Africa has no shortage of ideas and ingenuity – from the teenage girls in Nigeria who built a urine-powered generator to an optical drug testing system. However, there’s an acute lack of support and supporting infrastructure, be it mentors, favourable Government policies or especially financial support. Everyone who has run a business knows just how important it is to have enough capital to give you a long enough runway to scaling up, and how freakishly difficult it is to raise this funding. And even if you did raise this financing, the cost in terms of equity and control is sometimes too high.
Enter the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA).
As a young African innovator and a past-IPA finalist, I would like to share my insights on why I think every African innovator should not miss a chance to participate in IPA! Run by the African Innovation Foundation (AIF), the IPA offers you a chance to win a share of US$150 000 in prize money and contribute to Africa’s growth and development in one of these five key areas:
- Agriculture and agribusiness
- Environment, energy and water
- Health and well-being
- ICT applications
- Manufacturing and service industry.
The winners are selected based on 5 criteria: Originality, Marketability, Scalability, Social impact, Scientific/Technical aspects. So you must ask yourself the following questions:
Do you want to take your innovation to the next level?
Is it marketable and scalable in your region and across the continent?
Is it addressing a real challenge that fellow Africans face?
Can fellow Africans replicate it, as well as benefit from it?
Can your idea shine brightly and sustain itself?
Given, your answer to the questions above may be mostly “yes”, but why else should you apply?
1. Funding with no strings attached
This one is rather obvious. In my not-so-long life, I’ve started 3 companies. One died a rather natural death (no market, weren’t closing clients fast enough etc) and the second has been on a long hiatus. But they both lacked the one big thing that my third company Cipher256 had, considerable financing. Cipher256 got it’s break with a $50,000 grant from Microsoft for one of our products WinSenga, and that has made all the difference.
IPA gives up to $150,000 in funding with no equity stake whatsoever. There are usually 3 winners, the first prize being $100,000 and the other two winners taking home $25,000 each.
Note that although the cash prizes have no strings attached, they do have a responsibility attached. Put simply, the cash prize can’t be used for “personal” needs.
2. Network = Net-worth
I first heard this from one of my mentors, Michael Niyitegeka (@niyimic). I was in my first year at university and it became one of my mantras. Everything I’ve now can be traced back to someone in my networks. So, the stronger and more influential your network is, the higher your chances of success and of building your net-worth.
IPA gives you the opportunity to network with the greatest minds on the continent. Minds usually far more elegant and brilliant than yours, as I found out this year in May. I had the distinct honour of being the youngest ever finalist in the prize and meeting awesome and intelligent people like Emeka Okafor (TED Fellow, Curator of Maker Faire Africa), Ashley Uys (named in the 2013 Forbes list of 30 under 30 – Africa’s best young entrepreneurs), and many others.
3. Exposure and traction
Apart from your team, potential and product, the other thing that will get investors smiling is your exposure and traction. Think of it as advertising. And it works wonders. I’ve walked into presentations where half or all of the panelists know who I am and what I am about to tell them about. Makes things a little easier.
Part of the IPA process involves a lot of media coverage. And I mean A LOT. But IPA goes beyond this by having each finalist get some invaluable media training. We all know how important it is to market your idea and have it represented exactly how you wish it to be portrayed. I’ve been on the wrong side of that with some media houses, and it is infuriating.
4. Support outside the prize
There can only be 3 winners in the prize, so what happens to the others? IPA keeps in touch to follow the progress of each of the finalists and supports you in a multitude of ways, not least among them continued exposure.
“If your entry catches the eye of our judges as one of the top 10 finalists, IPA will invest up to US$5 000 to help push your innovation to the next level. This could be through funding business development and/or marketing plans, coaching, or sponsorship for relevant training.” – IPA.
Even if you don’t win, you will enjoy support after the award. If you’re a young innovator (to me this means anywhere below 60 :-)), there’s even more support for you!
“As a part of post-prize action, AIF will tap into innovation hubs, universities and youth-friendly rendezvous, connecting young motivators and inventors under the age of 25. The 10 most promising projects undertaken by young people will receive support and the opportunity to join the AIF innovation networks, with links to fellowships and other incentives.” – IPA
5. Test your idea/business
If none of the reasons above appeal to you, then apply just to test the quality of your idea. I have been lucky to participate in competitions both locally and on the international level, and I can assure you that you’ll get out of them smarter, more confident and more focused. You get to put your idea/business under the scrutiny of experienced industry experts and get valuable feedback/critique.
The IPA process is rigorous and very comprehensive. To get to the top, you’ve to convince multiple panels of experts and defend your business/idea. To paint a picture for you, last year, over 600 applications from 42 countries across Africa were received and only 10 finalists were chosen. The top 10 list in itself therefore serves as a stamp of approval of sorts, and is by all means a victory.
NOTE: The application deadline for IPA 2015 is 31st October 2014 at 23h59 GMT.
The Africa Innovation Foundation (AIF) is a new model of ‘next generation’ African foundations, mobilizing innovation across the continent for the personal, cultural and economic benefit of all Africans. The IPA award is the landmark initiative of AIF. It was launched in 2011 to support and catalyse African stakeholders to invest in emerging ideas to ensure a sustainable, prosperous Africa.
AIF has invested more than half a million USD through IPA in sustainable African-led innovation. The IPA competition is open to all Africans globally. This year, IPA is inviting applications from all target groups, particularly women and young people.
For further details, please visit the IPA website first and if you still have questions, get in touch with IPA on social media (@IPAPrize & @AfrinnovFdn on Twitter and Facebook – African Innovation Foundation ; Innovation Prize for Africa ). Or send an email to [email protected].
I am also happy to help in case there’s any delay in response or you just want my personal opinion. I am @joshuaokello on Twitter.
Playlist: Byekwaaso – Bobi Wine, Calling me – Dr. Jose Chameleone, Tetubatya – A-Pass, Special Someone – Sarkodie ft. Burna Boy & AKA, Elele – EmmaNyra ft. Davido AND Kiss your hand – R2Bees ft. Wande Coal.
Reading list: Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Sword of Truth Series Book #1 (re-read) – Terry Goodkind