By Arun Kumar
As a former entrepreneur and management consultant with deep roots in Silicon Valley, I understand from experience the importance of innovation to fostering economic growth and dynamism.
This week, I’m accompanying Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx on a U.S. trade mission to Africa to assist U.S. companies with doing business in Sub-Saharan Africa.
During the past week, I have seen first-hand how the spirit of entrepreneurship is thriving across the region – from South Africa, to Mozambique, to Kenya where I am today. Dozens of tech hubs are popping up in African cities.
They’re aided by governments, universities and businesses that are working together to establish innovation ecosystems aimed at solving problems, sparking growth, empowering entrepreneurs and creating jobs for a continent which has an economic dividend of young people to its advantage.
A prime example of this type of collaboration is IBM’s research lab in Nairobi, Kenya, which our delegation visited today. It’s the first commercial scientific research lab on the continent, and is focused on working with local business and government leaders to develop cutting-edge technology solutions in Africa, for Africa and with the potential to export to the rest of the world.
The laboratory is located on the campus of Catholic University of Eastern Africa and is supported in part by the Kenyan government. It is actively engaged with the continent’s vibrant tech community and young entrepreneurs who are working alongside IBM’s researchers to develop new solutions to take to market in Africa and beyond.
President Obama spoke about our commitment to Africa last year at the U.S.-Africa Business Forum in Washington, D.C. He expressed our determination to be a partner in Africa’s success because it’s in our national interest to help establish a secure and prosperous Africa. He pointed out that we don’t look to Africa simply for its natural resources; rather, we recognize that the continent’s greatest resource is its people – and we’re committed to helping African nations and people fulfill their potential.
The President will reinforce his commitment to Africa when he addresses the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit next month in Nairobi – the first time the GES will be held in Sub-Saharan Africa.
High-tech innovation and entrepreneurship have proven to be some of the most powerful forces for economic growth and job creation globally. I’ve seen these forces at work in Silicon Valley.
There’s no simple formula for high-tech success. Each country has to chart its own path. But I’m convinced that partnerships bringing together government, private industry, universities and startup communities will help to foster innovation ecosystems – which are essential to the growth of tech economies.
The United States plays an active role in such partnerships. For instance, last year, when the Ebola epidemic raged in West Africa, we not only provided thousands of health workers and hundreds of millions of dollars in medical supplies; the U.S. Agency for International Development, partnering with the White House Office of Science and Technology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Defense, also launched a program, Fighting Ebola: a Grand Challenge for Development, aimed at surfacing innovative solutions to address the Ebola crisis. We received more than 1,500 ideas from people and institutions worldwide -some of which were put to work immediately in West Africa.
One of the most intriguing ideas came from an ad-hoc consortium made up of the Government of Sierra Leone, IBM Research – Africa, Cambridge University’s Data Voices Project, wireless telecom carriers, and a Kenyan tech startup, Echo Mobile. They created a system that enabled citizens to communicate their issues and concerns about Ebola via SMS or a toll-free telephone hotline.
By learning about on the ground conditions in the communities in real-time, the government was able to fine-tune and quicken its response. This is a stellar example of innovation partnerships in action – which not only save lives but create business opportunities for African entrepreneurs.
The goal of our trade mission to Africa is simple – to make introductions that result in increased business for the 14 U.S. companies that are participating. But I hope it has broader impacts, as well: awakening American business leaders and their African counterparts to the potential for collaborating and innovating together.
These deeper relationships will help foster fundamental shifts in African economies that will pay dividends for Africans and Americans for many years to come.