AfrIdea: Innovative solutions to challenges in Francophone Africa due to Covid-19

May 24, 2021
AfrIdea participants and US Embassy staff from Mali gather at Impact Hub Bamako for their first meet and greet in-person

There is an incredible amount of untapped knowledge, skill, passion and innovation in the people and communities of West Africa. Yet young entrepreneurs, social activists and developers may languish while countries face pressing economic, health and educational challenges, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, virtual connection for innovators to collaborate in the region remains scattered.  

In a time when open innovation can unlock the enormous potential for rapid ideation and impact at scale, the digital infrastructure does not exist. Africa continues to break ground in new technologies for consumers in emerging markets that are otherwise overlooked by Western investors. In order to generate new products and services that are in direct demand by the communities where they live, young local innovators must have the proper enabling environment.

"Youth are full of potential and have energy that, if well trained, can add a lot of value to the continent," says Elhadj Bah, AfrIdea Event Manager. "Their involvement in every part of the economy will bring fresh and bold ideas. This new generation is well connected to the rest of the world, so they see the range of possibilities."

Since October 2020, Pact has been leading AfrIdea, a regional innovation mechanism supported by the U.S. Department of State to unlock the potential of West African entrepreneurs, social activists and developers. Through a contest, training, idea-a-thon and follow-on funding, we're activating a network of young entrepreneurs and innovators from Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Togo to source and grow innovative solutions.

For AfrIdea, the process of innovation is rooted in human-centered design and open innovation principles. Using Pact’s new digital open innovation platform, we are increasing participants’ collaboration capacity by creating channels for networking and relationship-building. We’re connecting participants to regional innovation actors and virtual mentors from the U.S. and 15 other countries including Colombia, Nepal and Zimbabwe. 

In a traditionally male-dominated space, AfrIdea seeks to break gender barriers by equipping women and youth with creative problem-solving tools to develop concrete and viable ideas combatting some of the most pressing issues affecting youth in West Africa. We’re promoting women’s leadership in peace and security post-pandemic by uplifting women entrepreneurs and putting in them in leadership positions to mentor young aspiring innovators.

A slide from the training, showing innovation at the intersection of viability, desirability and feasibility.

Between February 15 and March 31 of this year, 750 people registered on Pact’s IdeaScale innovation platform to submit their solutions to challenges in the areas of the economy, health and education. In April, participants ranked and discussed the ideas and the 250 most popular ones were then narrowed down to 80. Finally, 40 people were selected (10 from each AfrIdea country). A panel of multidisciplinary evaluators assessed the ideas based on the ability to address an identified problem, level of innovation, potential for large-scale impact, use of technology and propensity to empower women.  

The cohort of 40 are now part of a preparatory training course, through Zoom and WhatsApp group discussions, to support our innovators and entrepreneurs in developing skills to refine and communicate their ideas. Covering topics such as mindsets of innovation and how to prepare an elevator pitch, design thinking and designing with the customer in mind, and business planning, participants will collaborate and learn new methods.  

Based on the hackathon model, the idea-a-thon will be a 72-hour nonstop event taking place virtually the weekend of June 18-20 when teams will race to build and demonstrate a prototype for their proposed solution. Participants will examine a solution in more detail and refine concepts as a group. 

While we selected 40 innovators to participate in the program, AfrIdea is inviting an additional 80 young people from the targeted countries to join them as teammates at the idea-a-thon. In total, there will be 120 youth across the four AfrIdea countries, connected through a virtual hackathon platform called Eventornado, and meeting in-person across eight regional innovation hubs, including Impact Hub Bamako and CTIC Dakar.

A breakout room in the training kickoff call, May 17.

At the end of the event, only 12 ideas (three from each country) will present their demo to a panel of judges who will listen to their pitches and evaluate the prototypes. For this reason, no prize money will be given at the idea-a-thon. Instead, after the event, all 40 AfrIdea participants will have the opportunity to apply for seed funding up to $10,000 per country and six months of mentorship to support the pilot, or proof-of-concept, stage.

Which ideas receive funding will depend on a number of factors – including the nature, feasibility and execution of the solutions, the commitment of participants throughout the entire innovation process and more. The follow-on support includes additional networking activities at local innovation hubs, such as pitch nights or speed networking events, where participants have a chance to market their solution, along with invitations to U.S. Embassy events such as American education exchange information sessions and YALI network events. Other support includes connection to local mentors who will assist the innovator in the critical steps following the pilot of their idea: business registration, intellectual property protection, back-end development of mobile apps and drafting partnership agreements, for example. 

These past months I’ve seen so many wonderful ideas and been encouraged by the passion and motivation of hundreds of innovators. AfrIdea represents progress in the development sector, as we increasingly see a push for locally driven innovations. There is no shortage of talent or ideas from young people across Africa, and I am glad that Pact gets to be a part of a project that amplifies young people’s voices and provides them with the tools and resources to make positive change in their communities. The level of excitement in this project has been astounding and every single idea has held such promise. While I wish we could support everyone who’s submitted ideas, we’ve had our work cut out for us in selecting the most viable ones.  

Fortunately, AfrIdea’s reliance on local partners has already strengthened the regional ecosystem by bringing together four very distinct innovation networks under one project. As a result, innovators across Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Togo will have a greater understanding of the opportunities and resources in the region and are left with a larger network of support to scale impact and increase collaboration efforts.

A Facebook post promoting idea submission.

AfrIdea is a two-year cooperative agreement funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Services and implemented by Pact.