COVID-19: embedding growth from within Africa

By Georgia Wilson
Constance Agyeman, Head of International Development and Communities at Nesta Challenges, discusses economic and business growth in Africa...

Constance Agyeman, Head of International Development and Communities at Nesta Challenges, discusses economic and business growth in Africa. 

The global community is facing one of its greatest challenges in many decades as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is being felt across the world. At the point of writing, the impact of the disease across Africa has mercifully been lower than in Europe and America, and as hopeful as I am, that may not remain the case. Governments across Africa have taken swift action to initiate lockdowns, the IMF has provided funding to nations to help, but nothing like the sums being spent by the UK, EU and USA. 

Whilst from my vantage point in London the recent headline news has been of people unable to buy more than three bags of pasta in one shopping trip or crowding into parks and public spaces, in Accra, young people, workers and entrepreneurs have found themselves forced to breach social distancing laws, not to sunbathe, but to wait for food trucks to arrive in the hope that they can get a meal that day. As a person of Ghanaian descent who frequently goes back to Ghana, it is really concerning to think about the economy which was showing promise only weeks ago, being set back by this invisible enemy. 

I am hopeful though. Whilst the economic brakes have been applied across the world, I am confident that the dynamic potential and entrepreneurial talent that helped Ghana become one of the world’s fastest growing economies in 2019 – 6.7% GDP growth according to the World Bank – is merely dormant and will erupt back into action when the crisis is over. According to Ghana’s finance minister, Ken Ofori-Atta, the estimate now is that Ghana’s GDP growth could fall to 1.5%, so the need to cultivate and stimulate entrepreneurial capacity is greater than ever. 

Ghana has benefited from oil, but the recent years have seen growth in other sectors: agriculture, manufacturing and services. Of course, it’s not only Ghana that has been on the rise. With steady growth and a shift from private consumption to investment and exports, the entire continent has been on an upward trajectory, but it has untapped potential to go much further. Transformational shifts will be required if it is to release it. 

The African Development Bank Group’s African Economic Outlook 2020 reports that despite steady advances, only a third of African countries achieved “inclusive growth” last year, reducing both poverty and inequality. It shines a light on the need to improve education and skills for Africa’s future workforce, calling, among other things, for increased incentives to invest in education, developing a demand-driven education system that caters to employers’ needs, and building STEM and ICT capacity.  

Naturally any report produced before the current crisis will not have accounted for the necessary restrictions on everyday life, but that fundamental need to unleash African talent, innovation and entrepreneurialism will be more important than ever. When we eventually emerge from the Covid-19 crisis - whatever form that takes - Africa must harness the power of its people, culture and environment to become a global leader in innovation for true and lasting impact. 

I see this in my own work at Nesta Challenges. We incentivise innovators and entrepreneurs to develop bold and brave solutions to global challenges where solutions have not been forthcoming. Through our work we engage untapped innovators, entrepreneurs with bright ideas, and help transform underserved sectors for the benefit of all. 

In Africa, our Fall Armyworm Tech Prize tackled devastating outbreaks of the invasive pest. The loss of crops like maize, sorghum, rice and sugarcane was potentially valued at US$13bn. The prize sought digital tools that enabled smallholder farmers to identify, treat, and track incidence of fall armyworm to reduce productivity losses. We awarded prizes totalling US$450,000. 

Akorion’s EzyAgric won one of the prizes of $75,000. Based in Uganda, its tool, Ezy Armyworm provides end-to-end farming solutions from planning, inputs, production and market linkages. They enhanced their product by building in a diagnostic function to support nearly 60,000 farmers to identify incidences of fall armyworm and make the relevant connection to extension services and products to help them manage and eradicate the pests.  

For the prize to succeed we understood the need to build partnerships and speak to the people most impacted by the fall armyworm, to design the prize around their needs and priorities and engage and promote African entrepreneurial talent to achieve a solution. Challenge prizes offer a model for African governments (municipal and national), banks, businesses, and other institutions to draw upon and unlock home-grown innovation for the benefit of the continent in the years to come. 

We know of plenty of examples, particularly in mobile finance, of African companies and entrepreneurs embracing and leading the way in new technology, leap-frogging adoption in developed economies. If we are to achieve full development potential across Africa and succeed in the mission of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we need to apply that same attitude to fostering skills in STEM, enhancing career opportunities for women, and environmental and social issues. We need to guide young people into formal enterprise where they will contribute to and grow Africa’s economy from within.   

In Ghana, we have witnessed a boom in the ICT industry, with the country becoming a leading hub for business process outsourcing. As the World Economic Forum highlights, harnessing the full benefits of ICT intensive jobs would require “equipping Africans with the skills to design and engineer home-grown solutions rather than simply servicing the lower-skilled delivery end of the global digital market.” 

We aim to work with partners to place STEM at the forefront of Ghanaian development by empowering 20,000 young people, teachers, schools and communities with the competitive drive, skills and resources to enhance STEM outcomes for personal and social good. Using the Ghana Science and Technology Explorer Prize as a platform to grow STEM participation and innovation at Junior High School level in Ghana, beyond the academic into practical application. 

If we are to create positively measurable shifts in intractable systems within the continent, then we have to take the opportunity to acknowledge and unlock the value in the cultural richness and diversity of African nations, particularly in areas such as education, health, agriculture and infrastructure. As these ultimately have a profound impact on the wellbeing and development of nations. 

Challenge prizes have the capacity to cultivate progressive and effective collaborations which can catalyse systems-level change, not only in Ghana, but across Africa to harness the African potential to generate greater impact in the world. At a time when the global economy is teetering on a precipice, by grounding innovation knowledge and practice in Africa, its peoples and its cultures, a transformational shift for the continent and the global community can be achieved. 

Constance Agyeman is Head of International Development and Communities at Nesta Challenges.  

Constance has over 20 years’ experience in the voluntary sector developing national and international programs which engage communities. She has designed and delivered programs with the likes of USAID, World Bank, the UK Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy and UK Cabinet Office. Constance provides strategic innovation guidance and has delivered over 25 challenge prizes in fields such as agriculture in South-East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, Social Innovation across Europe, UK prizes focused on Waste Reduction and Ageing populations, as well as youth focussed digital enterprise challenges. 

About Nesta and Nesta Challenges 

Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society. We've spent over 20 years working out the best ways to make change happen through research and experimenting, and we've applied that to our work in innovation policy, health, education, government innovation and the creative economy and arts. 

Within Nesta, Nesta Challenges exists to design and run challenge prizes that help solve pressing problems that lack solutions. We shine a spotlight where it matters and incentivise people to solve these issues. We are independent supporters of change to help communities thrive and inspire the best placed, most diverse groups of people around the world to take action.  

We support the boldest and bravest ideas to become real, and seed long term change to advance society and build a better future for everyone. We are part of the innovation foundation, Nesta.  

We are challengers. We are innovators. We are game changers.  



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