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No-one Can Do It Alone: Open Collaboration to Power the Next Generation of African Ventures

31/07/2015 11:47 BST | Updated 30/07/2016 10:59 BST

President Obama's trip to Kenya this week kicked off at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, where he joined leading figures from across the continent to highlight how important entrepreneurship will be in 'keeping Africa on the move'. In the next five years, 122 million young Africans will enter the employment market. Tens of millions are currently unemployed or underemployed. New ways are needed to generate jobs.

At the British Council, we want to make a contribution to creating an entrepreneurship of the future; one which is sustainable, inventive and equitable. Locally driven and globally relevant. That sort of entrepreneurship should be assisted by a variety of different agencies working together to support hubs of innovation; cross-disciplinary, collaborative, creative spaces which connect resourceful people with local experience, digital tools and investment to power the next generation of African ventures.

The challenge - blocks to ambition

There's no shortage of ambition in Sub-Saharan Africa. The region has the highest percentage (60%) of 18-34 year olds who believe they could create a business out of local opportunities.

Turning that ambition into practice, however, can be more difficult.

A new report from the Tony Elumelu Foundation showed that 60% of the 2000 respondents surveyed thought that starting a business was very difficult. Moreover, 65% said they required additional skills to be successful - both for themselves and their employees.

Money remains an issue. Nearly 90% of respondents named getting start-up capital as one of their most significant challenges. Links to professional networks, corruption, ineffectual intellectual property rights and an over-regulated ICT sector were also identified as blocks to business.

Existing physical infrastructure is also a problem. Millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa live without electricity and many more experience rolling electricity blackouts. Consequently, more than 50% of Sub-Saharan businesses identify unreliable electricity as a major constraint.

Rule breaking and a culture of collaboration

Challenges abound, then, for African entrepreneurs. But, as Brian Bergstein at MIT said recently: "very big problems often get solved with collaborations from many disciplines and a willingness to break some rules."

The rule breaking could begin by fostering skills that are relevant to the 21st century, like communication, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration, as well as how to harness emerging technology in imaginative ways. Conventional educational systems, focussed on theoretical skills, may not be the best way to prepare people to create innovative new enterprises.

Collaboration has in many ways become easier with new technology. The Internet has driven openness, transparency and rapid prototyping. Crowdfunding means that ideas can now be more easily implemented and social networks facilitate global collaboration and open innovation.

Rapid change and openness is not limited to life on the Internet. A number of innovation hubs based on open source principles are emerging across the world. This approach is also not confined to startups, as traditional companies and institutions now have the chance to reinvent themselves, their research and development to be ready for the 21st century.

A global hub for new ideas

Africa is already home to some world-leading and ingenious enterprises. The boom in mobile phone usage, innovative consumer finance techniques such as M-Pesa, creative business models and breakthroughs with energy supplies (like increased battery capacity and the declining cost of solar power) has set the scene for innovative businesses.

These are not just important locally. They also have global relevance, as examples of sustainable businesses that use technology for social change. Not just tech entrepreneurship, but tech for good.

Take Off Grid Electric in Tanzania. They combine basic battery technology with photovoltaic energy. For 65 cents a day, they offer 2-5 LED lights, a cell-phone charger, and a radio. In the last year, they've doubled their number of users and they aim to light a million homes by 2018.

Or look at Recell Ghana, which reduces e-waste and creates employment opportunities through phone and tablet recycling. They work on product sustainability with Fairphone, the Amsterdam-based social enterprise which designs and produces smartphones which cause minimal harm to people and the planet.

Another example of an enterprise which could be replicated elsewhere is found in rural Mpumalanga in South Africa. The community-based newspaper Ziwaphi monitors water quality in the rivers by using old smartphones submerged in plastic bottles. The inbuilt cameras in the phones take regular flash-lit pictures. These are then magnified and compared to an existing database which detects dangerous levels of E.coli. Ziwaphi's readers are sent this information via SMS, which lets them know which rivers to collect water from, and which ones to avoid. Once a month, Ziwaphi also publishes an in-depth story about the results.

The creative sector and economic growth

These examples of ventures which combine creativity, design thinking and technological skill are great, but more are needed. Technological progress is nothing without locally relevant, compelling content; designed with the user in mind and the power of imagination. It was heartening to see the value of the creative sector was emphasised by the special session at Obama's Global Entrepreneurship summit about the Creative Economy. A 2013 UN report identified the creative economy as one of the fastest growing in the world. Despite the global financial crisis of 2008, the sector has doubled in the last decade. As millions more go online, global trade and domestic demand for creative goods and services is set to increase.

Value beyond numbers

The creative and cultural industries don't just contribute to export earnings and job creation. Storytelling allows us to develop our identities - on a personal, community and national level. By expressing ourselves, we have the power to self-define and relate to each other. All of which is increasingly important on our globalised stage.

Cultural understanding and a critical space for reflection is also crucial to consider the ethicacy of new technology and its purpose. We don't want to live in a technocracy where we just engineer whatever is possible when we can think about how we shape our world and why.

The creative sector in Africa

Despite a seeming international increase in recognition of African creativity, however, from the popularity of Nollywood to Graphic Africa at London Design Festival, recent research shows that Africa's share of the global creative economy is less than 1%. Statistics in some African countries show a dramatic increase in foreign cultural products being imported, without significant increase in cultural exports.

Sharing skills and spaces for the creative sector

Part of what's needed to shift that balance is putting creative people in touch with each other and giving them the skills and resources to promote their work. The British Council, together with local partners and international agencies, has delivered and supported several programmes that encourage enterprise and digital confidence in the creative and cultural sector.

Working with UK innovation charity Nesta, the British Council has translated Nesta's Creative Enterprise toolkit into several languages, including local case studies and trainers. The project has successfully built hundreds of new ventures, by offering aspiring creative entrepreneurs a four-day workshop on how to develop, test and turn their creative ideas into sustainable practice. The participants not only gain practical skills like branding, financing and digital but also a shift in mindset; the confidence to share with a strong peer network.

We seek to foster this spirit of open collaboration with all our programmes. CultureShift, part of ongoing programmes in Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg, Nairobi and Harare, is a hackday that brings together artists, designers and technologists with business knowhow to imagine new solutions and products that can respond to local challenges.

The Makerlibrary Network is an international platform connecting designers and makers through networked spaces where they can exchange ideas, swap skills and share resources as well as prototype with new design and digital tools.

In September, we launch another Innovation ZA month of public events and activities in Johannesburg alongside Fak' ugesi: Digital Africa Festival with market hacks, digital residencies and skills workshops. Later this year, we will welcome the Playable City to Lagos, developing imaginative interventions with local partners that re-think public spaces and smart city technology.

Innovation hubs: homes for new ventures and social change

Fostering the right environment for collaboration is key. There are now more than 90 tech hubs across Africa, according to the World Bank. There's also a growing number of other innovation spaces like makerspaces, accelerators, clusters and incubators. Places where inventive people from different backgrounds can find unlikely allies, inspiration, resources and investment. Where they can test new business models and prototype with the latest design and digital tools. Hub convenors and their members are driving local economic growth; they make the connections between creative, social, technological and entrepreneurial possible.

The British Council is proud to be working with several of these organisations, such as CcHub, SwahiliBox, Pawa254 to run programmes. We are also mapping and connecting them through Open Movement, a new global platform. 85% of global growth comes from small start-ups and the number of freelancers is ever increasing; hubs provide a home to what can be an otherwise isolating and lonely existence. Increasingly, makerspaces and innovation hubs are seeking to promote women and marginalised communities, encouraging social inclusion.

That's why Obama's Global Entrepreneurship Summit was right to give attention to innovation hubs, organisations which are sometimes undervalued or at least poorly understood. Despite their potential value, many of them have problems with financial sustainability and access, which networks like Afrilabs seek to address.

Working together for global learning

This work cannot be done by any one organisation alone. In September, the British Council will be working with Indigo Trust and Hivos to gather a small number of agencies, both public and private, who are interested in supporting African innovation hubs. As international and local development agencies, cultural organisations and private enterprise we also need to join up - to understand that collectively we can pool our resources and learning for more effective global development.

Together we know more - 'no one can do it alone'.

Beatrice Pembroke is Director of Creative Economy at British Council, which supports international collaborations, innovation and enterprise with the creative and cultural industries. She is also co-founder of techforgood.global.