African innovation conferences take centre stage

The Africa Innovation Summit, held in Praia, Cape Verde, is the first major effort to take a systematic and practical approach to innovation in Africa. African Business Editor Anver Versi was there. Here is his report.


I found the combination of a full-scale forum on the status of innovation in Africa and the opportunity to visit the Atlantic Ocean group of islands too tempting to resist. I’m glad I went as it opened my eyes to an exciting new phenomenon sweeping the continent.

Conferences on innovation are becoming fairly frequent over the past few years; indeed African Business and IC Events organised what turned out to be brilliant forum on innovation in Kampala a few months ago, but this one in Praia was on a very large scale and involved a bewildering variety of actors ranging from innovators and academics to financiers, investors, manufacturers, Nepad and government.

I had never before visited Cape Verde and was curious to see how this Portuguese-speaking group of islands, some 600km off the West African coast, would cope with the formidable challenges of hosting such a high-profile event. It coped wonderfully well and the summit delivered everything it promised.

The event was organised by Inhaba, a business development and knowledge-network venture founded by Nigerian Olugbenga Adesida and Cape Verdean José Brito. Brito, with science and engineering degrees, has held ministerial and ambassadorial positions in the Cape Verde government.

They told me that the venture had taken them at least two years to get off the ground. Among the challenges they faced were the travel logistics – getting to and from Cape Verde can be a nightmare especially, and ironically, from African countries.

Then they had to solve commitments to dates from very busy people and organise accommodation in Praia – which is not on the tourist circuit – for a mass influx, arrange internal logistics, security for heads of state and the smooth running of a fairly complex forum system.

There was a lot of support from the African Development Bank, Nepad, and a variety of sponsors, but the state, though its Ministries, played a crucial part in making sure that everything went without a hitch.

The summit was an important event for Cape Verde. Contrary to its name, the country is neither a cape nor is it green except for a brief period when it rains. It relies on tourism, a little fishing and, to a great extent, remittances from its large diaspora communities. Nevertheless, the capital, Praia, with its elaborate Mediterranean architecture, is quite splendid – and very clean.

It therefore came as a bit of a surprise to learn that Cape Verde has taken electronic government up several notches. We went to visit the House of the People where citizens can come to get all documentation they need, register businesses, property, check wedding, birth and death certificates, apply for government-subsidised housing, obtain mortgages, register as voters and so on seven days a week.

One of the journalists with us, a Cape Verdean, registered his company within 15 minutes.  The software of the whole e-government system, regarded by the World Bank as number one in West Africa and the envy of many other such systems in Africa, is developed and tested by Cape Verdeans at their headquarters, the Operational Information Society Nucleus or NOSi.

NOSi provides integrated platforms which manage data from a variety of sources and get the systems to talk to each other and make sense. The gains in efficiency are astounding.

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