Last year Ventures Africa published 40 African Innovators to Watch and this year, the astounding talent pushed us to feature 42 innovators this time around. 42 African Innovators to Watch seeks to reposition how we consider innovation on the continent and by extension what it means to be an innovator. Each of the individuals we spotlight, share a commitment to something simultaneously infinite, yet quantifiable: change.
While the public conversation around innovation is often limited to developments within science and technology, in practice, its manifestation is limitless. This year’s list includes leaders within agriculture, the arts, hospitality, healthcare and beyond, because experimenting within any discipline leads to innovations that have the capacity to alter and inform how we live. A joke, which proffers a different way of thinking about Nigerian identity demonstrates an ingenious awareness of culture, that can do much more than simply elicit a laugh; it can shift public awareness and conversation.
Ozoz Sokoh, also known as Kitchen Butterly, notes that “the innovator’s life is one guided by three Ps: Patterns – recognising them; Preservation – innovators discard very few ideas; and Possibility – old ideas aren’t dead and buried. For most of the innovators I know, the desire to create and make a difference is far greater than fear of failing.” And so, this year we present 47 innovators (we have two teams of three), who have shown an inspired commitment to the three P’s, and change, in all its forms.
‘You have to live in the present but have the vision for the future’
What started as a dream to promote black heritage on film and television screens led Cameroon native, Tonje Bakang, to create Afrostream, a video-on-demand platform designed to distribute ‘Afro entertainment’. His goal is to impact black communities in every continent in the world by sharing stories they can relate to, while also providing them with on-and-off screen heroes that they recognise. He hopes that this initiative will create a shift in how black people are depicted in film and television.
While Tonje agrees that Afrostream is thriving. For him, real success will be visible in the next ten years. Afrostream’s plans for the future centre around developing and transforming how Africans can tell their stories.
She Leads Africa, Ghana
As one of the founders of She Leads Africa (SLA), Afua Osei is driven by a goal to create the ‘go-to’ community for smart and ambitious young African women. SLA offers young African women coaching, online guides, classes, and on-the-road tours and programmes, where each offering is strengthened by building direct engagement between women in SLA’s various communities.
For Afua, along with her partner Yasmin Belo-Osagie, SLA is a space that is for African women, by African women and about African women. According to her, SLA expands through customer engagement, and understanding what young African women need to help them achieve within their careers as they develop.
‘This year, we’ll be in seven different cities. We’ll also be launching a new and accelerated programme for women startups in Nigeria. The main focus is growth and how to reach more women.’
Tunisian Centre For Social Entrepreneurship, Tunisia
‘We can make social impact together …It’s about new concepts and the way that we’re doing it.’
Asma Mansour’s journey as a social entrepreneur started because of her experience working with NGOs, which in her opinion, lacked adequate sustainability impact assessment on the people that these organisations were trying to help.
In 2011, Asma founded the Tunisian Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in Tunisia after a discovery that gave her an entirely new perspective. While attending a conference in Japan, she came across a company that was solely focused on tackling social problems and happened to meet like-minded individuals who would eventually become her co-founders.
The Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship is the first of its kind in Tunisia. The innovative board co-creates local ecosystems in Tunisia, and the centre comes up with new ideas to tackle social problems, while working with unemployed people in both rural and urban areas.
Asma was an Ashoka Fellow in Tunisia in 2014. Her latest project is expanding “Lingare”, the centre’s latest product from its current location in Mahdia to other regions such as Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine and Jandouba.
Greenwize Energy, Kenya
‘I’m happy to solve problems and then see the impact of the solutions.’
Growing up without electricity turned out to be one of the best things to happen to young Evans Wadongo. After graduating with honours from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in 2009, Evans combined his passion for clean energy solutions to what he learned from his degree in Electronics and Computer Engineering to make the LED lamps he became famous for, at the impressive age of 19.
He is currently the Co-Founder of GreenWize Energy Limited and the Executive Director and Founder of Sustainable Development for Africa (SDFA) in Kenya. Since its formation in 2014, Greenwize’s revenue has increased by 100 percent each year and the employee count has tripled. By 2019, the energy company is set to serve 300,000 clients with renewable energy solutions through a “pay as you go” model.
By 2019, the company hopes to develop ‘EnergieRapide’ an all-in-one solar and wind energy hub. Evans finds being an innovator both ‘tiring and fulfilling’ but for him, it’s all about hard work.
YouNeek Studios, Nigeria
‘Innovation is the next frontier for Africa’
Thanks to Roye’s childhood dream, fans of comic books, graphic novels, and animations no longer have to look beyond the shores of the continent for superhero characters that they can idolise. Rather they can look to ‘E.X.O. – The Legend of Wale Williams’.
As a child, Roye watched all the classics: Superman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman, and more. While he loved these characters and could relate to them as a boy, he also wanted to see a superhero that was Nigerian or African.
Based on his interest in comic books, movies, and entertainment, Roye decided to study graphic design, motion graphics and animation. Soon after, YouNeek Studios was born and Roye’s Nigerian superhero has been making headlines all over the world ever since.
‘…We’ve seen a lot of support, not just from the African community, but the world as a whole. [E.X.O.] is making an impact I could have never imagined could happen outside Nigeria and outside Africa.’
Roye is humbled by the support that he receives from individuals all over the world seeking permission to translate the comic book into their local languages. “The next phase of what we’re doing now is making animated movies based on the books.”
‘You always have to figure out what works in the environment that you’re in.’
Nkem Uwaje founded FutureSoft Software Resources Limited (Futuresoft) in 2008, driven by a desire to change Nigeria’s technology space. FutureSoft, an IT solutions provider focused on online solutions, e-learning and IT security, has garnered Nkem respect and recognition as a leader in her industry, where she remains one of the few women occupying the space.
Nkem is also an expert speaker on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Africa. She received the Jim Ovia Prize for Software Excellence and the Etisalat Prize for Innovation, for her efforts in improving access to technology in Nigeria and Africa-at large.
Presently, Nkem is focused on expanding Futuresoft into other markets in Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya within the next five years.
Gro Intelligence, Kenya
‘The process of creation can be a weird one. For some time, you’re creating in a vacuum.’
When Ethiopian native Sara Menker’s nine-year trading career at Morgan Stanley stopped motivating her, then the Vice President of the New York Commodities Group, she turned her attention to fixing a problem in Africa that impassioned her – agriculture. Starting out, Gro Intelligence was primarily concerned with agricultural data issues and commodities on the continent, but soon Sara and her team realised that the scale and technical complexity of the product that they were dealing with, was in fact global.
Currently, the 28-man team of Gro Intelligence is split between Nairobi, Kenya and New York in the United States. “We’re a really odd company… it’s basically a melting pot of engineering, data science, design and domain expertise around markets and actual science. We do have full-time scientists that work on environmental problems alongside the engineering and design teams. It’s a big shift from when I started Gro.”
For Sara, being an innovator is about constant discovery and uncertainty as well as being able to remain comfortable in a world where everything – including your ideas – is constantly shifting. Gro is presently working on improving ‘Clews’ and the overall delivery of the company.
‘Our product (Clews) helps users find connected paths between information and the shortest path possible to an end goal to the questions that they have around agric.’
Sara is a Trustee of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies, a member of the Global Agenda Council on Africa at the World Economic Forum and an Advisory Board Member of Shining Hope for Communities. Sara was named a Global Young Leader by the World Economic Forum and is also a fellow of the African Leadership Initiative of the Aspen Institute.
My Mind My Funk, Kenya
After a traumatic experience, a bipolar disorder diagnosis, and epilepsy discovery, Sitawa Wafula quickly discovered that there wasn’t enough information on the continent that she could access to help her understand how to cope and further understand her physical and mental health. In addition, there was a lot of stigma surrounding her mental health, which made the process of dealing with things even more challenging.
The three-time award winning mental health and epilepsy crusader decided that she was going to tell her story and make sure that individuals that shared her condition knew that they were not alone.
Sitawa started a mental health social enterprise called My Mind My Funk (MMMF) along with Kenya’s free mental health SMS help line 22214, which has helped survivors of rape and people living with epilepsy and mental disorders all over Kenya, different parts of Africa and the world. She was the 2013 Activist of the Year and East Africa Youth Philanthropist.
MMMF is focused on the social and preventative aspects of mental health as opposed to the curative, which in too many cases involves traditional healers or subpar psychiatric help. The organisation tries to include mental health awareness in everyday life, by working with young people to promote wellness in their communities all across Africa. This way, according to her, “you don’t need to always contact Sitawa or MMMF to get information on mental health,” and you can access mental health information that is suited to you.
‘We become what we think about.’
As a student in St. Ignatius College in Enfield, London, United Kingdom, then 15-year-old Kelvin Okafor steadily honed his talent for drawing. Kelvin took on drawing while his peers were having fun socialising and this is something he is grateful for as it made him the artist that he is today.
Kelvin is known for his pencil and charcoal drawings of lifelike portraits which feature both ordinary people and celebrities which have caught the eye of a global audience. Early pieces of his work include portraits of Amy Winehouse, Tinie Tempah, Mother Teresa, Lauryn Hill Jamal, Nelson Mandela, Rihanna and Beyoncé, amongst others.
According to Kelvin, as a teenager he would “draw tirelessly” until he was satisfied. With the help of his parents, the British-Nigerian artist did a foundation Art & Design course at City and Guilds Art School (2005–06), then studied at Middlesex University (2006–09), where he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts. His awards include the Catherine Petitgas Visitors Choice Prize, of the National Open Art Competition.
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu’s footwear company soleRebels is one of the most disruptive innovative companies in the past few years. All the Ethiopian-born social entrepreneur wanted to do was provide her poor community in Addis Ababa (Zenabwork) with jobs, and the eco-friendly company remains the world’s one and only World Fair Trade Organisation (WTFO) certified footwear company.
Every single one of soleRebels’ shoes is handcrafted and to Bethlehem they spotlight the “amazing artisan heritage of Ethiopia” as well as the creative skills of the people in her local community. Bethlehem is currently a United Nations (UN) Goodwill Ambassador for Entrepreneurship and is on the board of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).
soleRebels employees are among the highest paid workers in Ethiopia with full medical insurance which covers them and their families. This probably has something to do with why the brand, which relies solely (pun intended) on recycled car tires and inner tubes, hand-spun cotton and hand-woven fabrics, is the first of its kind to emerge from a developing nation and go global. Last year, Bethlehem launched ‘Republic of Leather’, a new venture which offers custom made leather wears and accessories.