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Innovation Africa 2023

It is now two months since I had the privilege to represent Imcon Consulting at the Innovation Africa Ministerial Summit 2023 in Kigali as one of forty five invited Summit Partners. I’ve now had the opportunity to reflect on the themes and impact of the summit, and it seems timely to share these thoughts with a broader audience to provoke wider debate.

This was the tenth such summit and hosted for the second time by Rwanda. It follows an unusual format that, I believe, lies at the heart of its success.

First, it is positioned very much as a Ministerial Summit and not a conference. An opportunity for high-ranking elected officials, policymakers, and their executives to come together with thought leaders and innovators to explore the opportunities and concomitant challenges that the innovation agenda brings to the African continent. Twenty-one African Governments participated, which is testament to the emerging importance of innovation as a perceived driver of socioeconomic change across the continent. Furthermore, the depth of commitment of high-ranking Ministers and their officials to the endeavour was clearly palpable.

Secondly, the structure of the days gave unambiguous priority to the achievement of tangible outcomes rather than worthy conversations. Each day began with morning sessions devoted to Ministerial panels in which national challenges, opportunities and priorities were addressed to provide a realistic appraisal of the continental landscape. These were followed each afternoon by dedicated, one-to-one, prescheduled sessions between the Governments and the Summit Partners to further explore the innovation landscape and to identify realistic opportunities to build meaningful collaborations.

These two factors together made for an extraordinarily fertile environment for genuine exploration of opportunities to co-create innovative solutions to contemporary African problems. This is amply evidenced by the range and quality of conversations in the room and subsequently. If the experience of Imcon Consulting is anything to go by, and I have no reason to believe that this will have been different for other Partners, very fruitful collaborations have flowed from those very encounters.

What then, beyond these very real positive consequences of the format of the Summit, have been my principal takeaways?

First is the undeniable appetite of the Governments represented for innovation-driven change. An appetite driven by purpose – not change for change’s sake – and with the full commitment of the respective Governments.

Secondly, the palpable ambition of those present was deeply impressive. These ambitions, of course, ranged along a spectrum determined by relative wealth, need and political commitment, but all were palpable and most were realistically framed. While being aware of the difficulties of singling out any particular countries for special mention, I have to say that the ambition of Rwanda is breath-taking. And not only the ambition, but the policy framework and regulatory and infrastructural environment to support and promote innovation. And, of course, there are many other national examples to us inspire us and give cause to celebrate. Food for thought here for the Global North.

Thirdly, the language of partnership was unambiguously present, and sincerely meant, in all the proceedings, from Governments and Summit Partners alike. It inspired the envisioning but also fuelled the action-planning. But the language was subtly but crucially different from that of the colonial inheritance. This partnership 2.0 is predicated upon equality – a genuine partnership of equals – of co-creation – of mutuality – of sharing.

Finally, it is worth reminding those of us in the Global North that the talent pool across the African continent is vibrant, passionate, and highly skilled. It is hungry for innovation, and it already possesses many of the human resources necessary for its fulfilment. An innovating Africa is not only going to power socioeconomic growth across the continent, but also poised to be a powerhouse for the globe.

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