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Africa-Europe Cooperation: A Future Under the Sign of Technological Innovation

Following the AEIP Final Conference, held on 30th June 2021, a journalist Harley McKenson-Kenguéléwa published an article about the Conference and about Africa-Europe Cooperation in CEO Afrique! The article is published in French. Below we offer an English translation of the article.

 

To enable Africa to compete on an equal footing with the rest of the world in terms of science, technology and innovation, a solution is needed: to rely on cooperation and collaboration with Europe. This is what emerged during the final conference of the "Africa-Europe Innovation Partnership".

“The AEIP pilot program has shown that cooperation between innovation actors in Africa and Europe has great potential and can be mutually beneficial for citizens, researchers and entrepreneurs” . These introductory words, delivered by Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education & Youth, are in line with the common thread of the final conference of the "Africa-Europe Innovation Partnership "[AEIP] which was held online on June 29 and 30, moderated by journalist Chris Burns.

No one disputes the fact that a good number of Africa's tech ecosystems are in full swing. There are some great innovations to be found in the four corners of the continent, with centers of excellence concentrated, for the most part, in South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria and Kenya, and even in Ghana, with regard to the raising of funds, funds that were made there.

"Fundraising by African technology companies has accelerated the dynamics of the continent's Tech ecosystems, going from $ 185 million to $ 701.46 million over the period 2015-2020" observes Samir Abdelkrim, founder of the summit dedicated to innovation "Emerging Valley" (and member of the advisory group on Africa-Europe cooperation in research and innovation), based on data from the "African Tech Startups Funding Report 2020" published by Dirupt Africa.

However, it is clear that Africa is completely absent in the planetary technological race in which the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and other emerging economic powers are fiercely engaged. Indeed, no African company is an integral part of the Top 100 technology firms in the world (if we are to believe the ranking established by the Thomson Reuters agency). Ditto for the countries that invest the most in Research & Development. Admittedly, South Africa seems to hold the upper hand on the continent with 0.73% of GDP devoted to R&D, according to the World Bank database. But this nation is far behind other states seen as model countries in terms of GERD, such as South Korea (4.29%), Israel (4.11%), Japan (3, 58%), Germany (2.9%), and the United States (2.73%). As for academic research laboratories and scientific publications, their number remains very insufficient on the whole of the African continent.

“University research is the very basis of all innovation [...]. It is important to realize the major role of universities in the development of innovation ecosystems in Africa ” warns Dr Mahama Ouedraogo, director of the Human Resources, Science & Technology department of the African Union (AU).

We can easily guess that the European Union has taken up this issue to launch "AEIP" [(Africa-Europe Innovation Partnership), a program which aims to strengthen intercontinental cooperation between incubators, accelerators, actors involved in technology transfer, public research organizations and innovative startups, with the added bonus of more open access to knowledge and know-how in innovation and science.

Matthias Ploeg, AEIP project manager and Managing Partner at Technopolis“The question of innovation must be tackled by adopting a transversal approach. Therefore, everyone should feel involved. Today, we bring together all the stakeholders involved from academia and business, from Africa and Europe [...]. We must try to look for new ways of working together ”.

During this final conference, Bosun Tijani, co-founder and managing director of Co-creation Hub Nigeria (CcHUB), seems to subscribe to this thesis according to which models of innovation "in a vacuum" are inevitably doomed to failure, and only a decentralization of innovation capacities, that is to say a distribution of these innovation capacities between partners from different countries, proves to be a profitable strategy:

“African countries cannot afford the luxury of building their own national innovation system. The future of the continent is what I call "a distributed innovation system". Instead of these states developing each in their own corner the components of their ecosystem, the idea is to see how it would be possible to associate with other nations, communities or networks [...]. The desire for partnership which drives the European Union and Africa must be guided by a strategy of "shared prosperity" " .

During this digital event, other panellists spoke of the many possibilities and advantages of collaboration between Europe and Africa in terms of innovation.

“The digital economy has no borders and makes it possible to build cooperative relations between countries, even between continents. It offers the opportunity for actors in the ecosystems of Africa and Europe to collaborate together ”, rejoices Rebecca Enonchong, president of the board of directors of the network of African hubs AfriLabs.

Rebecca Allinson, managing partner within the Technopolis group, affirmed that “AEIP actively promotes exchanges between tech hubs and supports them in their learning path. It gives political decision-makers the opportunity to better understand collaborative practices and to put them in touch with the actors of innovation ecosystems [...]. The next step will be to deepen the already existing connections between tech hubs and technology transfer offices, and ensure better feedback to the political sphere ” .

In the same vein, Robert Sanders, consultant at EBN (European Business and Innovation Center Network) maintains that the next phase of the program will focus in particular on strengthening interconnections between ecosystems at the center of which are the technological hubs. , universities, investors and businesses.

Same story from Ben White, founder & CEO of VC4Africa - an online community of investors and entrepreneurs - who was delighted with the implementation of this program, saying that "the exchanges between hubs , which pool their experiences and the lessons learned about how to manage a tech hub, are very useful ”.

For her part, Anna Ekeledo, executive director of the pan-African network AfriLabs, emphasized the importance of face-to-face meetings organized by AEIP, where representatives of technology hubs from both continents - Africa and Europe - had the opportunity to share their feedback, to expose their respective issues, and to share their ideas. However, she readily recognizes the benefits of virtual interactions by interposed screen, provided that a lot of effort is devoted to the state of preparation of these exchange sessions and aligning the interests of all participants in this program.

Proven intercontinental cooperation actions

The example of WAZIUP, Kumasi Hive (Ghana) and Hive Colab (Uganda) is proof of the capacity of Europe and Africa to work together and cooperate in a spirit of partnership and good understanding. "Waziup", a European initiative, has put its expertise to work as part of a program to accelerate and support innovation in the Internet of Things and Big Data, which began in May 2018 in these two countries.

In another collaborative innovation approach between the continents, Descartes Développement & Innovation, the sustainable city center of excellence of Cité Descartes, located in Champs-sur-Marne (Seine-et-Marne), has put the concept into practice. of "Molecular Start-up".

“A molecular start-up can be seen as the integration of two or more companies, developing similar products or services and addressing an identical market, in a single company [...]. We have associated with our project the telecom operator Orange which is at the origin of this concept and which help us to identify innovative start-ups ” specifies its managing director, Jean-Christophe de Tauzia.

It is in this spirit that the competition for molecular start-ups "The Aggregator" was born, supported by the European Union, in partnership with Innovus (division of the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa), the network of African hubs AfriLabs, IIM Calcutta Innovation Park (Calcutta, India), SR Innovation Exchange (Hasanparthy, India), Atal Incubation Center-Aartech, (Mandideep, India) and Technoport (Luxembourg). Three startups emerged victorious at the end of the last edition of this competition: Anepen, a digital tool for sharing educational content dedicated to independent trainers and educational establishments (Tanzania); IOGA, a community of knowledgeable and learners who, within the same company, easily share their knowledge and experiences via a video solution (France); Talento, an e-learning, recruitment and skills assessment platform using artificial intelligence (India). The objective is clear: bring the products or services of the three entities closer together, avoid competition, co-innovate between partners, gain notoriety and visibility and access new markets on both sides.

Also within the framework of the AEIP, this collaborative innovation strategy adopted by Burkina Business Incubator (directed by Soulamane Konkobo) and the Luxembourg technological incubator Technoport gave rise to a "win-win" cooperation. The strong synergy that exists between their activities of these structures has enabled them to benefit from financial assistance, from the NGO "Terre des Hommes", with a view to supporting around forty projects with a cultural vocation. In addition, the funding granted by the Luxembourg Directorate for Development Cooperation facilitated the implementation of technology transfer between several companies from the two countries, operating in the ICT, health and environment sectors.

Clare Turner, Head of International Partnerships at Imperial College London (officially "Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine"), stressed the importance of the involvement of this prestigious university in strengthening research and knowledge transfer capacities of African universities. One example is the partnership agreement signed with the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, located in Muizenberg in South Africa. But, Clare Turner especially highlighted the fact that AEIP constitutes the ideal framework to promote projects intended to fight against air pollution or malaria.

“[...] One of the biggest challenges in forming a successful partnership is to shorten the deadlines. Obviously, it takes time to get to know the other party, assess their strengths and weaknesses, before considering the possibility of working together, ” warns Clare Turner.

More generally, the final event of the "Africa-Europe Innovation Partnership" made it possible to identify a broad convergence of views both on the guiding idea and the objectives of the AEIP pilot project.

“Although the AEIP project was originally designed for sub-Saharan Africa, it quickly expanded to include the entire continent, to include the countries of North Africa,” says Mariya Gabriel.

A feeling of accomplished duty shared by Maria Cristina Russo, Director of International Cooperation at the Directorate General for Research and Innovation of the European Commission, also drawing up a positive assessment:

“AEIP has made it possible to connect 89 African tech hubs to 38 European tech hubs [...]. 45 memoranda of understanding have been signed between European incubators and their African counterparts ”.

Building on this success, the AEIP pilot project could be emulated. Richard Labelle, coordinator of the innovation and entrepreneurship lab at the African Development Bank (AfDB) reports that this financial institution - the AfDB - closely follows the progress of the program, since it was inspired by this spirit of Africa-Europe partnership, within the framework of the Boost Africa initiative carried out jointly with the European Investment Bank (EIB) to support African entrepreneurial projects.

In theory, the AEIP pilot program is supposed to come to an end. In reality it will continue to unfold in other forms. Three other programs "ENRICH Africa", "Digital for Development Hub" (D4D Hub) and "Africa Connect" will operate on the basis of the achievements of the AEIP initiative to continue Africa-Europe intercontinental cooperation.

“The European Commission intends to capitalize on the lessons learned from AEIP, to study the synergies between the activities of the existing structures that have participated in this program and to pursue the development of new initiatives in the field, with a view to preserve the spirit of this AEIP project ” attests Nienke Buisman, Head of Unit at the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, within the European Commission

Mariya Gabriel agrees, adding that the EURAXESS program, with the specific vocation of helping European researchers to develop their careers, will be extended to African scientists from 2022.