“We are trained to solve problems not for titles or awards while our society is dying” (Professor Nyasse Barthelemy)


By Mufuh Ramiro.

Over the years, continuous investments have been made for the prosperity of Africa regardless of the continent’s vast range of natural resources and a wealth of untapped human potentials; some in groups, others in isolation or hidden underground waiting for opportunities to be discovered and change lives. In a critical view, sustainable development on the continent has always been a struggle owing to some reasons that the best minds and skills that could speed up prosperity on the continent are exported to the West due to some deprived policies hindering the continent’s socio-economic, political and infrastructural development.

Nevertheless, the struggle for prosperity is making headway, masterminded by a few who have identified and believe in the potential and ability of the continent to solve its problems. It is with this view that the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) was instituted in 2009 with vision of increasing the prosperity of Africans through need-based innovations. In 2011, the foundation initiated the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA), a platform that brings together African innovators to showcase their embedded potentials for the benefit of all Africans through the IPA award.

Recently the African Innovation Foundation (AIF) launched the 2017 edition of the Innovation Prize for Africa (IPA) under the theme “Investing in African Prosperity”, in line with the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 9 that calls on countries to build strong infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation at all levels.

Professor Nyasse Barthelemy, Judge for the 2016 Innovation Prize for Africa, is one of such outstanding Africans, a Cameroonian who believes in the ability of Africans to prosper Africa through collaboration. He is a Professor in the Department of Organic Chemistry in the Faculty of Science University of Yaounde 1 Cameroon. He is also the Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of Teaching, Professionalization and Development of ICT in the University of Bamenda Cameroon and also serves as the Chairperson of the Scientific & Technical Advisory Committee of the African Network for Drugs & Diagnostics Innovation (ANDI). Professor Nyasse in an exclusive interview with Amazing Cameroon explains how IPA is contributing to the prosperity of Africa. He also gives insights of what the continent needs to build a strong innovation ecosystem for the prosperity of the continent.

Professor Nyasse Barthelemy
Professor Nyasse Barthelemy

What is your involvement in innovation related works on the continent?

Base on my personal experience and having being involved in the innovation landscape on the continent with at least two international bodies, one being the Chairperson of the Scientific & Technical Advisory Committee of the African Network for Drugs & Diagnostics Innovation (ANDI), in which we are oblige to analyze the ecosystem as far as health research and innovation on the continent is concern.

The second opportunity that was given to me around innovation on the continent was my involvement with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), base in Geneva. Also, with regards to my participation in some research projects such as development of selective inhibitors of the glycolytic pathways in parasites, the formulation of Hepasor as hepatoprotective drug; Camzin, antifungal topical balm; and others. Under these initiatives, I have had the opportunity to see what is happening on the continent as far as health research and innovation on the continent is concern especially in terms of encouragement, regulation and evaluation.

 As an IPA Judge, what do you think of the state of African innovation landscape today? Any trends you might have observed?

It is a bit difficult to give an accurate evaluation of the innovation landscape of the continent. I will say because not all information and statistics of what is happening at all locations and domains are researched or properly taken.

However, a lot of innovation that is happening in Africa, still needs to be discovered as they are taking place underground or in isolation. But I am proud to tell you that the innovation landscape of Africa is moving to the right direction; be it at individual levels though in isolation, hot spots: that is, areas of Africa where things are better organized; you will find top world class innovations coming out of that.

For example in Africa we have the Arthur Zang CardioPad technology by Arthur Zang, a touch-screen mobile device capable of transmitting cardiac test results from rural areas to cardiac specialists via mobile phone technology, the Imogen Wright’s Exatype: a software solution that enables healthcare workers to determine HIV positive patients’ responsiveness to ARV drug treatment, and many other world class innovations coming from Africa. Looking at the different innovations that have been arising from the IPA you will see that something great is happening on the continent.

Based on your experience on the African innovation milieu, how have innovations from IPA contributes in solving African problems to contribute to the prosperity of the African people in it 5 years of existence?

I will say this frankly and objectively. The impact is huge. Firstly, any initiative that will help the continent to know what is happening and being able to say this is what is happening in the continent, is already a huge impact at the level of creating awareness. This is because awareness changes the mindset and perception of Africans to think positively.

Now let us talk about the prize. The prize is open to innovators for at least five areas: Health and Well Being where I receive applications, Manufacturing and Service Industry, Agriculture, Water and Energy, Information and Communication Technologies. Over this period of time, on average we receive from 500 to 1000 applications from all over the continent.

For example in 2016, we received around 3600 applications from 46 African countries. Which means over 3000 Africans are working on something new for the continent, and have been identified.

The theme of the last 2016 edition was “Made in Africa” While the recent 2017 edition is “Investing in African Prosperity”. Just the theme “Made in Africa” has a lot of positive psychological impact on an African.

Looking at the IPA Grand Prize of 2016 in Botswana, it was given to Dr. Valentin Agon’s Api-Palu, an antimalarial drug treatment made from natural plant extract. The drug has already been approved in many African countries such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Central African Republic.

Meanwhile the second prize was given to Dr Imogen Wright’s innovation, Exatype, a software solution that detects HIV/AIDS patient’s resistance towards ARV drug treatment. And the Highest Social Impact was awarded to Dr. Eddy Agbo’s Urine Test for Malaria (UMT), a rapid non-blood diagnostic medical device that can diagnose malaria in less than 25 minutes in urine. This is what Africa has been able to do, and these are world class innovations. I don’t want to go back to start counting from 2012 to 2016. The innovations are enormous.

This means if we just stand on the achievements of 2016, we are telling Africa that you are capable of treating malaria, and also capable of detecting resistance of HIV/AIDS patients to ARVs. This is a very huge impact on the health sector of Africa. Putting together all these within the past 5 years, the Foundation has made a very strong and positive impact for the prosperity of Africa. But what we have to do is not to stop at that level, but see how we can partner with other institutions on the continent, be it government or private, to add to the value of what the foundation is already doing.

What do you think is needed to build a strong African innovation ecosystem that will speed up the prosperity of Africa?

You see, this is why an exclusive interview like this is very important because it gives the opportunity for explanation. Add to what the Foundation is already doing to build a strong African innovation ecosystem, we need to start from the grass root which is the base by revisiting our educational system. Our school system is design in a way that people are only trained to earn awards or titles, with little attention on how their specialty can solve their society’s problem. The educational system should teach critical thinking, problem solving skills, risk taking, research and entrepreneurship. We have to change our mindsets and start thinking of “We are trained to solve problems not for titles or awards while our society is dying. This is the message we have to send out to the powers that be and Africa in general.

Our system should be well design and open for funding for innovators or entrepreneurs on the continent. People can have good ideas but will not go anywhere if there is no money to develop and manage the idea. One good friend of mine sometime said “A good idea without money is hallucination”, so we don’t want Africans to be hallucinating. Incentive should be given to those who develop ideas, those who test the idea, those who have to protect these ideas; this is where the Intellectual Property Right comes in to protect the rights of innovators on innovations.

We need to come up with a mechanism to detect, monitor and guide or coach these ideas to get to the final stage. Also, we need an evaluation mechanism to be able to come out with real statistics of what is happening every moment as far as innovation on the continent is concerned.

Very important to note, we need to work together, bringing our different expertise together and contribute to solve common problems.  One of the problems with innovation on the continent is that we work alone; everybody wants to be the best in his or her domain. But the innovation culture doesn’t care about: are you a Journalist? Are you a Farmer? Or are you an Engineer? Innovation is asking you: what problem is there to solve? If you want to solve a problem, who can help you solve the problem? It is a matter of cooperative thinking, looking for those who have input to get solutions to problems and not afraid of failure because you share the responsibility. People should not be afraid to fail, because there is no failure. We only get another opportunity to learn when we don’t succeed.

How is AIF/IPA contributing to African innovation ecosystem and unlocking potentials of African innovators?

 I just talked about the difficulties in getting information on innovation on the continent.  The African Innovation Foundation (AIF) is coming as a key player to fix this gap amongst others in the innovative ecosystem. Through the IPA, innovators have the opportunity to meet, share and learn new ideas that will add to their creativity.

The main role of the AIF/ through IPA is to eradicate the spirit of pessimism from Africans, thus IPA serves as an enabling environment for Africans to see their own works and believe that they can do it.

Putting aside the incentives given to these innovators, the AIF through IPA helps to showcase and promote the innovation potentials of Africans to the outside world, thereby creating innovation role models that stimulate the spirit of innovation in other Africans. This impact is great because we learn and get inspired through what others do.

As an IPA judge, what areas and problems should innovators in Africa -especially those preparing for IPA competition- consider solving?

Let me start by going back briefly on the role any judge and my very able colleagues try to do as far as the prize is concern. Our responsibility is a moral responsibility, an emotional responsibility, but also the same time a technical responsibility for us to come out with a quality idea, quality procedure to get a quality result Africa will be proud of. By the way what is innovation in general? In a lay man’s point of view innovation is a procedure to get an idea from somewhere, process that idea in a kind of black box, transform the idea to come out with something new that can solve a specific problem.

For example, in an innovation process, you need to identify an idea, test and transform the idea to a product, distribute it, which then needs to be accepted to get a positive result. To follow this process and value chain we need a structure that starts from the Research industry, to resources such as Agriculture, Water and Energy, Manufacturing and Service industry, Health, ICTs and policy systems. These areas and many others need a lot of attention for a sustainable development and the prosperity of Africa.

What advice would you give to the various innovators who would aspire to participate in IPA 2017 edition?

I will like to call on Africans, especially aspired participants to believe in Africa, believe in your potentials, think of solving African problems, cooperate with others, and take risk, because there is no failure. We are only given another opportunity to learn when we don’t succeed.              Good Luck to all Applicants.

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