By Mary Hearty
In an effort to highlight the crucial role African engineers play in improving quality of life and economic development, the Royal Academy of Engineering through the Africa Prize program is supporting ambitious innovative engineers developing local and scalable solutions to everyday challenges on the continent.
The program awards crucial commercialization support to the innovators to help them accelerate their businesses, including comprehensive and tailored business training, sector-specific engineering mentoring, communications support, pitching opportunities and access to the Academy’s network of high profile, experienced engineers and business experts in the UK and across Africa.
Supported by the United Kingdom Government, the Ezrah Charitable Trust and the Shell Centenary Scholarship Fund, the Africa prize program shortlists up to 16 applicants since its inception in 2014 to a showcase event, where a winner is selected to receive £25,000, along with three runners-up who are each awarded £10,000.
The 12 remaining shortlisted candidates also compete for the public’s vote for the One-to-Watch award of £5,000.
“African entrepreneurial ecosystems have historically been centered on stronger economies, making it harder for startups from smaller countries to achieve success,” Meredith Ettridge, Associate Director, International, at the Royal Academy of Engineering said.
“The Africa Prize is providing opportunities and access to expert networks in countries which have previously been overlooked.”
Some of the challenges the program addresses include access to power, food and water security, adapting to climate change, and improving telecommunications, education, financial services, healthcare and other public infrastructure.
“Supporting African engineering innovators means supporting disruptive but appropriate technologies. Africa Prize alumni have typically created something that is based on engineering and suitable to local users,” said Ettridge.
“Appropriate technologies can only come from innovators who understand their own environment and communities, local perspective, and that’s what we are supporting.”
The Africa Prize program has supported more than 130 entrepreneurs across 20 African countries with a rigorous business training programme and lifelong support through the Africa Prize alumni network since its inception in 2014.
More than 70% of the alumni’s engineering and technology businesses now generate revenue. Between them, the Africa Prize alumni have raised more than USD 14 million in grants and equity funding and created more than 3,600 jobs, almost half of them for women.
“The Africa Prize boosted my success as an African entrepreneur by helping me grow, providing training and international mentoring support to my water solution for Tanzania,” said inaugural winner Professor Askwar Hilonga, who created the NanoFilter system.
“The Prize changed my life, and the future of thousands of Tanzanians who now have access to safe drinking water.”
Other beneficiaries are Kenyan Norah Magero, the Africa Prize 2022 winner, who created VacciBox, a solar-powered mobile fridge to store and transport temperature-sensitive medicines during COVID.
The Africa Prize 2018 winner, Ugandan Brian Gitta, created Matibabu, a reusable malaria detection device that clips onto the user’s finger. Of the 400,000 malaria-related global deaths, 90% occur in sub-Saharan Africa, killing more children under the age of five in the region than HIV.
Nigerian finance specialist, Faith Adesemowo, was one of the four finalists selected in 2021. Her business, Social Lender, was established to provide access to formal and informal financial services to farmers, traders, artisans, young professionals, small business owners, and students. Users can access the platform through the internet, SMS, USSD, apps, or partner bank ATMs.
Charlette N’Guessan, born in Côte d’Ivoire and working in Ghana, was the first woman to win the Prize in 2020, created BACE API, which uses facial recognition and artificial intelligence to verify identities remotely.
The BACE API software uses a phone or computer’s built-in camera and does not need special hardware, and in contrast to global AI systems, has been developed specifically to identify Africans.
While facial recognition software isn’t new, BACE API specifically uses live images or short videos taken on phone cameras to detect whether the image is of a real person or a photo of an existing image.
The Africa Prize which will welcome its tenth cohort in November 2023, has now opened applications for the 2024 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation as the programme approaches its 10th anniversary.
The Africa Prize is now looking for the next 16 promising innovators with engineering technologies to improve lives.
With applications from 37 African nations to date and shortlisted candidates from 20 nations, the Africa Prize continues to nurture the wealth of diverse engineering talent across sub-Saharan Africa.
The Academy’s judges, mentors and expert reviewers have provided over 2,500 hours of support over the last ten years, valued at almost USD 1.5 million, and the alumni continue to contribute directly to the UN Sustainable Development Goals as their enterprise’s scale.
Despite the program providing support in English, it has steadily seen more participation from French-speaking African regions over its ten-year history, with two Francophone African winners to date. Moreover, innovators from Togo, Sierra Leone and Gambia are among its alumni.
The Academy notes that submitted innovations should have a social, economic, or environmental benefit, and should be at an early stage of development, with the potential for up-scaling and commercialization. The Prize is open to hardware and software innovations, as well as innovative processes and systems.
The deadline for applications is 25 July 2023 (4 pm BST). Visit the ‘How to Apply’ guide on the Africa Prize website and submit applications through the online grants system.