Innovation in Africa, for Africa

Technology innovation with a purpose has the ability to make a significant and positive impact on the African continent. 
Four of the brightest young minds in South Africa’s information technology sector collaborated at Saphila 2014 with Prof. Jan Eloff, research director at the SAP Innovation Centre, to demonstrate what innovative technology can achieve in Africa.  

Saphila is the African SAP User Group’s (AFSUG) biennial conference held from 9 to 11 June 2014 at Sun City Resort, North West Province, South Africa. 

The four women, Gugulethu Baduza, Jhani Coetzee and Malese Ndhlovu from South Africa and Madeleine Bihina Bella from Cameroon, are all currently working within the Innovation Centre in Pretoria whilst studying towards their PhD degrees in computer science at various South African universities. 

The graduates form part of the Smart Intelligent Young People (SiYP) public private partnership programme between the SAP advanced human capital development programme and the South African government. 
Their focus is to employ their skills and creativity locally in order to make a contribution to the continent by developing technologies that are integral to a better, more secure and productive life. 
“Technology innovation should improve the existing way in which we do things, not only with regards to efficiency and effectiveness, but also in terms of the user experience,” says Eloff. 

In order to bring innovation with a purpose to the continent, the environment in which people live and work must be understood. Eloff highlights the following African facts: 
·        56 percent of all Africans, which amounts to more than 600 million people, are expected to own a mobile phone by 2014. 
·        Silicon Valley venture capital funds are eyeing African investment opportunities in what is now being called Silicon Savannah. 
·        Angola supplies 51 percent of China’s oil imports from sub-Saharan Africa. 
·        SMEs are responsible for roughly 40 percent of GDP and 50 percent of jobs on the continent. 
·        Diaspora remittances exceed foreign aid for the entire continent by 50 percent. 

“The need to address major social and business challenges in Africa remains the main driver of the SAP Innovation Centre and our vision is to use mobile-cloud technology as an enabler, due to its low cost and low barrier to adoption. However, we are faced with challenges in Africa such as a significant digital divide, a cash based economy, low smartphone usage and a limited skilled research workforce. 

“Facing these challenges effectively requires research skills from the local workforce as it is in touch with this contextual reality,” says Eloff. 

He points out that when experts like Baduza, Coetzee, Ndhlovu and Bella start working on a new technology innovation for Africa they first ask what is desirable to the user, what is possible with technology and what is viable in the marketplace. “Although inspiration can be drawn from first world solutions, they need to be adapted to the local context to be viable,” adds Eloff. 

The design thinking methodology employed at the Pretoria centre is to focus on real people solving real problems within a playful work environment that enables creativity. 
Within this environment, innovative mobile technologies that strive to add great value to the safety and security, public health and very small enterprise sectors of South Africa and Kenya have been developed. Significantly, these technologies, through analytics, also have a beneficial impact on both the value chain and value proposition – from improving the lives of citizens to an enhanced management of finances. 

“In Africa, we cannot afford to innovate for the sake of it, as innovation needs to address existing challenges through local skills. Mobile and cloud technology provides an opportunity. It is a costly exercise, but there is great opportunity to leverage collaboration on a local and global level,” concludes Eloff. 

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