
All our network members have collaborative and co-working spaces where entrepreneurs, start-ups, creatives, developers come together to work on their ideas, access support to build and scale their businesses and network with other innovators, investors, corporates and other stakeholders of the ecosystem.
Hubs as convening spaces also play an important role of hosting activities, events and important [policy] dialogues aimed at building their local innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Due to Covid19 and the lockdown, most of these physical activities have had to come to a halt over the past couple of months. This has significantly affected operations, disrupted plans for the year as well as cut short a major revenue stream for hubs, due to the lack of use of the co-working spaces and lack of revenue usually generated through physical activities from community members and funders.
On the flip side, Covid-19 has demonstrated how resilient our network members are. During this same period of disruption and economic loss for hubs, we’ve seen them come up with innovative models to still run their programmes. A lot of incubation and acceleration programmes have been redesigned to run virtually and best of all, hubs have risen up to the challenge of identifying and supporting innovations to tackle Covid-19.
Hubs are working with corporates and government to develop Covid-19 response strategies, support start-ups with solutions across various sectors and even to produce PPEs. We have Fab Labs across the continent producing PPEs to support their communities.
Dreams Talks: What policies you think should be implemented that would make a difference for the innovative ecosystem?
AE: We need African governments to work with stakeholders to design and adopt policies and laws that support entrepreneurs and create an enabling environment for entrepreneurship and innovation to thrive.
Great examples of these are the Tunisia StartUp Act enacted in 2018 and Senegal StartUp Act enacted in December 2019 in accordance with “Digital Senegal 2025” strategy. The Senegal Start Up Act provides support and a governance framework for startups, provides for labelling of Senegal startups in other to access in incentives and creates a resource centre for Startups while the Tunisia StartUp Act gives new businesses an 8-year tax break, funds startups founders and allows public and private sector workers to take a year off to start a company with the right to return among other incentives of being legally labelled a StartUp.
Other governments across Africa such as Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa and Ghana have policies and roadmaps for the support of the innovation ecosystem which provide for support of innovation hubs, setting up of innovation and research funds, reducing the cost of internet data, and reduced business registration fees and requirements. All these policies are important for an innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem to thrive.
Dreams Talks: Could you share some remarkable experiences from your beginnings in the sector, what practices would you recommend would strengthen a sustainable development of the incubator ecosystem, what are the recommendations for countries with embryonic ecosystems and which steps or practices should they follow in other to create/build resilience?
AE: Best practice requires collaboration among key stakeholders. For an ecosystem to thrive and build resilience, the government has to set up policies and build infrastructure that make it easier for innovators to build their businesses, corporate organisations need to support, transfer skills and knowledge and collaborate with start-ups to scale and academic institutions need to invest in long term market and innovation research and development focused on producing innovations and patents that can be commercialised.
Universities also play an important role of producing human capital for the ecosystem. Early stage angel investors, venture capitalists as well as other financing bodies (traditional and otherwise) need to financially back start-ups and finally, innovation hubs have an important role to support entrepreneurs build and scale their businesses as well as drive the support of local innovations.
It is also important to create awareness and a consumer appetite for technology. Other factors of course such as financial and ICT infrastructure, consumer purchasing power, market conditions, access to local, regional and international markets, political and economic stability are quite important to develop on macro scale in other for ecosystems to thrive.
Dreams Talks: Building a digital Africa, we need to increase digital financial products, E-wallets and payment models such as QR codes etc. In your opinion, how close you think the continent is to completely embrace the digital future? What are some of the reasons in your opinion for resistance to the paradigm shift?
AE: I am optimistic about progress so far. If you look at the figures, you will see that Africa has been embracing a digital future and has shown the ability to innovate and drive the adoption of digital finance and payment solutions. We see this with the rise of mobile money adoption in Kenya and other African countries. In 2019 for example, the total value of transactions through mobile money represented 44% of the Kenya’s GDP. This and other cases are largely driven by the sharp adoption of mobile phones across Africa over the past 10 years.
We have also see a rise in fintech startups and solutions across the continent which all serve different consumer markets, sectors and stakeholders. African governments are also beginning to adopt or plan to adopt the use digital financial platforms as part of their e-Governance strategies and social service delivery to their citizens.
Digital finance has the ability significantly improve lives and contribute to business growth. On a continental level, digital finance also has the ability to drive inclusive growth and economic development. Women particularly who have been largely excluded from real economic growth will benefit greatly from increased access and use of digital finance products, platforms and services.
As such, rather than a resistance to the paradigm shift I would say Africans are ready but there exists barriers we face on the continent which still excludes a vast population of Africans from adopting digital financial products and prevents us from taking advantage from the full potential of digital finance.
Barriers such as lack of access from the most economical disadvantaged, support infrastructure such as electricity, telecommunication networks and internet access, lack of financial education and for intra-African cross continental financial transactions for individuals and businesses (such as e-Commerce businesses), lack of inoperability and unstable exchange rates.
Dreams Talks: Lastly but not less important, could you share with the audience AfriLabs´s short, mid, long-term activities, your meetings, internationalization agenda and how these are helping to connect the ecosystem?
AE: Currently AfriLabs is focused various activities and programmes that align with our Vision of “an innovation economy in Africa, driven by the power of our community”. We are a community first, made up of technology and innovation hubs across Africa, and our primary mandate is to support our community members achieve their goals which largely include supporting tech startups grow successful ventures, driving the development and adoption of innovations that solve local problems across sectors and building their local or regional innovation ecosystems to contribute to the social and economic wellbeing of the continent. We will be releasing a new long term AfriLabs Strategy and Roadmap 2025 soon.
However, our short to mid-term activities include our AfriLabs Capacity Building Programme (link: https://www.afrilabs-capacity.com/), 36-month intensive capacity building programme for hubs and Catalyst (link: https://www.afrilabs.com/african-business-angels-network-aban-and-afrilabs-partner-to-launch-catalyst-a-new-investment-solution-for-african-startups/), a cross-stakeholder initiative in partnership with the African Business Angels Network (ABAN), that aims to increase the pool of capital available to promising African growth-stage entrepreneurs, as well as support the startup ecosystem including hubs and angel network. Both programmes are being carried out thanks to AFD’s support through the Digital Africa seed fund.
AfriLabs is also part of the EdTech Hub (link: https://edtechhub.org/), a global group of organisations with an 8 year ambition to drive research, innovation and engagement of key stakeholders for the adoption of education technologies to significantly improve learning outcomes of children and increase access to quality and affordable education.
We also have partnerships, programmes and events being run with the African Union Departments of Science and Technology and Citizens & Diaspora Organizations (CIDO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Liquid Telecom, Mozilla Foundation, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, i4Policy and Strathmore University.
Finally, our Annual Gatherings which runs every year is an important period where we convene all our hub members across Africa as well as other stakeholders who are key in building the innovation ecosystem. Our Gatherings are usually held in a different African location each year but will be held virtually this year due to the pandemic.
During our Gatherings, we engage in important dialogues which would inform our long term strategies and policies as well as participating organisations involved. This year, we will also be launching an Insights Report on Building a Resilient and Innovation Africa with our partners, Djembe Consultants, an award winning African-focused communications consultancy, which aligns with theme of the AfriLabs Annual Gathering 2020.
We invite everyone invested in the ecosystem to join us (link;https://bit.ly/AfriLabsAG2020)!
Dreams Talks: Thank you very much for your time Ms. Ekeledo, we hope to have you again soon.