Interview with Bosun Tijani, a Nigerian-British entrepreneur, co-founder and CEO of Co-Creation Hub (CcHub), an innovation enabler created in 2010 that has supported hundreds of early-stage ventures across a variety of industries. With hubs in Lagos, Nairobi and Kigali, CcHub has expanded its capacity to run programmes across the continent and represents now the largest technology innovation network in Africa. Bosun Tijani was also one of the six high-level experts of the Advisory Group on African-European Research and Innovation (R&I) Cooperation, tasked with advising the European Commission on how to best tap the potential of R&I and accelerate the translation of scientific advances into tangible impacts.
How would you define CCHub’s DNA in a few words?
The DNA of CCHub is rooted in the belief that science and technology can help to leapfrog the development of the African continent. We have a strong belief that most of the challenges that we face on the continent are not rocket science and through science, technology and partnerships, we can start to put Africa on the path of shared and inclusive prosperity. This is why for everything we do, we put a strong emphasis on innovation and how to build an innovation ecosystem that allows knowledge to be at the heart of how we solve problems. We call ourselves the social innovation center that is focused on accelerating the application of social capital and technology.
What major changes have you seen in the African landscape of research and innovation over the last decade?
What we have seen is the emergence of a unique innovation system. Innovation system is important for how society builds innovation capacity, supports people to innovate, but also monetise and commercialise their innovation. The typical innovation ecosystem would require the participation of the academic institutions that are contributing to the discovery of new ideas and knowledge. Then you have the rules and regulation policies from governments, the role of the private sector and of the intermediaries, and all these things are put together. These last 10 years in Africa, you have seen in Africa a change that has been inspired by the emergence and the diffusion of the Internet. As more and more people get access to Internet, more and more people get access to knowledge, but most importantly, more people are able to connect with other people from all over the world, particularly investors. So, you see a lot of American people who are now investing in innovations in Africa. You see many young people who are learning empirically on Internet, and all of this is strengthening the ability of people to create. This is a different kind of innovation system based on networks and relationships. But that innovation system is still quite weak, because there is disconnect between this emergence of a modern innovation system which is based on networks and relationships, and the contribution of academic institutions and also the policies that governments are putting in place. When this new innovation system is moving forward, all these other bits are dragging backward, so there are frictions that are affecting our ability to achieve the biggest potential that it can achieve.
CcHub is now involved in a development programme aimed at accelerating African Universities’ contribution to knowledge application for a better society. Could you elaborate further?
African Universities have low understanding of how to apply academic research to solve problems in society. This is not unique in Africa. Even in Europe, for a long time it was a problem, but it has changed in the last 20 years, especially through framework programmes like Horizon 2020 and also national governments that have spent a lot of resources in trying to get academic institutions to think more about the applications of their research in society. So, there is a strong balance between basic research and applied research now in Europe, but in Africa, what we have noticed is total disconnect. Many academics just want to make more publications to get their professorship. Our programme wants to help them see the value and implications of their research in an evolving world, where knowledge, science and technology are really becoming the center of the world we live in. We have seen the role of science in the pandemics for instance. So we try to help them visualize, understand, and map their research strengths, expertise, aspirations, and then situate that into the reality of society. Then, we engage them in understanding how to build internal capacity to enable academics to do their research for the benefits of society. We also launched a programme funded by the African Development Bank in two Universities where there are Pan African University Centers of excellence, the basic sciences, technology and innovation campus at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Kenya, and the earth and life sciences campus at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria (PAULESI). In these two centers, we have launched entrepreneurship and incubation centers where the focus is working with the students to see which one of them are able to take their ideas, their research projects into becoming solutions to market. We are also working with academics to connect them more to industry, so that industry can also come with their business and society challenges that University can help generate knowledge to address. The last walk in this area is something we are doing with the British Council, again in PAULESI (Nigeria), which is focused on circular plastic economy. How do we create curriculums that can help the life and earth Sciences students understand how they can innovate and create solutions to problems within the circular economy.
You worked for the Advisory Group on African-European Research and Innovation Cooperation. What would a renewed, win-win partnership between the two continents look like? In other words, what can the two continents bring to each other?
Africa through history is connected to Europe. Even in terms of location, we are quite close to each other and the African continent has a lot of challenges but also a lot of opportunities, which is why some people call it “continent of the future”. There is chance to build things there, and many of them have to be done with science and technology. Europe on the other hand has deep-rooted history and track record in science and technology. The opportunities do exist and the question is how do we build a future where the strength of Europe is used to help solve significant problems in Africa, but also to strengthen expertise and lift Africa forward for mutual benefits. If we look at the financial service space, many innovations are going on in Africa. Cryptocurrency is are now used all over the world, but Africa is really one of the places where it is being used a lot, and the regulatory authorities do not have the expertise to come up with the right policy to manage it. Europe is quite good with coping up with policies that can protect society. Another example is agriculture. Africa has huge arable land that you can cultivate, many young people who work in agriculture. Europe has the scientific know-how in terms of how to do agriculture in a sustainable but also mechanized way. A partnership between the two continents is not only good for business but also for the entire world. There are also opportunities in satellite technology, where the European are quite good at, which is beginning to be used in precision agriculture. So, there are opportunities in specific knowledge sharing, not just looking at innovation from an academic research perspective, but also linking companies in Europe and Africa to strike collaborations in emerging areas.
How can the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and a Pan-African approach contribute to building more efficient R&I ecosystems?
I think the biggest opportunity in Africa at the minute is that we have the AfCFTA which means like the European area, African have decided that all the 54 + countries will become one single market ,. So it is an exciting development, this is an opportunity not only for trade across market, but also for talent. It means that if I am an academic researcher in Kenya with an expertise required by a R&D lab in Nigeria, it has become an easy flow. If a company is for instance in Rwanda, with just 12 million people, and it has the best technology in a particular market, it can leverage markets in other places to strengthen its business. So, when it comes to competition, what it means is that instead of individual African countries competing as nations with very weak innovation systems, if they come together, they can compete by leveraging the strengths in different parts of Africa when it comes to innovation. This is the concept of distributed innovation, of a network approach. I’m looking at the innovation support and systems that I need not only from a national point of view, but from a distributed point of view. This is what has been happening in Africa for the last 10 years. Money is coming from the US or China, knowledge is coming from Nigeria, the expertise is coming from Europe, it’s already distributed. So, can we be more conscious that innovation system is distributed and can we then have strategies that help us to make the best of those distributed relationships?
What are the most interesting opportunities that the COVID-19 crisis has opened up for innovators in Africa?
Innovators in Africa have been pushing the boundaries of using technology to deliver many services, especially digital technologies. During the lockdown, all the executives within most of the governments in Nigeria were doing their meetings in zoom. In Nigeria, that would have been never head off in 2019 that government meetings would happen on zoom. What COVID-19 has changed is that it has accelerated the acceptance that technology can help us to change things rapidly. So now, both the markets and the governments are more opened to opportunities around these technologies to deliver services which are critical to their economy, and as such there are opportunities for the innovators to build endless solutions to solve many problems on the continent.
Links of the key excerpts of the interview:
- Evolution of the African R&I landscape over the last decade
- CcHub involvement in a development programme, aimed at accelerating African Universities’ contribution to knowledge application for a better society.
- His vision of a renewed, win-win R&I cooperation between Africa and Europe
- How the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) and a Pan-African approach can contribute to building more efficient R&I ecosystems
- Opportunities that the COVID-19 crisis has opened up for innovators in Africa