Talking innovation at AGRF 2018

What is it that makes one nation more entrepreneurial and innovative than another? And how can nations apply their innovative strengths to drive growth and improvement through their agricultural sectors? These two fundamental questions were at the heart of a three-way conversation at the 2018 Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) held in Kigali, Rwanda between His Excellency Edouard Ngirente, Prime Minister of Rwanda, AGRA Board Chair, Chairman of Econet Group and acclaimed entrepreneur Strive Masiyiwa, and Saul Singer, co-author of the book Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. Mr. Singer was quick to highlight similarities between Rwanda and Israel that he believes are at the heart of both countries’ innovative spirit: they are both small, and they both have difficult histories to overcome. “I believe all countries have their own innovation story and have a lot to learn from one another,” he said. “What innovative countries have in common is the ability to turn disadvantage into advantage, just in the way that Africa as a whole can do. Look at how it has jumped landlines straight to cell phones, desktops straight to laptops and tablets. Now, African countries are using drones to supply hospitals with blood and drugs – if that was attempted in the US, it would be tied down for years by bureaucracy.” According to Mr. Masiyiwa, in Rwanda’s case agility has a vital role to play. “It’s incredibly efficient when it comes to creating an environment for business, with light-touch regulation and real ease in cutting through bureaucracy to talk to the right people.” He believes it is a cultural issue that starts at the top. “I remember meeting the President at a conference in New York. I pitched an idea at him, and then flew to London. That night I got a call from a Rwandan minister, who asked about the conversation I’d had with the President. I asked her what time it was there. ‘Two a.m.’ she said. ‘I need to be sure I’ve rung you when I see the President in the morning.’” Mr. Ngirente stressed the extent to which the country’s focus is on involving everybody in government, particularly young people. “In every sector, we have agile young people, and we aim to help make sure their ideas can come to reality.” In particular, he believes this approach has had a positive impact on youth’s view of agriculture. Fifteen years ago, he said, young people had little or no interest in the sector. Today, young people armed with degrees in engineering and economics are queuing up to get involved. Strive Masiyiwa was quick to point out that innovation, particularly in farming, is not all about apps and technology. “The entrepreneur recognises a problem that can be solved. For example, a team of young entrepreneurs in Kenya saw that women were getting up at four a.m. to buy vegetables to sell on the streets of Nairobi. Now, the team do the buying instead and deliver it to the women, using cold-storage facilities to keep the produce fresh. And the women can get up at seven a.m. instead.” Mr. Singer echoed this sentiment, pointing out that innovation is often more in the business model than in technology. “Often the problem lies in ensuring that ideas are adopted, that investor money comes in,” he said. The best entrepreneurs, he continued, see a problem and devise a solution. Start-ups that develop a solution and then look for a problem to solve it are likely to fail.

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