THE BLOG

Innovation in Africa: What Young African Women Entrepreneurs Have to Say

08/21/2013 10:16 am ET | Updated Oct 21, 2013

How can we support and improve Innovation in Africa?

Supporting innovation in Africa is no easy task. Political instability, civil wars, terrorism, and uncertainty often disturb the ecosystem of progress and sustainable development. I meet with three of Africa's most innovative young women entrepreneurs who share their thoughts on how to improve and support innovation. Often, we find that when discussing innovation in Africa, such discussions normally don't include young African voices, particularly that of women and girls. But their voice matters and without the inclusion of African women and girls in such discussions, whether of that involving technology, sustainable development, or innovation -- change cannot happen.

Research conducted by the African Development Bank (AfDB) shows an increase ranging from 10 to 30 percent in the number of women-led enterprises over the last decade. In Uganda alone, women account for 40 percent of businesses (EIU, 2010). As the number of women entrepreneurs and innovators increase, their voices can no longer be ignored. African women and girls have a significant role to play in Africa's economic and innovative transformation.

Nkem Uwaje, Managing Director of FutureSoft Nigeria and winner of the 2012 Etisalat Nigeria Prize for Innovation states, "We can improve innovation in Africa by supporting people with innovative ideas and I think that competitions and contests are a good way to start. African governments and the private sector need to work together to launch more contests and competitions that focus on innovation."

Innovation needs an enabling environment. This means creating hubs where innovators can meet, share ideas, and collaborate. We [youths] need a space where ideas can be incubated and where prototypes can be developed. Without this, we are bound to fail as a continent. In addition, ICT development is very important to Africa's innovation ecosystem and future. ICT is vital to ensuring that Nigeria and Africa will not be left behind. Everyone keeps talking about the digital divide, but instead of bridging it, it keeps on getting bigger. We need government policies that ensure that technology is not a privilege but a basic amenity. My company, Futuresoft is playing its part in making ICT more accessible through our iConnect project."

Entrepreneur and innovator, Bilikiss Adebiyi-Abiola, CEO at WeCyclers -- a company determined to fix the urban waste management system and focused on giving low-income communities in developing countries a chance to capture value from waste and clean up their neighborhoods through an incentive-based recycling program says, "to improve innovation in Africa, we need to invest more in education.

You cannot innovate when you do not have a good education." Adebiyi-Abiola holds an MBA from MIT, a Master degree from Vanderbilt University, and an undergraduate degree in computer science from Fisk University. She is also a 2013 Echoing Green Fellow. Adebiyi-Abiola continues, "we also need more technology incubators and accelerators. The co-creation hub in Lagos was extremely supportive of my work when I first started. They worked hard to ensure my team's success and development. It will be great to see more hubs throughout Africa -- hubs dedicated to supporting aspiring entrepreneurs."

Founding CEO of Yeigo Communications and ReKindle Learning in South Africa, Rapelang Rabana adds, "to improve and support innovation in Africa, the single most powerful thing to do is to deliver quality broadband internet to the majority of Africans. That, I think, will do a lot more than any 'Ministry of Innovation,' than any innovation fund, or any kind of innovation vehicle that we can think of."

Access to information and communication is the most empowering thing we can do to support innovation. It opens doors for greater innovation in farming, education, health, and financial services." Rabana's company, Yeigo is credited with creating ground-breaking applications and services that took advantage of the internet, mobile and cloud computing technologies to reduce communication costs in South Africa. In 2008, Swiss-headquartered Telfree Group of Companies, a pioneering next-generation telecoms operator, acquired a majority stake in Yeigo, enabling the group to provide the full range of telecommunications services.

As we think about innovation in Africa, let us listen to the voices of young innovators because their voice matters. Young Africans are the future of the continent and their efforts should be supported. More recently, the AWP Network launched an innovative photography contest to showcase how African youths view innovation and entrepreneurship in their local community. To participate in the contest or have other ideas on how to support and improve innovation in Africa, Tweet @Africwomenpower or visit www.awpnetwork.com.