To nurture the country’s ability to innovate, SA must invest in its youth


Much has been said over the past 18 months about how countries have taken advantage of the crisis presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to advance innovation in ways that positively impact society and the economy. The crisis appeared to bring out human ingenuity, resilience and adaptability. Younger South Africans (and younger Africans in general) seemed to respond by taking the lead, mobilising their communities and addressing basic needs first. Community-first approaches led and sustained by youth emerged from the strong social fabric that typifies many SA communities. Relations of reciprocity, solidarity and caring for the most vulnerable oriented their efforts to supporting themselves and others through the crisis. Younger people also pivoted towards online income-generating opportunities such as freelancing or gig work.

This ingenuity is just one of the reasons that SA is seen by many as an emerging fintech hub. So it was a surprise to see that SA and Africa in general have slid down the rankings of the Global Innovation Index, published annually by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, Insead and Cornell University. It ranks nations in terms of their success and capacity in innovation, based on a number of indicators. While SA, Mauritius, Kenya and Tanzania are seen as the most innovative countries in sub-Saharan Africa, their rankings are middling in a list of 132 countries. SA lets itself down on creative outputs, infrastructure and human capital, but is strong when it comes to market and business sophistication and institutions. This seems a solid base on which to build. It’s well understood that nations that innovate have a better chance of being competitive, building more resilient economies and raising the standard of living. Of course, as McLean Sibanda points out in his book Nuts & Bolts: Strengthening Africa’s Innovation, innovation is also associated with efficiencies and potential job losses, as technologies of the future – AI, robotics, additive manufacturing – make some jobs obsolete.

That said, society is a better world today because of innovation. And SA’s fall in the rankings does not spell doom; we understand our own challenges – notably a truly dire education system and a state that cannot deliver services to its citizens – all too well. These structural impediments constrain our ability to progress, to advance growth and to lift millions out of poverty, and need to be resolved urgently. South Africans, meanwhile, are not waiting for the future to come to them. In fact, the pandemic has accelerated SA’s digital journey, despite the economic pressures.

I was thinking about this while watching the MTN Business App of the Year Awards recently. The awards celebrate the best of SA’s app-development talent and this year highlighted the role that digital technology plays in solving real-life problems. For those who, like me, were not born with a mobile phone in their hands, apps are programs that run on a mobile device. The app market is booming, forecast to reach $733.5 billion by 2028 at a CAGR of 24.3%, reports US firm Grand View Research. It is driven by the demand for tech solutions that improve our efficiency at work and play. So, efforts to empower a new generation of tech-savvy entrepreneurs have never been more important – after all, these may be future JSE unicorns. The awards have grown to the point that a new breed of developers is visible. MTN’s Wanda Matandela believes they are as likely to be young entrepreneurs offering grocery-delivery services as actuaries challenging the dominance of traditional insurance giants. Winners ranged from small start-ups to established giants such as Takealot. The overall winner was Ambani Africa with its gamified language-learning app aimed at children aged two to eight.

What is clear is that building SA’s ability to innovate – and become resilient to future shocks – depends on ensuring that our youth can access basic services, digital infrastructure and financial capital. Building on this, we need to ensure effective training in the creative use of technology, critical thinking and confidence building. Because at the end of the day, only one thing underpins science and a nation’s prosperity… Ideas, because they matter.

By Sasha Planting