Though it might not seem obvious at first glance, Botswana and Qatar have much in common. Their wealth is primarily buried underground – LNG here and coal and diamonds over there. And in both the countries, the governments are keen on channeling income from these non-renewable resources into diversifying their economies and finding local solutions to address their national challenges. Speaking with Tshepo Tsheko, Program Manager at the Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH), it is crystal clear that their push is in finding a lasting place for Botswana’s companies and people in the global value chain. BIH is new to the scene too; they are in their second year of operations and are the newest member of IASP.
The flagship technology entrepreneurship development programme that Tsheko heads, which is essentially an incubator/accelerator, is the biggest one yet for BIH. “In commercialising innovation, one of the strongest components is entrepreneurship and at BIH we bring mature companies and startups together to collaborate,” he says. The government-funded STP actively seeks players in four critical sectors – ICT, biotech (focusing on medical research and food security), clean tech and mining. “Considering the relevance of these four sectors to the African agenda, our vision is to apply and leverage what’s already there and localise it to solve African challenges,” he says, supporting it with an example. “One of our startups is a company that had designed the world’s first solar-powered hearing aid.
Over 200 million Africans suffer from hearing impairment. People were donating hearing aids but the batteries were expensive or difficult to charge because electricity was often unreliable. They took an African problem and solved it and now those hearing aids are being used in places as far flung as China and Brazil,” he says. So their challenges, though local, have the potential to be scaled up and applied to other middle- and low-income economies in the world.
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That is why although Tsheko considers Botswana, with its extensive investments in infrastructure and one of the most stable political climates in the continent, as a no-brainer when it comes to attracting MNCs looking for a foothold in Africa, it doesn’t end there. So if an MNC is only looking at Botswana as a potential market, that’s not what we are doing anymore. We are challenging overselves to look at the rest of the world and our goals at the STP reflect that.
Their focus on local companies is understandable. SMEs run economies because they can take the risks where the big players are stagnant, Tsheko says. Historically we have had the limitation of being a small country and that has left a lot of companies that could have gotten big at the SME stage. At the hub we are saying, there is no ceiling. We want to take these SMEs and make them bigger.” And these are knowledge-intensive businesses that can be valuable players in the global value chain. “But we do need big guys; we look at what they are doing that the smaller companies can offload and develop.
By beginning to deliver finishing touches or ancillary products and services, local companies will start to cut deeper and deeper into the value chain. It not only builds trust and credibility but also allows us to showcase African innovation and knowledge systems. It’s not about bringing the world into Botswana but owning our success and taking Botswana to the world,” he declares. Currently, out of the 50 members in the hub and, around 20 are born-in-Botswana companies.
Also at BIH are facilities like a solar testing lab being set up in association with Lund University in Sweden for the benefit of companies involved in clean tech innovation. Be it post-mining diamond operations, or HIV research, the vision is to have more and more of the knowledge-intensive and value-added work done in Botswana. “We have doctoral candidates in universities working on AIDS research but because their funding comes from outside, they don’t have a free hand and are often reduced to just collecting and sending the data. This has to stop,” he says. BIH now has a state-of-the-art wet lab for biotech research.
To be relevant as an STP, Tsheko says they have to address gaps in the skills of the local population. “In Bostwana, there is a lot of work but not many jobs,” he says wryly. “Right now we graduate thousands of ICT students every year but I’d be the first to admit that many of them are not employable,” he says. But they are starting to engage the universities in how things are getting done. “We are challenging training people on skills and career paths that are dead ends given the local climate and guiding them to manage output by developing relevant skills. Because at the end of the day, the real diamonds are our people,” he says.
Tsheko is emphatic about one thing: “As much as the rest of the world can solve our problems for us, we need to be a part of that. We need to invest in people and they need to be part of the vision. We can’t move forward and leave them behind. And we know it takes time and, unfortunately, no matter how much money you throw into these projects, you need to go through development stages. That’s what we have learnt from people who have done it before. It could take ten years or more for anything significant to come out of an STP. We are prepared for that.”