Sep 29, 2015 BIH News

Building a Culture of Innovation

Article adopted from: The Sunday Standard

Author: Mesh Moeti

Like all innovative thinkers, Mpho Motsamai sees a business opportunity behind each inadequacy. He is part of a team of final year software engineering students at Botho College behind the revolutionary cash dispenser that, if it reaches product stage, stands to change how pensioners are served.

Named Tandabala, after the old age pension, the dispenser uses both fingerprint and face recognition for authentication, kinect technology and a touch screen that represents cash in image form, thus making it easier for the elderly to use. Also allowing easy navigation is the device’s audio capability, while the kinect studies if the user has any problems using the dispenser.

The concept’s developers – Motsamai (24), Kabelo Bolaane (23) and Givemore Mvumba (22) – first entered it in local ICT competitions in 2011. This year the team won the Botswana leg of the Imagine Cup 2013, co-hosted by Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH) and Microsoft Innovation Center. As local champions, they represented Botswana at the Microsoft Imagine Cup finals, the world’s premier student technology competition, in St. Petersburg, Russia.  

Even as it might be a while before the invention becomes a product, perhaps it best illustrates what BIH’s chief executive officer Alan Boshwaen means when he says Botswana has to inculcate a culture of innovation and build support systems around it. He makes reference to last year’s World Economic Forum report that observed that though Botswana has done well in building strong institutions, it is scoring weaker in terms of technological readiness and sophistication. It is a gaping gap that, hopefully, BIH will mobilise stakeholders to fill.

BIH is a government-owned company that was borne out of the Botswana Excellence Strategy which proposed a three pronged National Strategic Goal for the diversification of the country’s economy, creation of jobs and driving the country towards a knowledge-based economy. The company has a broad mandate to develop and operate Botswana’s first Science and Technology Park – which is currently under construction – to contribute to economic development and competitiveness by creating new scientific, technological, and indigenous knowledge based business opportunities, as well as add value to existing companies, and foster entrepreneurship and technology transfer. It is expected that when operational, the park will be home to innovative companies and research institutions, both homebrewed and foreign, leading to creation of knowledge-based jobs.

The company has prioritized four focus sectors: mining, ICT, bio-technology as well as energy and environment given their importance to Botswana’s economy and potential to drive economic diversification.

Boshwaen’s view of innovation is as an enabler that will make Botswana more competitive in terms of adopting different approaches and new technologies, but not necessarily hi-tech.

“When you talk science and technology, often people think hi-tech things that are done in developed countries,” he says. “But if you instill a simple culture of innovation and build support for it you get meaningful results.”

He gives the example of what used to be a common feature in public buildings throughout Botswana – rainwater tanks.

“This was not hi-tech, but it was a good and effective water conservation innovation,” he says.

The starting point, therefore, is to identify a problem, and then find an intervention that resolves the problem to move society forward. Take the cash dispenser, for instance. If it is eventually deployed, its developers believe it would eliminate the long queues at social grant payment points, and the need to carry coupon books, which get lost and can be destroyed if not handled with care.

“The other main thing about the current system,” says Motsamai, “is that whenever a beneficiary moves to a new place, they have to re-register in that district as one of the pensioners. Of course, this might take some time and as a result, the pensioner would not get their money on time.”

Boshwaen believes two things must happen to set Botswana on the way to being an innovative society. The first is development of better mechanisms to fund new ideas that have been tested and are proven to work. The second is to create an internal culture to take up these ideas and put them to effective use.

He sees BIH assisting in putting the ideas into products either through funding or entrepreneurial training. He emphasizes the idea’s viability and relevance, as well as marketability. He believes the country has to be innovative in funding ideas by learning from the developed world.

“We can create an opportunity for people [with new ideas] to pitch those ideas to businesspeople,” he suggests. “That is what happens in advanced countries. Money doesn’t come from government; it comes from the private sector. Perhaps we need to create avenues for people to interact at that level.”

The other model he suggests is for government to present some of the problems it encounters in delivering services, and invite ideas that can be developed into solutions.

“From a pool of suggested ideas, a panel of experts would then determine which one is the best. If we do that, Botswana’s young people will use their own minds to determine how to resolve various issues. It is not even too expensive. Just by creating and supporting a new system for ideas to flow through, new business models will come up,” he points out.

Boshwaen broadens the discussion somewhat to encompass indigenous knowledge. He asks, “How can we get commercial value out of our unique products like medicinal plants and indigenous fruits?”

However, he states that there has to be scientific validation to determine nutritional value and safety of the various medicinal plants and fruits. BIH’s intervention would be on taking such products to commercialization.

From where he sitting, Boshwaen is looking out for certain milestones that would tell if BIH is delivering on its mandate. In ascertaining if the milestones are being met, he will ask himself and his team a set of questions.

“Is there meaningful technology transfer that resolves issues that Batswana face? Is our economy creating new businesses that are aligned to innovation? Are we having more young people involved from point of view of self-employment?,” he rolls out the questions. “Our agenda is that in the next three years would like to have built the science and technology park. We would like to see certain critical facilities in the park that will support the whole agenda.”

When asked the description of people he employed to help him drive BIH mandate, he replies that he looked for people who can get their hands dirty, and have a “can-do” attitude.

“They are people who are interested in achieving the outcome, and in the concept of moving Botswana forward,” he says.

He calls it a small team of professionals from various fields, including different branches of science, as well as business, property and law. His approach was to build a core team that would then create linkages with other like-minded organisations to expand BIH’s capacity. Some of the partnerships that have been forged are with organisations such as Microsoft (leading to the establishment of Microsoft Innovation Center within the BIH to enhance professional delivery of ICT services and products, as well as create and improve skills of Botswana’s ICT professionals), the Council on Health Research for Development (COHRED), an independent international foundation headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland (to promote research and development for health, equity and development in Botswana and Africa in general), the Southern Africa Innovation Support (SAIS) Programme (which promotes collaboration within the innovation ecosystems of African countries in order to provide greater impact on economic and social development), as well as Lund University and Krinova Science Park in Sweden (to establish a CleanTech Centre of Expertise programme within the BIH).