African Innovation Week: Interview with Organizer Ashenafi Mulugeta

Staff Reporter

Ashenafi-MulugetaOctober 27, 2019 ( -- Hundreds of young innovators from all over Africa and Nordic countries are set to take part in the African Innovation Week (AIW) 2019 being held here in Addis Ababa. IBA Ethiopia Center for Innovation is hosting the first African Innovation Week 2019 at the African Union Commission (AUC) Headquarters, along with other partners, namely FDRE Ministry for Innovation and Technology (MiNT), African Union Commission (AUC), and the Oslo International Hub (OIH). The six-day event will be featuring thematic areas that include Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship, AgriTech, Smart Cities, ShelterTech & Circular Energy, HealthTech, TourismTech & Hospitality as well as Trade & Investment.

Ashenafi Mulugeta  is the Founder and Managing Director of IBA Ethiopia Center for Innovation, where he leads a team to organize one of the long-awaited event in 2019: the African Innovation Week (AIW). Ezega News Reporter interviewed Mr. Ashenafi Mulugeta recently to talk about African Innovation week, how it impacts the continent in Sci-Tech advancement and it’s role in creating a functional platform for African policymakers, researchers, academics, private sector and international stakeholders that engage in fostering innovation and inclusive sustainable development in Africa:
Ezega.News:  Mr. Ashenafi Mulugeta, first of all, I would like to thank for sharing your time with Ezega News. Can you please tell us about IBA Ethiopia?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: Thank you for your interest in us, Ezega News. IBA Ethiopia Center for Innovation is a company that focuses on stimulating sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship among startups in growing markets in Africa, with a particular focus on Ethiopia. Our aim is to provide assistance and follow-up to startups during their early stages of establishment. We assist with commercialization through seed funding and linking the startups with the right local and international investors for further scaling-up. Our company has its origin in IBA Norway, which works on accelerating and strengthening small- and medium-sized businesses and start-ups in Norway. IBA Ethiopia takes a leading role in linking the Norwegian business sector, start-up-ecosystem and public initiatives with the relevant and transparent projects to create a profound impact in Ethiopia.

Ezega News:  What are IBA’s objectives in organizing African Innovation week?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: IBA Ethiopia has strong collaborations with investors, game-changers, different members of startup ecosystems, private and public institutions, as well as Embassies in Ethiopia and the Nordics. It contributes its part in the structural economic transformation of Ethiopia from an agricultural to industrialized society with strong and vibrant technology led by private sector participation. By doing so, IBA Ethiopia has embarked on hosting African Innovation Week through which we want to create future leaders of Africa. We are using this event to have innovations and startups by young people discovered and supported. Through this event, we are bridging the gap between innovators and investors. There is also the fact that Youth unemployment is one of the biggest challenges not only for Ethiopia but also for many African countries. African Innovation Week goes in line with creating job opportunities for our youth. Our initial estimate for this year is about 100,000 job opportunities. Of course, this requires the right mix of policies put in place and also the implementation of guidelines to be pursued by the government which also requires follow-up.

Ezega News:  Following the event, there are serious questions about the implementation phase at the grassroots level; what do you expect to happen following the Innovation week?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: I agree with you that there are instances where there is a lack of follow-up on decisions made or policies crafted after important conferences. But when we designed the African Innovation Week project, we also made sure that we designed a means for us to follow up on young innovators and startups through incubation, training and creating a link where they can stay in touch with investors. We want to ensure that the African Innovation week is not just a platform where we bring together these bodies but also prepare a platform where we ensure that the network created is sustainable.

Ezega News:  There are voices that Ethiopia needs an association of youth technologists working with other civil societies who can provide appropriate advice and support for people facing challenges. What is your take on that?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: Yes, you are correct. Addressing any concerns or challenges of technology and innovation to policymakers and government officials could prove to be challenging unless young technology and innovation professionals are organized. Thus, having some organization is the easiest way to be heard.

Ezega News:  What steps are being taken to support startup innovators or those who lack the finance to show off their talents?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: We are organizing national, continental and international platforms to give exposure to our innovators to pitch their ideas for prospective investors. We are also advising investors on which innovators to invest for short-term profitability and long-term sustainability. We are also advising governments in regard to revising existing banking and finance laws to suit the requirements of young innovators, such as creating the possibility of providing bank loans against incubated innovative ideas as a collateral.

Ezega News:  Currently, there is little focus given to rural areas; is there any move taken by IBA to cover those areas?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: One of our major objectives in hosting African Innovation Week is to ensure that young innovators coming from all parts of Ethiopia and Africa are included in showcasing their inventions and startups. Here, in Ethiopia, we are collaborating with Universities and TVET across the nation to make sure that they sign up and use this opportunity. Our partnership with Ethiopia’s Ministry of Innovation and technology has proved to be effective in this regard as they were in charge of the screening process of the innovators across the nation.

Ezega News:  Despite advances in science and technology, we are facing more and more challenges, including disease and food supply issues, for instance. Why are we not having a significantly better world with so many breakthroughs?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: It is not quite easy to address problems of the world in a short period of time owing to a shortage of resources. While new technologies bring about improvement in our lives, they also pose new challenges. For example, the fact that there are many gadgets in the hands of billions of people has created a huge demand for power supply. That being said, our way of life has dramatically changed although we take the improvements for granted. For instance, nowadays, we do not need to go to the hospital to get our palpitations measured. We could do it through our phones. Nevertheless, it will take a lot of time to address not only existing problems but also new ones that may arise in the future.

Ezega News:  What effort is being made to build climate-resilient innovations?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: Through African Innovation Week, we address several thematic areas, one of which is Climate-Smart Agriculture. A 2018 report by McKinsey states that Africa’s most dominant economic sector, agriculture, accounts for 15% of the continent’s GDP, which is over $100 billion annually. In addition to that, new reports found that over 90% of Africa’s AgriTech market remains untapped and could be worth over $2.2-billion. Technology is unlocking a great deal of potential within this important sector through innovation, disruption, and efficiency. The farming industry has lagged in Africa due to low resources, traditional farming techniques, and inefficient production optimization. However, AgriTech startups are now spearheading a new era of transformation by introducing technology by revolutionizing how farmers are operating and contributing to climate resilience. Through this theme of the conference, we hope to explore methods on how we can capitalize on the untapped potential of technology in agriculture for transforming Africa's future growth.

Ezega News:  looking back at where Africa was in the last decade in terms of Science and Technology, would you say that it is a worthy investment to host such a big event?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: The innovation and technology sector is a quickly growing arena in Africa and across the world generally. Although we have young minds working for the advancement of the sector, there is always the problem of lack of support for these minds, particularly in Africa, which I believe creates hopelessness which then affects their creativity. As I mentioned earlier, one of the major objectives of hosting African Innovation Week is making sure that young innovators and startups from Africa are exposed to the international investment community. We are expecting 150 innovators from Ethiopia and 50 more from other African countries. We will have a substantial prize, which will go to the top ten innovators. Out of the 150, we will also provide a financial reward for the top 50 startups. It is my strong belief that these figures need to double or triple in the near future and exert more effort to make progress in the sector. So, to answer your question, yes, I believe it is worth hosting such an event s
o as to register commendable growth.

Ezega News:  Do you have final remarks?

Ashenafi Mulugeta: I would like to encourage young innovators to be motivated by this event and keep on trying to succeed. I would also like to encourage investors to believe in the bright future of the innovators. The future of Africa is bright. Because of the opportunity, we have to embrace the 4th industrial revolution and leapfrog with the rest of the world.

The African Innovation Week 2019 begins on October 28, 2019, at the AUC headquarters. This event will wrap up on November 2, 2019, with an award ceremony for African innovators and startups from countries such as Nigeria, Togo, Uganda, Kenya, and |Ethiopia. 50 finalists will win $1,000 each, and the top 5 winners will be awarded $5,000 each.

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