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Innovation Prize for Africa 2017: An interview with Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl

Africa is a continent full of innovators.

Innovation in the 21st Century presents a wonderful opportunity to shape the destiny of the African continent in such a way that future generations will only learn about poverty, malaria and the other challenges plaguing Africa today in the history books.

In order to make this a reality, we need to support the work of the many amazing innovators across Africa with mentoring, funding and access to networks.

Yet, as the Director of the African Philanthropy Forum and former McKinsey consultant Ndidi Nwuneli has outlined in her book Social Innovation in Africa  there are very few social innovations that succeed in scaling across Africa and beyond.

Some of the African innovations that have made waves are highlighted in the Seed book.​ Innovators and innovation enablers share insights on how African innovators are solving African challenges as well as some of the world's challenges. It is well worth a read.

Social Innovation in Africa Ndidi Nwuneli
Seed Innovative Africa

Read more about how Innovators and innovation enablers share insights on how African innovators are solving African challenges and the world's

In order to create more African innovation success stories, innovators need to take advantage of all the available support and resources, because the evidence shows how hard it is to scale social innovation successfully.

Fortunately, there are organizations like the African Innovation Foundation (AIF). The purpose of the AIF is to increase the prosperity of Africans by catalyzing the innovation spirit in Africa.

The Foundation's work encompasses innovative programs in showcasing innovators and fostering an innovation culture in Africa, in preserving and developing African law and governance, and in social impact development

In fact, the Foundation has been able to offer valuable financial and strategic support to African innovations across the continent, some of which have gone on to achieve global relevance. You can learn more about these inspiring African innovators in the Foundation's 5 year celebratory edition below.

Meet 45 Top African Innovators

The Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) was established in 2011 as a landmark program of the African Innovation Foundation. IPA works to strengthen African innovation ecosystems through supporting a culture of innovation and competitiveness, whilst spurring growth of innovative, market-driven African solutions to African challenges.

Specifically, IPA targets breakthroughs in the following key areas: manufacturing and service industry, health and well-being, agriculture and agribusiness, environment, energy and water and ICTs.

IPA 2017 thematic focus

Thematic Focus Areas of IPA 2017

The good news for you is that the IPA 2017 Call for  Applications is under way and will run until the 3rd January 2017. IPA winners receive a share of US $150 000 while nominees receive a US$5 000 voucher to boost their innovations.

To find out more about the application process, the prize itself and how other innovators have leveraged this platform in the past, we talked to IPA Director Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl, also responsible for AIF's innovation and technology programs. Her work focuses on cultivating market-orientated solutions for African-led development across the continent, strengthening innovation ecosystems that will invigorate economic growth across Africa.

Pauline Mujawamariya-koelbl IPA Director

Pauline Mujawamariya-Koelbl, IPA Director

1) What are your top 3 tips to make the application as outstanding as possible?

· State clearly what the innovation is about and the problem one is trying to solve. Ensure to make a case as to why that problem is seen as a serious one for Africa

· Explain how the solution proposed works in layman’s language and why it is unique or superior to other existing alternatives. Ensure to provide evidence on how the solution works and impact you seek to achieve. It is always a good idea to provide facts, links etc which can be verified by experts.

· Demonstrate that you have identified potential markets for the solution, how viable it would be commercially, as well as a strategy to ensure the sustainability of the venture.

2) Where can our readers get an application form?

The best way to start is by going to, click on IPA 2017 and download the CALL FOR APPLICATIONS to have full details of the competition process. Then, click on APPLY NOW. The shortcut to the application form can be found by going to and click on NEW APPLICANTS. We strongly advise all potential applicants to read the CALL FOR APPLICATIONS first as it provides useful information about how to apply and win.

Innovation Prize For Africa 2017 Application shortcut

IPA 2017 Application shortcut

3) What are the distinguishing elements between those who get shortlisted for the Innovation Prize for Africa and those narrowly missing out?

It all comes down to how an innovator demonstrates the superiority of the proposed innovation. Towards the end of our selection process, we are left with the best few innovations and we compare all of them in order to choose ones that stand out, and these become the winners.

For each one, we want to know: if the proposed solution is solving a bigger problem in comparison to other innovations in the competition; the size in terms of numbers of those benefiting from the proposed innovation in comparison to other innovations in the competition; which among the remaining innovations is more commercially viable; which innovation is most likely to have a greater, more positive impact. Lastly, we want to know which innovators have what it takes to make their ventures successful, and have a passion for innovation by Africans for Africa – an essential element for a good Innovation Prize for Africa ambassador.

4) In selecting the winner, what criteria does the jury apply?

We apply the following 5 criteria:

1. Originality: Here, we are interested in understanding the uniqueness of the innovation and its superiority in comparison with similar or alternative products in the market

2. Marketability: We want to know the extent to which the innovation sufficiently addresses the problem it seeks to solve at a cost or model that is accessible to the target market

3. Scalability: We want to know the extent to which the innovation can be easily utilized in other similar markets beyond the applicant’s immediate or local environment

4. Social impact: We are interested in understanding the ability of the innovation to create or effect positive or desirable change within the target community and beyond

5. Scientific/technical aspects: This applies to the tangible technical/scientific products. We want to understand the extent to which the technical/scientific specifications of the innovation are grounded on established science and sufficiently address anticipated product risks.

At the end, we also assess if the innovators is driven and passionate enough to move the innovation forward. We don’t just look at the idea, but at a combination of criteria which are relevant for the success and adoption of the proposed innovation.

IPA winners 2016

IPA winners 2016 (left to right): Imogen Wright (Exatype), Valentin Agon (Api-Palu), Eddy Agbo (Urine Malaria Test -UMT )

5) Apart from significantly increasing brand and credibility, how does winning the Innovation Prize for Africa benefit the innovators and entrepreneurs? How do they leverage it?

IPA awards involves a substantive cash prize totalling to US$ 185 000 shared among 10 innovators as follows: US$ 100 000 for the Grand Prize winner, US$ 25 000 for the second winner, US$ 25 000 for the winner of the Special Prize for Social Impact, and US$ 5 000 for each remaining nominees. To date, we have supported innovators with around US$ 1millions and IPA winners went on to raise around US$ 14.5million. So, IPA not only increases the credibility of winners, but also opens doors for investments and additional support from our AIF broader network.

6) Amongst your prize winners, do you see any particular business models as having a great track record in achieving positive impact?

Each one of IPA winners’ success depends on following a business model which matches the target market and anticipated impact. For instance, Valentin Agon, IPA recent grand prize winner (IPA 2016) from Benin sells his Api-Palu medicine via pharmacies. After winning the Prize, the Government of Benin also decided to include Api-Palu among the national essential medicines making it available in all key clinics and hospitals across the country.

On the other hand, Logou Minsob, winner of the second IPA in 2014 sells his Foufou Mix machine directly to households, but he also works with cooperatives willing to buy the machine and makes it available for community users who pay fees to use the machine.

Also, Alex Muriu, winner of the second IPA prize in 2015 has a well-developed risk sharing agri-business funding model that draws in investors for a share of farming profits. He identifies, screens and shortlists full-time farmers with small holdings and helps them devise farming plans to attract potential investors who earn profits over time. This is an attractive farming initiative and investment option for those with extra capital, benefiting both small scale farmers and investors.

Innovation Prize for Africa 2016 winners Botswana

2016 IPA winners with AIF Founder, Jean-Claude Bastos de Morais & President of Botswana HE Lt. Gen. Dr Seretse Khama Ian Khama

7) On the IPA blog it says that winners gain access to the IPA network of innovators and innovation enablers. Can you tell us what this exactly means and how past winners have made use of this?

Each year, IPA brings together at least 450 selected innovators and innovation enablers from across Africa and beyond, providing a platform to network and exchange business ideas and opportunities. Past IPA winners and nominees who attend our annual event benefit from sharing knowledge and also receiving constructive feedbacks from innovation enablers.

The enablers include policy makers from various African countries, leaders of cutting edge training institutions, CEOs/Managers/chief catalysts of innovation spaces or technology parks, representatives of international organizations as well as investors. We have examples where innovators and innovation enablers have been able to enter new markets or tap into new opportunities due to the connections made at Innovation Prize for Africa events.

In addition to this annual  offline platform, we are currently working on an online platform which will allow our growing community to collaborate virtually throughout the year, accessing resources and other kinds of support. Stay tuned for the official launch early next year!

8) What are the main lessons other innovators can learn from the IPA innovators?

Believe in yourself, start innovating and focus on solving a real problem, and not just on the sexy stuff. Collect constructive feedback and take advantage of platforms such as IPA to amplify your story, grow your networks and win substantive cash to move your innovation forward. Once you win, remain engaged and focused, and investors might start knocking on your doors! Innovation Prize for Africa unlocks potential for African innovators; so don’t miss out on this opportunity. Submit your application by 3 January 2017. The time is ticking:

9) What have been the biggest milestones of the IPA so far?

IPA has been successfully hosted in five African countries and officiated by the highest members of the respective country governments: Ethiopia in 2012, South Africa in 2013, Nigeria in 2014, Morocco in 2015 and Botswana in 2016. We currently have the biggest database of African innovators (over 6 000 from 51 African countries), and IPA impact includes over US$14.5 million funds raised as well as US$111.9 million valuation realized for IPA winners. Lastly, it is also important to mention that IPA was endorsed by the African Union, passing a resolution which calls on all African countries to support home grown innovations and create an enabling environment for African innovators.

10) Of all the innovations you have come across at the Foundation so far, which one has impressed you the most and why?

All winners’ innovations have impressed me, and that is why they won! Besides which one, the question is why! Each Innovation Prize for Africa winner’s story is inspiring and all IPA winners and nominees demonstrate how Africans are not only capable of solving Africa's many challenges, but also providing solutions that are relevant not only for Africa, but for the whole world! IPA winners are the hope for our bright future and an illustration of true African ingenuity. They are working with what they have to solve challenges affecting many Africans, and all they ask for is an enabling environment and resources to compete equally on global markets.

IPA winners 2016 Botswana

Group picture of IPA 2016 winners, nominees, judges and AIF Team, Botswana 2016

11) What role do you see emerging technologies (e.g. drones, fintech, internet of things etc) play in Africa? Have you seen an increase in applicants that are building their businesses around leveraging one of the emerging technologies?

Technologies are tools to accelerate processes and add efficiency in different systems. Therefore, emerging technologies will definitely help accelerate African socio-economic growth. This is already happening and Africa is leapfrogging the rest of the world in some areas!

For instance, Africa is leading with mobile technology, allowing people in remote areas, with no access to banking services to make money transactions, pay for various services wirelessly and avoid the risks of carrying cash around.

Drone technology is also slowly taking off in Africa, used mostly for delivery in health care. In countries such as Malawi, drones are being used to deliver HIV/AIDS medicine in remote areas, and the Rwandan government is planning to use drones for delivering blood bags for emergency blood transfusion.

So, beyond the efficiency linked to technology, drones have the potential to save many lives in Africa. Of course, in this era of hacking, one cannot be too naïve about technology, but Africans must embrace its positive use, and also understand how it can be misused.

12) Where do you see the biggest opportunities and challenges for Africa in the next 20 years?

I think the biggest opportunity in Africa is its youthful population. While the rest of the world might be facing aging issues, in the next 20 years, Africa will have an informed and enthusiastic labour force. Given the many tech hubs and innovation spaces mushrooming across the continent, Africans now more than ever, are comfortable using technology, a means of providing improved options for outsourcing jobs which have been going to China, India etc. Africa's rich multi-lingual skills will also make it attractive for outsourcing jobs and businesses from Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries.

The entrepreneurship and innovation spirit sweeping throughout the continent means that many Africans are focusing on solving challenges around them and scaling up these solutions to the rest of the world! As the saying goes, “if it works in Africa, it works everywhere”!

Challenges? I think the main challenge would be the failure to unlock the potential of African youth and for Africa to prepare its youth for tomorrow’s opportunities. This could create instability in countries with high unemployment and more migration to the places with more job opportunities. Based on what I see now, I have all the reasons to believe that the aforementioned opportunities will counterbalance any unforeseen challenges.

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13) What is your personal leadership philosophy and what has shaped it?

My philosophy is that great leaders have to be rooted somewhere and have a bigger picture about life, always asking the WHY question, taking action that inspires and empowers others.

Given that I no longer live where I was born, it is important for me to always remember who I am, what I stand for, and to live an impactful life which shapes the world I want to leave behind and inspire others to take positive actions.

I have been shaped by my upbringing in a loving family, the trying times I had to go through as a refugee, the many cultures that embraced me, and the kindness of strangers I experienced when I least expected it. Thus, my roots and life journey have given me great experiences I draw from when I need to make decisions.

14) In light of the accelerating transition to a digital economy, what is your favourite digital tool for business and why?

I do not think I have any favourite one, but I use Twitter and Facebook for different purposes. Twitter allows me to engage with other professionals and follow what is trending from the influencers I follow, and Facebook allows me to remain connected with my many friends from all over the world! I also use Whatsapp regularly to communicate with my family and friends, and I am grateful that this is a free tool to help us stay connected, despite distance, time and location. Lastly, I love music and am grateful to Spotify for allowing me to browse and listen to new varieties of songs!

Thank you Pauline for sharing your insights with our community. This is very much appreciated and the work you guys are doing at the African Innovation Foundation is very exciting and offers much needed support to our innovators across the continent.

You can connect with Pauline via her twitter handle @PaulineM4. Alternatively, you can follow the African Innovation Foundation on facebook or twitter

Now it is really up to you to be bold and take the next step. If you want the create the next African innovation with global relevance, then apply for the Innovation Prize for Africa 2017 before the deadline closes on 3rd January 2017.

Remember, time waits for no one:


About the Author Rise Africa Rise

Rise Africa Rise is your online guide to tech entrepreneurship and (social) innovation for African entrepreneurs, startups and businesses. Our aim is to provide you with valuable digital strategies, tools and insights to support you in building a world-class and competitive business in the 21st century.

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