African innovators can lead the world: how does the World Bank view Africa's galloping push to become a global trendsetter? We put these questions to infoDev, a global innovation and entrepreneurship programme in the World Bank. Responses to the questions came from Ellen Olafsen, programme coordinator for agribusiness and mobile innovation and Jonathan Coony, programme coordinator with the climate technology programme.

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In which fields do you think African countries have the greatest potential to become centres for innovation?

From infoDev's perspective, there are several innovative sectors performing very well in Africa at the moment. One very successful one, with a lot of growth potential, is the mobile innovation sector (ICT services through mobile devices). Kenya has emerged as a regional powerhouse for mobile innovation.

As an illustration, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visited Kenya and four other countries in the sub-Saharan African region in January 2013, and he only had words of optimism about the region and its burgeoning technology industry. He also visited the iHub and infoDev-supported mLab (mobile applications laboratory, based at the Nairobi iHub). Also Senegal is a rising powerhouse and bolstering IT and mobile companies throughout West Africa, thanks to increasingly successful ICT incubators such as CTIC Dakar.

InfoDev, through its mLab and mHub programme, has helped to incubate and cultivate many successful mobile technology entrepreneurs in Africa. Another innovative sector with a lot of growth potential is agribusiness: Africa has the potential to create a trillion-dollar food and agribusiness market, provided that farmers get better access to help them grow and trade their products and agribusiness producers get better connected to markets, as also noted by this recent World Bank report on agribusiness.

Several countries in Africa (notably Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa) are stimulating and developing an innovative renewable or clean energy sector, making real strides in the provision of off-grid electricity.

The pioneering efforts by African nations to address their off-grid power needs provide important lessons and a tremendous laboratory for this work. Excellent innovations in solar energy, but also wind and biomass, are taking place, targeted to local and regional market needs, stimulating an innovative clean-tech sector in Africa.

Since most African countries do not have an existing 20th century energy infrastructure, they can "leap frog" with next-generation technology to a cleaner, more reliable and less costly model. There is also a great amount of entrepreneurial and innovative energy.

What should business communities and governments do better to help countries fulfil their potential for innovation?

There are many factors that contribute to a productive innovation 'eco-system'. There is no "one size fits all" approach to innovation. Public and private sector partnerships are key, taking into account typical public sector roles such as creating the right regulatory environment, infrastructure, a strong education system, capacity and institutions for research and development, and the private sector commissioning R&D and financing innovation and innovative entrepreneurs. Enlightened, targeted...

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