Innovation and Incubation are complementary partners in transformation

By Carl Manlan

Nearly 70 of the world’s top 100 global economic entities are corporation. While African corporations are not in the top 100, the private sector here still controls resources, provides jobs and builds the middle class. Thus, it should be viewed as an important partner in endeavours to build a stronger and more resilient society to address social challenges

Scale, efficiency, innovation and incubation are entry points for civil society and the private sector to design, with communities, interventions creating new opportunities. For the engagement to be meaningful, it should focus on co-creating. For instance, jointly producing a mutually valued outcome like jobs as is expected through the ‘One District, One Factory’ initiative in Ghana. Creative means are needed to spur economic growth, lower unemployment rates and to address challenges inhibiting human progress.

From my early years in Abidjan to now Accra, I am still fascinated by the innovation, finding solutions to change the status quo, demonstrated by street vendors. At many intersections in African cities or in traffic jams, street vendors take advantage of the captive audience and sell food, clothes, art, etc. As they work to make a living, policymakers should work to harness their skills, imagining with them what the future of their work could be. How might we foster employment for street vendors while also redesigning our cities to be more efficient? Civil society should facilitate this dialogue to co-create opportunities for street vendors to harness marketing, sales, distribution, logistics and other skills that they display every day in the streets of African cities but not acknowledged beyond the transactional nature of their work. “Creativity is the new money, we should not devalue it further.”

Education is vital to expand innovation, especially when complemented by health care and savings. Crucial to our ability to innovate is creating a sustainable savings culture. Digital Financial Services are expanding opportunities to transact and save. How might civil society foster a greater savings culture in communities? Stokvels, a saving and investment group has 8.6 million individuals in South Africa spread across 421,000 units accounting for R 25 billion (USD2 billion). Civil society can play a vital role, translating this knowledge into norms that address the social challenge, helping more Africans cultivate the habit of saving early in their lives. Demystifying the savings culture is an important step to enable individuals, families, and communities to influence the direction of their future. One of the most meaningful ways to achieve a greater contribution to society is through the ability to take on new kinds of knowledge and rely on basic skills. Thus, with stronger health, increasing savings and better skills, civil society could make the case to the private sector about incubation.

Africans need to move away from a spending culture to a savings one. Structured and documented resources are pivotal to create incubation, the process of nurturing, protecting, helping innovative ideas survive and grow through the difficult and vulnerable early stages of development, an enabling factor to transform lives with jobs that we need and plan for those that we don’t yet have.

Social transformation should happen with African resources, rather than an over-reliance on foreign contributions. The independence that comes with controlling one’s own resources is transformational. But more young people, as in South Africa, rely on credit to pay for necessities and therein lies a growing culture of people living beyond their means. As a community, we need to ensure that we take the necessary steps to be prudent in our spending while building a war chest to turn the Africa we have into the Africa we want.

Thus, our ability to innovate and incubate becomes a mechanism through which we address the social realities limiting social transformation. We must consider the continuum of people’s lives – the conditions under which they are born, grow, live, work, and age – when we address health, education and savings issues. In ensuring that we keep the end in mind, increasing opportunities for more, we ought to look at innovation and incubation as the foundation of the new social contract that takes civil society from the shores of transformation to the heart of it.

As Africans seek to create the Africa we want, we must strengthen the Africa we have. Innovation is inherent to human nature. The key difference between the continent and the so-called developed world has been the latter’s ability to incubate domestically and project it beyond the safety of their borders. Collaborating to change the relationship between the public and private sectors will empower civil society to address social challenges that will allow us to embrace the skills of Africans from all walks of life, such as street vendors.

We need to see beyond the transactional nature of our daily engagements, extract the unique innovation inherent within them and incubate them to build the Africa we want.

Carl Manlan is the Chief Operation Officer for Ecobank Foundation, an economist, a 2014 Mo Ibrahim Foundation Fellow and 2016 ASPEN New Voices Fellow. He writes in his personal capacity and this first appeared in

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