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Africa Conference At MIT Emphasizes Innovation, Impact and Sustainability

Rosalind McLymont

The 2017 Africa Innovate Conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology puts front and center the contention that a local private sector underpinned by innovation, impact and sustainability will fuel economic growth and reverse Africa’s soaring youth unemployment.   

It is a contention echoed at similar conferences hosted by young African students in universities throughout the United States and around the world. With good reason: While African youth constitutes just about 37 percent of the continent’s total labor force, it accounts for a whopping 60 percent of total unemployment. And the African Development Bank projects that the continent’s fast-growing youth working age population will increase to 1.6 billion in 2060 from about 617 million today.

Hosted on April 8 by the Africa Business Club at MIT Sloan School of Management and held at by MIT Media Lab, the this year’s seventh annual MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference therefore ponders the pertinent question: How can innovative and promising ideas take root and transform into sustainable and impactful businesses in Africa? The hope, conference organizers say, is that participants ultimately will be inspired to carry through their own ideas and those that surface during the conference “to impact in all corners of Africa.”

“This year's conference is ever so focused on spreading the intellectual achievements from the conference to direct actions on the continent,” says Awa Koné, president of the Africa Business Club. “Participants will be given an opportunity to explore the entrepreneurship journey, starting with an ideation workshop using design thinking tools, understanding conditions for success and specifically the role of education and infrastructure in the success of entrepreneurship ecosystems, exploring the different financing mechanism available on the continent, and finally discussing lessons from successes and failures.”   

Tied to its emphasis on entrepreneurship, innovation and “ideas to impact,” the conference features an Idea Pitch Competition at which student teams working on an idea for a startup company pitch those ideas to a panel of judges. The judges provide feedback and select a team to be awarded mentorship from MIT-affiliated entrepreneurs and prize money—up to $100,000. 

Six teams pitch their ideas this year, ranging from a carbon-negative fertilizer that will improve yield by 30 percent and reduce capital expenditure costs to one- thousandth of current costs; a tracker to map informal public transportation; and a marketplace between farmers and school lunch programs; to high-efficiency ovens that use significantly less fuel and produce less toxic emissions than current stoves; and a shirt that tracks cardiovascular health. 

The annual MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference brings together the strengths of MIT and leading entrepreneurs and change agents from across the African continent. It attracts more than 400 business leaders, entrepreneurs, students, professors, and alumni, all with strong interests in Africa.

Fittingly, this year’s closing keynote is Her Excellency Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, Ph.D., president of Mauritius, a country considered an emerging center for R&D in biotechnology and the life sciences. A chemistry researcher with a focus on medicinal plants, President Gurib-Fakim is a former professor of organic chemistry at the University of Mauritius and former managing director of the International Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation. She also is the founder of the Centre for Phytotherapy Research.

“The conference serves as a unique platform to exchange ideas, develop relationships and build sustainable solutions to Africa's most pressing challenges,” says Koné. “Through the conference programming, young Africans from across the world are motivated by the stories and advice from their peers through vision talks, as well as elders who have gone forward and paved the way for the next generation. Young entrepreneurs have been given a platform to receive feedback and support for their business ideas. As an example, past winners of our business plan competition—Sanergy and Wecyclers—are now operating in Africa.” 

Based in Ghana, Sanergy designs and manufactures low-cost, high-quality sanitation facilities under the Fresh Life Toilet brand for use in slums across Africa. Sold through local franchises, the toilets allow for the collection of human waste, which is converted to such products as organic fertilizer, insect-based animal feed, and renewable energy. 

Nigeria-based Wecyclers collects household recyclable waste using a fleet of low-cost cargo bikes called wecycles, sorts and aggregates the materials (including plastic bottles, plastic bags, aluminum cans), which it then sells to Nigerian recyclers.

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