The boyish-looking BIH Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Alan Boshwaen likes to punctuate his delivery with short spasms of laughter, eyes alight, especially when he makes a major point. Which he does frequently. At his make-shift office in the south eastern part of Gaborone, nestled in the top floor of the Botswana Institute For Technology Research And Innovation, Boshwaen sits down to traverse his plans, the state of the innovation agenda in the country, and a look ahead. There is more for Boshwaen and his team in the future. You only have to look at the artist’s impressions of the Innovation Park, an architectural giant that seems to rise from the ground like a rebellious crustacean from a tech future. It is the future Boshwaen cannot wait to deliver. When complete the Park will provide offices and labs and the related infrastructure to host major local and international companies. This will bring capacity to the innovation drive he is pushing.
For now Boshwaen’s project is in transition – when a team from this publication visited the Gaborone North plot which is listed as the hub’s official physical address, it was met by roaring excavators busy at the almost complete building site. For now, Boshwaen has to make do with the current office until July 2016 when the futuristic office block will be handed over to host the boiling pot of the country’s innovation program.
We sat down for coffee, he leaned back, squinted his eyes in consideration of the question thrown at him. We were meeting him to discuss the recent launch of the inaugural Deloitte Technology, Media, Telecommunications Predictions 2015, a study of emerging patterns across the areas of technology, media and telecommunication. The report itself raises a number of issues that fall within Boshwaen’s mandate, but we were not there yet. The question thrown Boshwaen’s direction had sought an overview of the local innovation landscape.
Boshwaen says innovation is often used (perhaps even abused) quite loosely, and he offered a simple definition for it: A mass of systems and institutions that will be central to pushing the country from its resource-based status to a more service industry and thus diversified condition. “As an economy advances, it has to contend with the challenge of how to move from ideas to a business. You need a system, an innovation ecosystem on which you build that,” he explained. Further, Boshwaen stated that innovators require a robust legal environment especially with the view to protect intellectual property and that there has been tremendous progress in setting up systems in this area. In fact, he said, they have moved beyond just setting up the framework but are now in the thick of things, with specific initiatives focused on developing innovators, both from young new comers to researchers in established enterprises. “The sectors that we have focused on are the ones aligned to Botswana’s economic agenda, such as clean technology, agricultural-related biotechnology and mining technology. In our strategy those are sectors that we have prioritized,” he explained.
“The First Steps Venture, whose objective is to promote the development of technology at a micro level and to promote technology entrepreneurship has recorded some successes,” he said. Boshwaen gave as an example Modisar, a livestock management app created by a team of young tech innovators, which won The 2014 Orange Africa Social Venture Prize beating 450 other competitors from across the continent. The team, led by a young ICT thinker Thuto Gaotingwe, is based at the incubation unit. “It gives us a lot of confidence that we must be doing something right,” he opined.
The other success story highlighted by Boshwaen was the solar powered hearing aid innovation Deftronics by another local innovator Tendekayi Katsiga, which has captivated the world. He said that it was announced this week that it had reached the final of the Global Innovation Summit.
Boshwaen pointed out that on a daily basis, and given the educated and largely entrepreneurial generation of young Batswana, cutting edge ideas are generated. “However, until the private sector adopts these innovations, the gap between innovation and the market place will remain, and indeed the new innovations would ultimately cease,” he argued.
Boshwaen is aware of the challenge, perhaps the main one, to his larger goal of seeing an innovative and commercially viable industry feeding to the overall economy and society. “The issue is with the interventions, what does Botswana Innovation Hub want to achieve? We want to help with the commercialization of these products. Our role is not to research. It is to provide a platform and these come in terms of mentoring, technology transfer and funding,” he explained.
BIH is in the process of developing an innovation fund which Boshwaen said was at an advanced stage. He said it was approved and should be functional sometime this year. “This funding gap is not where initiatives like CEDA or commercial banks fit in, it is too early in the process, before that, there should be seed and early stage funding. This is so that you package your idea, you make it more robust. We will have a system of vetting and a selection process so that those ideas most likely to find a market commercially are the ones we support,” he said. Boshwaen said he has been engaging with local companies to sell the idea of the companies providing what he called “life testing platform.”
He added that the issue of trust remains a sticking point, with most major businesses wanting tested and trusted products, and have no interest in testing new locally made products. He said BIH is in the process of setting up a vetting and testing mechanism so that they can offer the market and the innovators a credible platform to engage through.
Boshwaen said for Botswana to reach its goals of an innovative economy, it cannot rely solely on emerging innovation but will have to provide a attractive environment for companies from abroad. “When the Innovation Park comes on stream, it will provide the right facilities for multinational companies to move into the local space. So far the big giants have taken the bait with Microsoft already a collaborator,” said Boshwaen, who maintained that the completion of the Park will bring more international companies.
Boshwaen was more famous when it was en vogue to talk about the future of the financial services in the diversification of the economy of Botswana, and he was head of then then International Financial Services Centre. He is now at the very coalface of Botswana’s agenda to bring innovation to the centre of the developmental program. It is not an easy task, but if things pan out the way he wants, Boshwaen will be a bit more famous, especially among the younger generation, the central players in the innovation drive. Boshwaen is for now fighting for a paradigm shift, both in the law making process and, to a larger extent, in the wider economy.
In the next edition The Business Weekly & Review and Boshwaen look at the inaugural Deloitte Technology, Media, Telecommunications Predictions 2015.