by Sam Mabaso

Don't imitate, innovate

Waking the sleeping giant of African innovation

Dont imitate, innovate
Waking the sleeping giant of African innovation

Africa has the intellectual potential to solve all of its major problems, but this is forced into dormancy by lack of support and capacity, says Julius Akinyemi, Visiting Innovation Fellow at the UCT GSB.

Nigerian born Julius Akinyemi has always been passionate about innovation and now, more than ever, he’s doing what he can to nurture it in Africa. Rather than importing innovative ideas from the developed world, Akinyemi says, Africa must learn to develop its own.

“We’re in a time where innovation is of the utmost importance for economics, it is the engine that drives economic development,” he says. “As Africans we have to develop our own ideas, develop the capacity for innovation, and be creative in how we leverage existing technologies and capabilities and nuance them for the African context.”

No stranger to innovation, Akinyemi has worked in the banking sector as senior vice president for emerging technologies and wireless business technology at Wells Fargo Bank, in IT as global director of emerging technologies for PepsiCo Incorporated, and more recently at MIT Media Lab in Cambridge Massachusetts as resident entrepreneur. It was here that he initiated the Unleashing the Wealth of Nations project, which explores the commercialisation of technology innovation to empower people in developing nations to invent new opportunities for themselves and their societies. 

One of his own innovations, being piloted in Senegal at the moment, is an online register that can be accessed through mobile technology to capture information about a population – birth, death, marriage, profession and assets of all kinds: houses, lands, goats, cows and livestock. This information is then used to convert complex traditional valuation systems into globally understood and accepted common currency in a virtual commodity exchange, mobilising the currently dormant trillions of dollars in local assets and generating capital in local communities.

This is one innovation that is aimed at putting in place at least one “pillar of prosperity” in Africa. Through his extensive research into the economics of Adam Smith, Akinyemi has identified five pillars that prop up a nation’s prosperity: property rights; the civil laws which ensure and protect those rights; capital generation; innovation and entrepreneurship; and adequate infrastructure.

This year he will be bringing this research and his extensive experience in innovation to bear on a new initiative at the UCT Graduate School of Business. As visiting innovation fellow, he will be working with the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship and others at the business school to develop a new inclusive innovation hub.

Called Workshop 17 and situated at the V&A Waterfront alongside the business school’s campus, the hub will be a dedicated space to invent, prototype and test unorthodox solutions and approaches to African challenges. In doing this it will draw some of its inspiration from the MIT Media Lab’s multidisciplinary approach to innovation.

“MIT has championed this multidisciplinary model since 1985. The phenomenal thing about the approach is that it teams up people who are not discipline experts, allowing designers, engineers, artists and scientists to work together and to look at different challenges anew,” he says. 

“This is the first inclusive innovation hub in Africa and is unique in the world because it is more than just an incubator,” says Akinyemi. “It is a place where everything from research right through to sourcing capital for new businesses is done under one roof. No one else in the world is doing it this way.”

The beauty of it, according to Akinyemi, and indeed what excites him so much about being a part of the hub, is that Workshop 17 will eventually become a platform from which the fruits of Africa’s intellectual capacity can be presented to the world, fully formed and ready to implement.

His eyes light up when he describes how he sees the hub operating: in atelier fashion, entrepreneurs and social innovators, artists and scientists, engineers and venture capitalists, practitioners, working tirelessly to solve major African issues and seeing them all the way through to realisation. 

“It is so exciting to be a part of the cross pollination of ideas and disciplines and to be present when out of it emerges almost serendipitously, unexpected and powerful results,” he says.

And he believes Cape Town is the ideal city for this kind of innovative work because he senses, and always has on previous visits, a will, passion and capacity to solve problems creatively.

“When you pair that spirit with the expertise available at the GSB, then you actually capture that essence of innovation, and channel it to the greatest effect,” he says.

“I have always been passionate about developing Africa’s innovative capabilities, building the continent’s capacity to develop its economies,” he says. “And I’m so excited to be in this place at this time, working with the GSB because this will be the catalyst that will change the continent.”

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