World insight: how do you encourage innovation across a continent of a billion people?



How do you foster innovation across a continent of 54 countries, where more than 2,000 languages are spoken by a billion people?

Well, you put together a partnership between a leading business school and an unusual telecommunications company. Then run a competition for the best new business idea using digital technology, and bring the finalists together at a reclaimed industrial site in a township outside Cape Town.

The result is a cluster of new ideas that promise to have significant impact. The continuing question is how to turn this into a sustainable innovation funnel that connects the work of the university with beneficial outcomes.

The event was the MTN Entrepreneurship Challenge, hosted by the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business in Philippi. This township dates back to the 1980s, when families defied apartheid restrictions on freedom of movement and moved to the outer reaches of the city in search of work; the legacy of low-income households and high levels of unemployment and crime persists.

The university’s new facility is alongside an industrial ruin that is a popular location for film shoots. Tagged as the Solution Space, it’s a colourful array of refitted containers and flexible work spaces, well-wired to the digital world. Windows have arresting views over informal shacks and then regimented, state-subsidised housing.

Beyond are the hazy slopes of Table Mountain and Cape Town’s affluent suburbs; a landscape that embodies both inequality and the need for smart new ideas to narrow the gap.

In all, the competition drew 1,529 entries from 26 countries. These were narrowed down through live pitches held in 11 countries across the continent, leading to three finalists coming to Philippi from Tanzania, Nigeria and Kenya.

The winner was MedRX from Accra. This is a healthcare application that connects patients, doctors and healthcare professionals to provide access to medication. Patients are able to ask medical and related questions, receiving answers from verified healthcare professionals and identifying the medication they need.

They can find the pharmacies and hospitals closest to them. To provide assurance, MedRX verifies the legitimacy of those providing medical advice and assistance and guarantees confidentiality and the security of personal information.

Herman Singh, chief digital officer for the MTN Group: “We were really impressed with the width of their functionality and the depth of the integration of the application, handling a very complex challenge that actually delivered astonishingly great human value.”

MTN is an unusual telecommunications company. Founded in 1994, it now has more than 300 million subscribers across 17 African countries. It also operates in some of the most challenging environments in the Middle East: Syria, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan. Singh emphasises that the future is all about the added value of services, providing subscribers with the content and facilities that they most want and need. The fit with MedRX’s ability to provide essential information and access to medication is apparent; when healthcare infrastructure is fragile or unavailable, a secure and professional online service is a life saver.

MTN’s sponsorship of the Entrepreneurship Challenge is laudable; many benefited from the opportunity to showcase their ideas. But the potential for sustained benefit doesn’t come from corporate social responsibility; it’s rather founded in mutual interests. The MedRX team have proved the value of their application in Accra; access to MTN’s 300 million subscribers will allow them to scale up. MTN must reinvent itself; the financial margins in voice and data services are diminishing and, like other telecommunications companies, they must find new ways of monetising the services they provide to their subscribers.

The same applies to the Entrepreneurship Challenge’s second major sponsor, Jumia. Africa’s answer to Amazon, it is an online retailer launched in Nigeria, then Egypt, Morocco and Kenya, and now selling in 10 countries in North and Central Africa. Jumia has a good story about entrepreneurship, business acumen and taking bold chances. More significantly, the company is building a network of small businesses that will partner with Jumia to reach wider markets, particularly in circumstances where traditional logistics are of little use. Like MTN, Jumia’s future success will depend on these kinds of strategic alliances.

How do universities engage with these longer term relationships? Traditional research has little direct relevance to the needs and aspirations of the 1,529 digital startups that put their ideas forward in the Entrepreneurship Challenge. And while there’s respect for academic knowledge production, there’s little evidence that it helps companies like Jumia and MTN make the strategic choices that will shape their futures.  That said, more than 60 universities across Africa were actively involved in working with the entrants to this competition. This suggests a latent network of common interests and future possibilities.

UCT’s new master’s in inclusive innovation is pointing to ways in which these possibilities can be developed. This modular programme, now in its third year, is supported through scholarships by MTN and convenes in the Graduate School of Business’ Solution Space. Those accepted on the programme have work experience and a flair for seeing the social and economic value in new ideas with practical outcomes. The programme requires the completion of both a research thesis and a detailed business model that makes a convincing case for implementation.

I’ve been working with a group from this year’s programme. Their projects include the design for a new school in a low-income neighbourhood, an integrated model for improving the quality of life for older people, the promotion of computer science in rural schools, community-led banking, early childhood care, sport and economic development and the ways that hackathons can be developed to drive innovation. This can’t be described as “teaching”; I’m learning more than I’m giving.

Africa is often mistaken for a country, distilled to a set of characteristics that slip into caricature. This is to miss the opportunity to listen, and learn. Staying with the single example of the winner of the MTN Entrepreneurship Challenge, doesn’t Britain’s sclerotic National Health Service, burdened with obsolete systems, need the kind of innovation that Ghana’s MedRX offers?

A closing comment from Victoria Acheampong: “Health is a very important way to move any nation forward, and this trend can be seen across the African continent. As a team we wanted to make this integral connection easier between medical resources and the people on the ground, and the MedRX application does just this. The implementation of our application will give us the opportunity to be more effective in our country and create positive change and it will be our ultimate goal to upscale and take this positive change to everyone across Africa. We truly hope that this is the beginning of a very bright future for us.”

Author Bio: Martin Hall is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Salford. He is now based in South Africa.