The World's Top Innovators: Progress in Africa

The interesting stories aren't always to be found at the top of the innovation league table.

by Soumitra Dutta, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

For example, the most ambitious science and technology-based national innovation programmes are taking place not in northern Europe or even Asia, but in poverty-stricken, conflict-riven Africa, which has just one country in the top 50 (South Africa) and no more than eight in the top 100.

Take Rwanda: in 2000, six years after 800,000 people perished in a fearful genocide, including many of Rwanda's educated citizens, just one school in the small, landlocked, mainly agricultural, country had a computer. Of a population of 8 million, fewer than 100,000 possessed a phone of any kind.

But turning the disadvantages on their head, the government drew up a bold plan called Vision 2020, which sought to leapfrog the country into the 21st century through technology. Six years later, pupils at half of Rwanda's primary schools have access to a computer. Internet cafes are multiplying, even in the countryside, and mobile numbers are up to 300,000.

All the five main population centres will soon be linked by fibre-optic cable. A former army barracks in the capital has become the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management, turning out teachers, instructors and technicians.

Private investment is also being targeted. The capital is home to an 'ICT park' offering rent-free accommodation and utilities for hi-tech companies. "The aim is to make Rwanda the hub of the region," says President Paul Kagame. Other African countries have made the same calculation.

Ethiopia (104th in the list and one of the poorest countries in the world) is laying a 4000km fibre-optic network that will bring all the country's 74 million population within a few kilometres of a broadband access point by 2007, and will invest more than $100 million in computers for schools and government offices. Government officials admit that IT is expensive, but less so than ignorance, and plays a crucial part in the war against poverty.

Mozambique, similarly, is using IT to improve governance and public administration, while providing citizens with the benefits of access to the global knowledge base. In all these countries, technology is driving innovation by unleashing creative thinking to solve problems and opening up the promise of unprecedented opportunities.

There's a long way to go, but technology-based innovation may change the face of Africa in ways that 50 years of conventional methods have failed to do.

Soumitra Dutta is the Roland Berger chaired professor of business and technology at INSEAD.

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