African Tech Start-Ups Face Many Challenges 21/03/2016 by Munyaradzi Makoni for Intellectual Property Watch 1 Comment Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)DAKAR, Senegal – Rachel Sibande won accolades when she started Malawi’s first ever technology start-up mHub in 2013. AIMS Next Einstein Forum 2016 Her goal was to build young technology entrepreneurs through training, skills development and mentorship. As a computer scientist, she had all the confidence of a seasoned professional, but three years down the line, she is worried. “How do we make these incubators sustainable, particularly the technology incubators where we are building young technology entrepreneurs, as research has shown that none of these on the African continent have broken even,” Sibande said. “It gives me sleepless nights because I think how I can make my incubator sustainable,” she told a forum on contributions of science, technology, education and maths research capacity to a sustainable innovation system. Sibande, one of the Next Einstein Fellows, a group of 54 brilliant young African scientists selected to market the importance of mathematics and science, had her concern discussed at the first Global Gathering on Next Einstein Forum organised by Africa Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Dakar, Senegal’s capital from 8-10 March. Further discussions revealed that her worries were shared by many and there were numerous reasons for failures of most technology incubators in Africa. Technology Start-Ups in Africa From banking to mobility, technology start-ups in Africa have often been looked to as a solution to technology and entrepreneurship to numerous daily challenges, but according to experts, it’s not an easy ride. Axel Ngonga, a Next Einstein Fellow (NEF) and a computer scientist based at University of Leipzig, Germany, who is from Cameroon, acknowledged that there are lots of innovations coming out of Africa, but questioned how development of products catered to the needs of society. He suggested a revolution in innovative thinking where innovators must either shape their ideas globally or locally. David Sengeh, a prosthetics engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in the United States who comes from Sierra Leone said, technology start-ups in Africa often failed due to lack of best expertise. “If you think of incubators we are trying to build on the continent, there is no critical mass of experts who can work together and collaborate across borders,” he said. Narrating his personal experience, in Sierra Leone, he could not find experts to help him. When he visited Tanzania to see a prospective partner, he could not get visa at the border. A common problem, most African countries do not give visas to Africans at their ports of entry. Sengeh said one solution in such circumstances is to look at innovation not as a mere physical space but as a way that one can remotely connect with other experts. He suggested that political leaders in Africa could come up with a passport that enhances some science network that could help scientist to collaborate easily. “We need to think more creatively about transnational networking,” said Nick Perkins, SciDev.Net director, the panel moderator. Komminist Weldemariam, an Ethiopian computer scientist based in Kenya, and another NEF fellow, queried the dozens of apps developed on the continent that have actually succeeded. “There is too much duplication here, in the West there is intellectual property. Here what do you see, same thing in Kenya, the next thing pops up in Rwanda. The same thing, the same theory. Who owns the IP?” he questioned. Weldemariam said there is need to work within the research-based industry ecosystem. “We have a lot of limitations in Africa, which I see as an opportunity to invent something,” he said. For Assane Gueye, a Senegalese cybersecurity expert based at both University of Alioune Diop in Senegal and University of Maryland in the US, sustainable innovation solutions could emerge from going beyond incubators as people share ideas. “Usually in Africa when we talk about infrastructure we always talk about money, it’s not true,” he said. If people have enough information about the technology, they can tweak it and make better use of it,” he explained. Gueye said the idea was to make technology good enough that people can start using it, but cheap enough that people can afford it. According to Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor, Cambridge University, United Kingdom, the fundamental principle in the sustainability of start-ups lies in the protection of intellectual property. “Until the African Union brings all issues to have a single unified intellectual property system, why should I as an investor invest in a shambolic system that will not sustain an incubator, maybe in Malawi, but then I will be challenged in court throughout the continent,” he said. Europe faced this, but then moved to a single IP system, he added. Borysiewicz was concerned to know if there is a movement politically putting pressure to deliver on this in Africa. One such organisation, the Pan African Intellectual Property Organisation (PAIPO), an African Union initiative which could standardise intellectual property across Africa, has been under discussion for almost a decade. Two regional bodies already exist on the continent, namely the African Regional Intellectual Property Office (ARIPO) and the Organisation Africaine de la Propriété Intellectuelle (OAPI) but South Africa and Nigeria have never joined. Weldemariam told Intellectual Property Watch that every country should have its own intellectual property and cross-border patents should be considered. He said patents can be filed, but can they be protected across Africa, and how will they relate with the international community. Weldemariam said only South Africa and Kenya had higher awareness of IP on the continent. “The question is who is going to manage the international property in Africa,” said Weldemariam, adding that it is also hard to have IP lawyers on the continent. Sengeh said a lot of incubators in Africa are isolated. They were built as single entities without a critical mass of experts who can think and sustain these technology hubs. “We have to integrate the private sector into these institutions,” he said. Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window) Related Munyaradzi Makoni may be reached at email@example.com."African Tech Start-Ups Face Many Challenges" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.