As a lab dedicated to creating a space for exploring, experimenting with, and growing innovations for developmental challenges, we see our role as one that extends to facilitating connections in the innovation network in Ethiopia.
One of our goals in 2020 was to facilitate the growth of the budding innovation ecosystem in Ethiopia. We wanted to create and strengthen the network between the different actors, institutions, entrepreneurs, and stakeholders that constitute the foundation for fostering innovation in the country.
We also wanted to extend a bridge to regional and global innovation ecosystems as part of our approach, to make connections across common goals and challenges. In doing this, we are building on the foundational work the UNDP Ethiopia country office has done in the ecosystem such as setting up the Entrepreneurship Development Center and our partnership with the Jobs Creation Commission providing the much needed support to small businesses to recover from the covid-19 pandemic.
Innovation ecosystems are not always tangible enough to be measured and bound to the physical world. But we know that a network is as strong as the number of connections it has and the foundations of innovation like collaboration and knowledge sharing are facilitated by innovation ecosystems. This understanding is also the foundation of the accelerator lab’s learning at networking at UNDP anchored on its programmatic offerings. We are always sharing knowledge, talking about our learning, and working out loud with our colleagues worldwide. We wanted to model this within the local innovation ecosystem and create a space for engagement, knowledge sharing and exchange among the stakeholders.
Like so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic made us rethink our approach, but it also allowed us to jump into innovative actions to address the emerging challenges.
We hosted our first webinar series to share experiences between Ethiopian and Israeli entrepreneurs. We partnered with the Pears Program for Global Innovation which brought together over 150 entrepreneurs around COVID-19 challenges. This virtual conference facilitated conversations around innovation in healthcare, digital technology, and socio-economic recovery.
However, the connections quickly moved from virtual into the real-world. One of the speakers on the webinar was the founder of TOM (Tikkun Olam Makers), and our webinar introduced them to the lead engineer of the Bahir Dar Institute of Technology (BiT) fabrication lab. The two were able to materialize their connection into the first TOM community in Ethiopia at Bahir Dar University. Their interaction at the webinar created an opportunity for the BiT fabrication lab to connect to a global community of fabrication labs that work on social challenges, giving them access to a wide range of knowledge and likeminded people across the world.
But the story does not end here as their connection opened an opportunity for us to link with the innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem in Bahir Dar that we were yet to discover. The innovation ecosystem in Ethiopia is concentrated around the capital Addis Ababa, and due to COVID travel restriction, we have not been able to explore the ecosystem in other cities. Therefore, this was a welcome introduction that we have been looking for, and now we have plans to work closely with the BiT lab on our shared challenges and support them in building the ecosystem in the city by sharing the lab's tools and methodologies. This way, we can scaleup the lab’s works through private ventures and expand on the work that we do through connections with external stakeholders.
Women in Innovation
We could not ignore the dynamics in the innovation ecosystem with only a small number of female participants putting themselves forwarding. For example, Women applicants only made up four out of 446 submissions to the challenge grant we had rolled out jointly with the Ministry of Innovation and Technology in May. We also saw low female attendance numbers in our first webinar series.
We wanted to explore this gender gap a bit further and understand what constrained the participation of women and if this is true across the innovation ecosystem. We put together a second webinar series to explore challenges and opportunities in entrepreneurship, specially tailored for women. The purpose was twofold: to see the level of interest we would get from female participants but also use it to identify the challenges women face.
While, it was a smaller group, the discussion was fruitful and focused on challenges they face and the opportunities they can take advantage of with specific guidance shared on how to communicate ideas and get access to finance.
Some of the key challenges discussed were balancing work with other family and personal responsibilities in addition to the traditional barriers of breaking into an otherwise male-dominated field. There was consensus that a general openness existed in the society about women being entrepreneurs in Ethiopia. However, the sector matters, with the garment, fashion, and service industry common for women, while technology, industry and mechanical fields are perceived to be a man’s field.
What is Next
Our immediate steps are to strengthen the innovation ecosystem in Bahir Dar through the BiT fabrication lab with whom we have planned two activities next year. We also want to connect the work we have done on women in entrepreneurship by bringing the gender lenses to the local solution database we are co-creating, and forging links for women in the innovation ecosystem.
In the long run, however, we want to look at expanding the innovation ecosystem. One challenge that came to our attention during our webinar participants was the lack of access to information.
We have also seen this in our work on youth employment with university graduates. This information is specifically around identifying opportunities, stakeholders to engage with and finding a community with like-minded people within the innovation ecosystem. There is also be a hunger for a resource, physical or otherwise, where young people can explore, network, and collaborate. We need to explore what the missing links are so we can identify the tools and methods for connecting the innovation ecosystem needs.
Is it players that do not exist in the ecosystem? Is it that they are not accessible in ways they need to be? Or is the challenge all together another issue? We want to explore this topic further and get a better understanding of the emerging innovation ecosystem in Ethiopia.
We would love to hear your ideas on the innovation ecosystem in Ethiopia or other countries, please share your thought on social media or through our email at firstname.lastname@example.org