Chairman’s Corner: Furthering Innovation in Sub-Saharan Africa

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After exactly a decade, GBSN returned to Nairobi for its 13th Annual Conference on November 7 – 9, 2018. The conference, co-hosted by Strathmore Business School and the Chandaria School of Business, USIU focused on how innovation, collaboration and entrepreneurship can transform business. Over 100 management education, development and industry professionals from 34 countries convened to explore innovations in education and business.

The GBSN conference provided me with a perfect setting for speaking about the innovation successes and challenges of Africa. For over a decade I have been editing the Global Innovation Index (GII) Report (www.globalinnovationindex.org). Extending beyond the traditional measures of innovation, the GII explores a broad horizontal vision of innovation that encompasses indicators of political environment, education, infrastructure, and business sophistication. The GII has evolved into the premier index on innovation performance and provides us with a unique perspective into global innovation trends.

For several editions, the GII has noted that the Sub-Saharan Africa region performs relatively well on innovation. For example, the GII 2018 recognizes twenty countries as ‘Innovation Achievers,’ a group consisting of countries that outperform on innovation as compared to their peers at similar levels of development (see Table X below). Six out of the total twenty come from Sub-Saharan Africa, the most of any region.

Sub-Saharan Africa has seen innovation in many areas including most notably in mobile based financial transactions. A 2016 article in Science, authored by Tavneet Suri and William Jack noted that the vast majority of Kenyan households have adopted mobile money, a service that allows money to be stored in mobile phones and transmitted to others via text messages. The authors estimate that access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA has increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households or 2% of Kenyan households out of poverty.

Despite ongoing successes, much needs to be done to enhance the innovative success of Sub-Saharan Africa. Nations need dedicated innovation policies targeting innovation actors and the linkages among them, for example, via collaborative research projects, public-private partnerships and clusters. These policies should support a strong human capital and research base (including research infrastructures), sophisticated firms and markets, innovation linkages, knowledge absorption, and fostering innovation outputs as captured by the GII. Direct support for business R&D and innovation should be provided in the form of grants, subsidies or indirect measures such as R&D tax credits. There is also a need to create an “innovation culture” within businesses, students and society at large, with the intent to spur greater entrepreneurial activity and increase public appreciation for science and innovation.

Strengthening the management capacity of key public and private sector actors in Sub-Saharan African nations is essential to further develop the innovative potential of the region. This is well aligned with the mandate of GBSN. I am confident that the GBSN Annual Conference in Nairobi provided a fertile setting for many discussions and linkages to further innovation in the region.

Soumitra Dutta is a Professor of Management at Cornell University and the Chair of the Board of Directors for GBSN. Previously he was the Founding Dean of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell and Chair of AACSB Intl. He also co-chairs the Global Future Council on innovation ecosystems for the World Economic Forum. Email: sd599@cornell.edu; Twitter: @soumitradutta; LinkedIn: soumitra-dutta; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soumitra_Dutta

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