THE BLOG
11/18/2013 06:41 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

A Conversation With Jonathan Ledgard on Africa's Innovation Potential

My work across Africa and around the world affords me the opportunity to meet like-minded people who share the same passion for African-led progress. Recently, I had a long overdue talk with one of them -Jonathan Ledgard, an African correspondent for The Economist and director of The Future Africa Afrotech Initiative at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland. We discussed the importance of scaling up and driving investment in African innovation. For this month's post, I asked him to share some of our shared insights and perspectives when it comes to the ability of Africans to move the continent forward. Here's what he had to say:

Q. Based on your travels, what are some of the most exciting African innovations?
A. There are so many bright spots. Solar arrays in the Sahara could generate megawatts at very low cost - if the distribution challenges can be solved. I am also investing a lot of time in digital identity. I believe that advances in computing will soon make it possible to provide a secure digital identity to every African who wants one. Within a decade, most Africans can have a wearable device - a piece of jewelry - which will be able to access all their important data - data which they will own, not the state, not companies. And when you think about the vast numbers of African youth coming online in the next few years, the potential is remarkable. One of the first results of this kind of identity, I predict, will be the replacement of coins in Africa with highly localized virtual currencies. That will mean new standards of transparency, increased financial inclusion, and virtually free transaction costs even for a mango or a visit to a latrine.

Q. Where should African innovators focus their attention to attract investment?
A. There is enormous potential for African innovators to attract investments - identify a billion dollar problem and make 10 billion dollars over the long term. These big opportunities are where African innovators need to focus their attention. They need to be bold enough to ask: how can I redesign transportation, education, lighting, heating? How can I overhaul grain storage? If they address Africa's core development challenges, investments will naturally follow.

Q. What role should government play in mobilizing African innovation?
A. When it comes to innovation, the government should be a good referee. Its role is to create policies that promote creativity and drive economic growth. A 21st century African state will flourish only through transparency and generosity of vision.

Q. What are some of the greatest innovations that you think will takeoff in Africa and spread to other parts of the world?
A. I am confident Africa will develop new globally relevant technologies. Right now, we are working on flying robots that will carry heavy cargo across the continent. We know road construction will continue to be a problem, so we have found an opportunity to leapfrog infrastructure development. I am looking forward to the day when the traditional transport systems will be supplemented by heavy cargo robots with rugged airframes. Technologies like this will happen in Africa before they happen in any other place.
Jonathan and I have seen first-hand Africa's innovation potential. If necessity is the mother of invention, Africans will soon take the lead in developing new global technologies and approaches. I truly enjoyed meeting Jonathan and am so pleased to have a front-row seat to this innovation revolution. I look forward to continuing the discussion with Jonathan and other champions of innovation.