Expert Eye: How grassroots innovation is transforming communities across Africa

Wariara Waireri, Senior Manager in International Development at the Royal Academy of Engineering, discusses the impact of grassroots innovation across Africa

Written by: Wariara Waireri

Africa is home to eight of the 15 fastest growing economies in the world, and has a young but thriving startup scene. 

The dynamic and fast-growing entrepreneurial landscape presents key opportunities for business and innovation, and has attracted investors and innovators from far and wide. In 2019, African startups received a total of $1.3 billion in venture capital, almost twice as much as the previous year. The continent’s potential as a high-growth market is on the rise, and in addition to the economic boost that growth promises, grassroots innovation can play a transformative role in solving the continent’s biggest challenges. 

The philosophy behind the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation is that startup success is crucial for delivering significant social benefits as well as economic gains. Locally developed innovations are best placed to make a sustainable impact in communities, as they emerge from real understanding of the local challenges and offer context-specific solutions. 

Africa is increasingly being associated with a creative and collaborative ecosystem that enables successful grassroots innovation by local entrepreneurs. Nigeria – recently labelled the top space in the continent for startups – has become a venture hotbed. It is home to Africa’s first and largest open living lab and pre-incubation space, Co-Creation Hub (CcHUB), which has built a community of over 14,000 entrepreneurs and supported over 120 early-stage ventures. Similarly, Kenya’s tech scene, dubbed ‘Silicon Savannah’, has generated over 1,333 startups according to a 2018 startup ecosystem survey, through its hubs and co-working spaces that encourage collaborative innovation. Such innovation ecosystems have created opportunities for communities to work together, develop skills and create solutions to problems with new and exciting technologies.

These burgeoning initiatives are still growing, but their capacity is currently outpaced by the need. 22 percent of Africa’s working population start new businesses without access to adequate support or capital to carry through, and entrepreneurs often operate in high risk, unregulated and dynamic markets, requiring a high level of innovation, experimentation and business acumen.

The Africa Prize was founded by the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2014 as an early response to this need. Backed by the UK government, this unique initiative aims to nurture young African businesses with innovative and scalable engineering solutions to local challenges, through entrepreneurship support, mentorship, media exposure and access to networks in the UK and Africa. 

The eight-month programme provides entrepreneurs with the foundation to operate a successful business within their complex ecosystems, developing pathways to scale by building bridges between entrepreneurs and business support. Through this model, entrepreneurs developing grassroots innovations can build sustainable businesses that create better livelihoods for low and middle-income communities.

Over the last six years, Africa Prize alumni have created over 1,500 jobs and raised more than $14 million in grants and equity. More importantly though, a recent survey showed that they are projected to benefit over three million lives in the next five years, demonstrating the enormous impact of supporting grassroots solutions. 

In the energy sector, low-cost solar cells are bringing power to some of the 600 million people on the continent who live in remote communities and villages. In southern Africa, SolarTurtle is one of many Africa Prize startups trying to navigate the challenges of Africa’s off-grid electricity sector with mobile, flexible solar technology. These low-cost solar cells are providing clean and affordable energy to communities in the Eastern Cape, as well as financially empowering women and young people with opportunities to run SolarTurtle Hubs as small energy franchises.

Much of the impact and success of grassroots innovators comes from that crucial combination of sector and local knowledge. The innovators behind Sparky Dryer, a thermo dehydrator that increases produce shelf-life from days to years, developed their solution as a result of their experience growing up in smallholder farm families. Over the past year, they have expanded their sales from Uganda to throughout East Africa, and have developed programmes that have reached more than 2,500 young farmers and entrepreneurs, educating them in smart farming practices and expanding their professional opportunities.

Similarly, Safe Motherhood Alliance in Zambia was launched after the founder Muzalema Mwanza discovered on having her first child that mothers must provide their own delivery kits. Her team develops affordable baby delivery kits, and in just two years has scaled up into 20 clinics, distributed kits to 6,000 pregnant women and trained 200 midwives.

This small sample of startups is only a fraction of the innovations emerging from across the continent, and I am truly excited about what is in store for Africa. Global partnership and collaboration are key to sustainable development. We are already starting to see the snowball effect in our own alumni community, and hope this positive reinforcement of knowledge and expertise will continue to accelerate in the future.

The hugely successful results of the Africa Prize have been made possible through a network of generous supporters and partners, from all areas of engineering and business, and we hope more organisations will help it continue to make an impact. The more entrepreneurs that receive the support they need, the greater the chance that they will be able pass that success on, mentoring the next generation of innovators. 

About the Expert 

Wariara Waireri is the Senior Manager for International Development at the Royal Academy of Engineering. She leads the Africa programs to build sustainable societies and inclusive economies that work for everyone.

Prior to this she ran her own organisation, The Engineering Lab, and also enjoyed stints at Safaricom, the Mara Foundation and the International Labour Organization. Waireri holds a Master of Science in Disasters, Adaption and Development from King’s College London.