The Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) will provide USD 100,000 to reward who they believe to be the most creative entrepreneur on the continent. USD 25,000 will go to the next two runners up. The registration deadline for the 2013 prize has been set for 31 October 2012. Capital’s Elias Gebreselassie talked to Aida Opok- Mensah, Director of Information Communication and Technology (ISTD) at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) about originality in African business.
Capital: What criteria has IPA – the Innovation Prize for Africa – put up for the most creative entrepreneur competition?
Aida Opok- Mensah: The IPA is similar to the 2012 criteria but one of the things we recommend is that those that are applying to be part of the contest provide as much information as possible. Some of the ways in which the IPA award choice was made was difficult when others did not give us as much information as they should. We’re looking at five raw criteria. We ask if there is potential to market the invention on a grand scale. If you put money into it, can it create jobs? We look at how it will impact the society. We look at how if this is something that could become an industry for example, it could lead to a factory that employs people. Is this something original and creative, is it something that nobody has thought of before, or is it a process that nobody has looked at. And finally, we look into the utility and technical aspect, technological or scientific significance of the proposal: is it going to make a big difference technologically?
Capital: How will this benefit African research?
Opok- Mensah: We want to target researchers, scientists, innovators and inventors because there really is not anyone doing that right now.
Capital: How have previous winners benefited society?
Opok- Mensah: Well, this is a very difficult question, because you have to understand that these people live in individual countries. But we’ve started selling their projects to venture capitalists through our partner, the African Innovation foundation. They have been talking to investors in places like Switzerland and throughout Europe. It’s just not the winners of the competition we also are helping to promote the top seven innovators.
Capital: How will innovative technology benefit the grassroots?
Opok- Mensah: The first prize winner was to able to build an antenna which was low cost, affordable and portable. Now if this could be manufactured, it would help a lot people at the grassroots level especially those who are low income.
Capital: What are you doing to make African products well known around the world?
Opok- Mensah: The person who won the first prize at the 2012 IPA had already been patented. So the idea now is to get him to really look into investments that will help him to manufacture it. We help others who need patenting while others need help with protecting their intellectual property and creativity.
Capital: The award can be for Diaspora as well?
Opok- Mensah: Yes because an African is an African anywhere they lives.
Capital: What do you say to some who say there are a lot of hoops to jump through for the award?
Opok- Mensah: Well, it’s one of the most highly prized awards on the continent. USD 100,000 is not small money. The idea is to encourage people to realize that having an idea is important to Africa’s development. We have a partner who has a whole network of venture capitalists. We, at the UN are not in the business of giving awards that will help somebody create a company, but we can provide incentives that will help people in this regard. Innovating is good for Africa and we need to recognize that. Our partners are the ones that will bring investors, because you need investors, you can’t just win a prize and be a multimillionaire; people have to work for that. The idea of the prize is not to create an enterprise because that’s left to venture capitalists and investors who can do that.
Capital: Tell us about the evaluation process.
Opok- Mensah: We have broad based criteria and the judges abide by that. One is the originality which I mentioned, the scalability, the impact. When the standards are clear and you establish the parameters for it, you can apply one set of criteria to all the applications.
Capital: How can Africa deal with competition, from Asia for example?
Opok- Mensah: If you’re talking about innovators who have projects or products, ultimately that’s where we’re moving forward, but you have also to realize that what you’re describing is a the kind of economic policies that pertain in a country. If countries are flooded with goods from Asia, certain policies allow that to happen. If countries want to develop their own manufacturing and industrial base, again you have to ask what kinds of policies are needed, because you do need to have economic protectionism in a certain country. I don’t think having an award entitles us to go to country X, and ask them to practice economic nationalism, this is something far beyond the realm of this award, although we give policy advice, it’s not up to us to dictate policy at a national level.
Capital: How would you say we can reach the global population more effectively?
Opok- Mensah: An African has an idea to invent and then we make sure that we help them as much as possible to be able to scale up this invention, whether it is developing, marketing or commercializing, that’s really our goal. Our goal is that the more Africans that can be innovators, the better it is for the continent.
Capital: Any last comments?
Opok- Mensah: Nominees should really pay attention to the criteria, take pains to make sure that their proposals are clear and make sure that they submit them on time, so they have a fair chance of being judged. The award aims to reveal individuals who can become industrialists and make things vital to Africa. We don’t have to wait for people to manufacture these things in their country and come and sell to us. We also should start to manufacture things both at home and abroad. This is the most important goal we’re trying to achieve; this is the message that we want to give people: that the future of Africa lies in the hands of Africans.