CITI FM and that Innovation Challenge

By: Utche Okwuosah

Citi FM’s third edition of Citi Business Festival which ran from the beginning of June to the end of the month may have come and gone but, its ripples will surely continue to ruffle Ghana’s business environment for a very long time to come. This last edition, clearly, has set the series of events out as a change innovator. GB&F was at the Festivals’ “Innovation Summit” and witnessed young innovators with amazing ideas get instant appointments to meet with the Minister for Environment, Science and Technology, Professor Kwabena Frimpong Boateng.

It was like some deft magician pulling fantastic tricks out of his hat. There was Sesinam Dagadu who came out to present his innovation: SnooCode – a mobile app that uses a computer algorithm to generate a unique code – for any location – which then serves as an address.

All a user has to do is download the free SnooCode mobile app, stand at a location – your house, office, or wherever – and then follow the promptings to select the option to generate a unique code for your specific location. This code becomes your address and can be sent to anybody who wants to locate you or wherever.

“SnooCode covers every inch of Ghana,” says Dagadu, and it works offline. He said that it is almost 97 percent accurate and it is 42,000 times faster than the conventional method. “The code replaces the street name, the house number, the area and everything.”

Dr. Mark Amo-Boateng blew everyone’s mind with his unique innovation that produced bio-plastics – at last, plastics that are degradable. He said they degrade within 30 days. Then he went on to speak of his ideas of generating electricity from “speed ramps” on our roads; and of having the solution to ending amputation of diabetic patients.

And then there was Raymond Ategbi Okrofu of Safi Sana Ghana sobering everybody down with the reality of converting solid and liquid waste to energy, beyond the oratorical discuss common amongst Ghana’s jaw-jaw experts. The fecal and solid waste that seem to be overwhelming our cities are being converted by this man into electric energy and from the by-product of this process he still produces organic fertilizer. His small company is run efficiently from this generated power and the excess he feeds into the national grid on commercial basis.

The worthy project processes organic waste from various sources like the market in Ashaiman, restaurants, slaughter houses (abattoirs) and public toilets in Ashaiman. These are processed anaerobically and bio-gas is produced.  The bio-gas is then used to power their generator and the excess is fed into the national power grid which Ghana Electricity (ECG) pays for every month. It is the first grid-connected bio-gas plant in Ghana and the second in West Africa.

Indeed, this technology is not new but it would seem this is the technology that third – world economies should embrace to fully meet their energy need against the background of the constantly recurring uncertainties in the production and supply of power through the current hydro and thermal plants, especially in Ghana. The needed raw materials – fecal and solid waste – abound in overwhelming measures and would cost far less to collect. After all, at this early stages of Ghana’s development, development experts are saying that incremental innovation, often associated with the adoption of foreign technology (as demonstrated by the innovators displayed by the Citi FM Business Festival), should be embraced without qualms, or complex, and then gradually graduate to more sophisticated technologies.

It is good to establish this fact that the value of starting from imported novelties in order to advance is a normal growth path for young economies. According to Alexander Gerschenkron (1962), a Ukrainian-born American Jewish economic historian and professor at Harvard University, differences in nations’ ability to develop technology and adapt it to their particular circumstances were the primary cause of countries’ differences in per capita income and the ability to appropriate the innovations of others was the essence of the latecomer’s advantage.

That is why the immediate invitation of the Science and Technology Minister to the innovators was greeted with sincere spontaneous applause and with the unuttered hope that the outcomes would encourage many more like them struggling to be identified.

The other significant aspect and main attraction of the Summit was the Panel Discussion provided by outstanding sons and daughter of Ghana, themselves world reknowned innovators of distinguished status. The discussion was the analysis of the issues and challenges thrown up by the unveiled innovative abilities of the three young men, and the many unknown ones like them, and the expected responsibility of the government in creating the required enabling environment for the eventual actualisation and application of the products of such innovative minds to the development of the nation’s economy and society.

The four panelists – Dr. Fred McBagonluri, Dean Engineering, Ashesi University, Accra; Michael Quarshie, MD, Persol Systems; Estelle Akofio-Sowah, Google Ghana; and Bright Simons, social innovator, entrepreneur, writer and researcher, and Director at IMANI, Ghana -had exciting and stimulating discussion that situated the success or failure of the active and effective involvement of innovation in the development of the Ghana State squarely in the domain of the government.

Bernard Avle, a seasoned Broadcast journalist at Citi FM, the organisers of the event, who was the moderator of the panel discussion, wanted to know whether the panelists were optimistic of a bright future for innovators such as were presented at the event, so he asked them what they thought.

While Dr. McBagonluri was optimistic of a future where innovators would find practical relevance in contributing to the growth and development of the nation, Bright Simmons was pessimistic about innovators finding expression and fulfillment if things remained the way they were, with both the government and the investing community.

“When the energy of the innovator is spent advocating and convincing people, innovation suffers,” Simmons said almost sarcastically. Clearly, he was not happy with the way successive governments have been deciding their priorities and the clear absence of distinct sense of purpose and appreciation of the urgent need of the country to fast-track development. He wondered how a government that sees nothing wrong in perpetuating a resource producing country being a price-taker instead of developing the necessary, if not logical, value chains in the valuable resources the country is producing for the world. “We lack the necessary sense of urgency,” he said with an emphatic conviction and insisted that pessimism was the only philosophical posturing that can get the government to begin to rethink their attitude and values.

“I am optimistic so long as we have a clear policy,” Dr. McBagonluri said on his own part. “We are positioned quite well to take advantage of the current development,” he argued.

He explained that the challenge of the innovator is to learn how to tell his story convincingly. “He has to learn to do it successfully, just as the pastor does in interpreting the scriptures,” he said implying that the innovator has to, in the same way, be able to convince the stakeholders, particularly the investors, to have faith in their innovations enough to make them commit their support and money.

For Estelle, as she is popularly known, time was now already for everybody to be calling a spade what it really is and not some fancy instrument for scooping sand. The challenges in our society are real, she said, and the sooner the government begins to accept this fact the sooner they would begin to live up to their expectation.

“Our government needs to think and think big, and lead by example. We need examples set right from the top to the bottom,” Estelle counseled. For her, creating the conducive environment for both economic and social development was the responsibility of everybody – the government and the governed. Therefore, everybody has to have their hands on deck to take the nation to the next level. The nation need to realise that there is a catch-up to be done. And one of the ways to accelerate things is by patronising locally produced goods – from machinery to food, to services. “Don’t bring in any foreign consultants, for instance.”

“As one who’s been in business for 22 years, I have seen what an uphill task it is trying to monetise your ideas,” Michael Quashie contributed and went on to underscore the importance of innovators finding the market for their works and locking in their innovation through patenting. “We need to work on this quickly. We need to lock in your innovation,” he advised pointing out that amongst the challenges innovators face was that of people taking advantage of them and stealing their ideas either directly or indirectly.

The Minister for Science and Technology, Prof. Frimpong Boateng, was visibly happy with what he was experiencing. The fact that a private entity like City FM was able to organise such a forum was a delight to him because he thought that kind of meetings would create networking opportunity where like minds would meet to share ideas and device pathways for progress.  He spoke of his ongoing efforts to build a science and technology infrastructure because he thought that the nation needed to build the capacity to create machines. He also spoke of the current government’s interest and readiness to support the growth and role of science and technology in the development mix of the nation. And that was why he was happy that government has increased the percentage of the money allocated to research from 0.02 percent of GDP to 1 percent. So, he has his mind trained at building innovation ecosystem.

“We need to create innovation ecosystem. Improve something like patent laws,” the Prof said and rallied fellow innovators to develop “that uncompromising spirit to survive” as that is the only way to succeed.

However, as Simmons said, the 1 percent allocated to the ministry for research amounts to nothing really, considering that this is the stage the country needs research and development (R&D)most. A research piece by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) buttresses this point by stating clearly that, “There is evidence that R&D played a key role in the takeoff of Asian economies such as China, India and Korea (Ang and Madsen, 2011). What is more, many emerging economies have industries or firms that are at the technology frontier and need to innovate to compete.” The only way they can successfully innovate is through R&D.

So, the conclusion of the Citi FM Business Festival’s Innovation Summit was that Ghana needs an innovation revolution buffered by a government that is sincere and true to the cause of industrialising Ghana. This is no time for lamentation, according to Dr. McBagonluri, but a time to “wake up to the opportunities (to innovate) in every situation.”

GB&F

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