How the pandemic has changed the focus for social innovation in Africa

N’Gunu Tiny, Founder and Executive Chairman of the Emerald Group is an expert in transformative tech and social innovation.

COVID-19 has resulted in an enormous cost both to the global economy and human suffering. But it’s far more than just a health crisis. The pandemic is affecting Africa’s economy and society at its very core.

The pandemic’s impact naturally differs from country to country. But in all African countries it is increasing poverty and inequality at an unprecedented scale. So how can countries in Africa that are already dealing with a lack of infrastructure and all kinds of social and economic inequalities address this crisis in an effective way?

Social innovation is tackling the health crisis

There are encouraging signs that this is exactly what is already happening. According to a new report from the World Health Organisation (WHO), there has been more than 120 innovations across health tech this year. They’ve either been piloted and trialled or fully adopted in Africa.

The study covers 1,000 new or improved technologies developed around the world to tackle specific areas of the pandemic response. Africa is responsible for 12.8% of all global innovations in this field. Areas covered by the tech include:

  • Surveillance.
  • Contact tracing.
  • Treatment for the virus.
  • Laboratory systems.
  • Infection, prevention and control.
  • Community engagement.

Of the technologies trialled or used in Africa:

  • Almost 60% were information and communications tech (ICT) driven, such as WhatsApp chatbots rolled out in South Africa, self-diagnostic tools in Angola, health information tools in Nigeria and contact tracing apps in Ghana.
  • Around 25% were based on 3D printing.
  • Almost 11% were robotics based.

The African countries with the highest number of social innovations were:

Challenges and opportunities in Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic is simultaneously one of the biggest challenges to face the world in a generation and one of the biggest opportunities to reset global priorities. Africa has many opportunities to drive forward social innovation, entrepreneurship and ingenuity across health, infrastructure, social and economic sectors.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti is the WHO regional director for Africa. She said in the WHO report that there is a “youthful energy” throughout Africa ready to fight the pandemic. She cites the development and implementation of solar-powered automatic handwashing stations, mobile apps that take advantage of the continent’s rapid move towards connectivity as great examples of home-grown social innovation that are specifically targeted at the challenges facing Africa.

Traditional thinking about social innovation is that it is inextricably linked with how advanced the country’s economy is. But Africa is bucking this trend and is performing above expectations across all countries. However, figures by the World Bank group show that African countries still lag far behind in social innovation investment. At present investment stands at about 0.01% per capita compared with developed countries.

There is so much more potential for social innovation in Africa, and investors now must step up and make it happen.

COVID-19 has highlighted urgent need for investment in social innovation

The pandemic has highlighted the need for investment in innovation. For this to realistically happen, the correct strategic frameworks and policies must also be in place. Investing in social innovation projects yields dividends, and with COVID-19 just one of many major challenges facing humanity, there’s no more time to waste.

African ingenuity should not only be making a difference across Sub Saharan Africa but should have the opportunity to be unleashed globally. The Who recommends more investment in social innovation projects by funding the following:

  • Infrastructure for connectivity and ICT
  • Robotics.
  • Artificial intelligence and automation.
  • Mechatronics and drones.

In addition, policies must be implemented to boost entrepreneurship and to allow for university led research into social innovation projects.

It’s a simple concept and depends on business leaders to step up

In the simplest terms, business leaders need to do much more to help people. The corporate sector and private companies have an opportunity to stand out and take the lead in helping Africa recover from the pandemic, and to bolster its strength for future challenges.

Business success should be measured by different metrics. It’s time to ditch judging a company on how much it has added to its bottom line, and switch to measuring its success based on how many lives it has improved.

Technology, innovation and social innovation presents us with exactly this opportunity. In Africa, we have the talent, the will and the drive. We need to ensure the infrastructure and funding is there to allow our entrepreneurs to shine bright. Social innovation is about driving positive change in lasting ways.

At the Emerald Group we include social innovation within our analysis model when choosing where to invest. We ask the questions:

  1. Is the company performing a socially positive function?
  2. Is it enhancing the quality of life for people in a measurable way?
  3. Is its core market also important for social progress?

Originally published at on December 20, 2020.

N’Gunu Tiny is the Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of The Emerald Group, a diversifed investment group.