In Africa today, technological innovation has continued to serve as a foundation and support to our everyday effort on addressing challenges – human rights, healthcare, national security, environment.
As startups leverage technology to build solutions, inclusive technology policies are being formulated and adopted to achieve a more socially equitable ecosystem for entrepreneurs to thrive.
We had a chat with Eva Sow Ebion who is Co-Founder of the Innovation for Policy Foundation, and Director of #i4Policy, a non-profit organization that is creating a new framework for policymaking innovation and ensuring that it shares deliberate and participatory policymaking processes with entrepreneurs and communities.
She led the Innovation for Policy Processes, a bottom-up approach for the adoption of the Startup Act in Senegal and has stimulated innovative public policy processes in Benin, Togo, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, DRC and more recently in Mauritania and Guinea.
Eva Sow was Business Development Manager for CTIC Dakar for 6 years, before she co-founded the open Innovation Platform Kinaya Ventures and launched the Boost With Facebook Program in Francophone Africa which has trained almost 24,000 entrepreneurs in Francophone African countries.
She has executed digital capacity building programs in collaboration with big corporates such as Orange, Facebook, Tigo, Société Générale, Total and institutional partners such as African Governments, the World Bank, the International Trade Center and the African Union.
Eva Sow recently joined the core team of the Global Assembly, which is a project that brings community hosts from around the world together and creates a radically new infrastructure to give everyone a seat at the global decision-making table.
This project embodies co-created values (Ubuntu, Kwaniso, Obala, Mandenka, Harambee, Agaciro!), and will give input to COP26 (the UN’s annual climate change conference).
What impact has #i4Policy and startup policy had in Francophone Africa?
We’re really seeking to foster community building as well as involving these communities in public policy processes and we are seeing momentum in the continent, around the government coming together with the innovation ecosystem to co-create quality policies that will work for the innovation communities.
So, we have been orienting our work into three main pillars. The first is really about building alliances and seeing how to popularize co-creation values and practices, and it has been done through #i4Policy movement, with community conveners from all around the continent working with more than 200 innovations enablers from 48 countries.
The second has really been around deep-diving into the policies and co-creation, and Startup Act processes have been our flagship project for a couple of years.
Supporting and facilitating inclusive processes at the national, regional and global level, and seeing how these could be done through dialogue and deliberative reform processes.
We conducted a Startup Act benchmark study last year to benchmark Startup Acts and understand the landscape of small business activity intervention in the continent.
The third has really been around leveraging civic tech.
We are really building a repository of open source tools for community conveners to be able to launch consultation and involve communities they serve – entrepreneurs, civil societies, including government and the private sector – into these processes.
So, that has really led us to beautiful work with these communities around the #i4Policy movement.
One of the beautiful projects we launched last year to answer to COVID-19 was the “Don’t go viral” campaign which has engaged the creative community – artists, poets, singers – into contributing to fight the COVID-19 spread by addressing misinformation.
The Africa Innovation Policy Taskforce published an Open Letter, calling upon innovation communities from across Africa to join forces in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
This letter was distributed across the #i4Policy network of Innovation Hubs, and in less than 2 weeks, over 200 hubs from across 48 countries answered the call for unity and collective action and joined as community partners in the organization of the #pan-African Digital Assembly (#pADA).
The #pADA served as a platform for continent-wide conversations over the course of three days, including high-level panel discussions with health and entrepreneurship experts, political and cultural leaders, as well as virtual roundtable discussions – where partnering hubs joined as facilitators – to consult hundreds of African entrepreneurs to identify solutions to respond to the crisis.
The consolidation process resulted in the Action Agenda Covid-19 Response & Recovery for African SMEs, including 7 urgent action items, and a repository of potential policy solutions to be taken into consideration in the formulation of entrepreneurship legislation in support of African SMEs.
Recently, we conducted research around policies that needed to be undertaken in Francophone Africa post-COVID-19 crisis, to look at the recovery.
Different content from all over the continent was shared and that has led us to outreach to more than 200 million people on social media and see how the voice of artists have a strong impact on how the community has access to information, and be able to support each other.
I had the chance to work with the community here in Senegal, during 20 months around the establishment of the Startup Act, and that has been through a very iterative process involving different stakeholders from the policy hackathon until the vote of the law at the National Assembly in December 2020.
To get to the third pillar, for example, we have conducted a couple of consultations and in Senegal, for example, that was done through an online forum, as well as a chatbot on social media for everybody to really bring feedback and recommendation to the draft law.
We have been holding various consultations on the presidency website of DRC to consult on the Startup Act last year, a few months ago with the Ministry of Commerce and Trade in Burkina Faso, and a couple of consultation activities have been run in Rwanda, in Kenya, in Ghana, and in South Africa.
This really shows the strong interest for the community to use these tools in order to contribute to policy-making processes.
We really want to foster public policy, innovative methodology, and open source tools for community conveners to engage with their related communities.
It’s always a long process journey where communities are involved into co-creation, workshop activities, learning and deliberation activities.
What are your plans to further drive traffic to women-centered tech spaces especially in Francophone Africa?
It is indeed very interesting, firstly, because we know how much women entrepreneurs are contributing to really innovative solutions where technology is a part of how the product or the solution is delivered.
They are playing a key role socially and reinvesting a lot of capital revenue that they are making into their communities.
Through the consultation work in DRC, for example, we had the chance to conduct consultation sessions dedicated to women entrepreneurs and see challenges they faced to access capacity building programs, taxation incentives and financing mechanisms they would like to see in terms of support, and be able to understand how these women entrepreneurs are contributing to renew the narrative around local resources, rediscovering and transforming them, and the huge opportunity they create in terms of trade at a national and regional level.
We recently launched a program with Facebook supporting these communities to better understand the policy-making cycle, discover our methodology, advocacy opportunities, case studies and best practices to address challenges that affect them.
In Senegal, for example, there is a women entrepreneurs network which is actually looking at a transformation label to work with all of these women entrepreneurs that are transforming local products, bringing new ways, and fostering the local economy.
It is therefore critical, and more so, in the Francophone region to support women entrepreneurship but also youth entrepreneurship.
Could you share your experience participating in incubation and acceleration programs over the decade?
Firstly, and I think that’s what has motivated me to engage into #i4Policy, is the incredible experience working with entrepreneurs.
As a business developer, It meant working on defining innovative business models for all of those tech startups that were really emerging here in Senegal.
When I look back in 2011, it was really about creating this ecosystem of innovators, of disruptive thinkers, designers, artists, as well as a lot of developers and engineers coming from a tech or ICT background, and to see how bringing all of this expertise, ideas and dreams together could create those innovative solutions.
And I think it was a different form of co-creation and shows how important it is to have different stakeholders (the entrepreneurs themselves, of course, but also governments, policymakers, academics, corporates, VC funds, banks) and support those ecosystems for them to be strong enough to thrive and grow.
When I left CTIC, I had identified a challenge in the fact that we are providing all of this amazing support to the entrepreneurs, but it’s critical to be able to have access to technical and financial support at the same time. There was a gap in seed funding for the entrepreneurs.
That’s where the idea of corporate innovation came on how startups could be working with corporates, bringing this agility, creativity, innovation in terms of process design, and having access to financing support from the corporates as well as their infrastructure in terms of prototyping a consumer market, will also help them grow their audiences quite quickly.
This experience has confirmed the need to have an accelerator fund model where we are bringing together the technical and financial capacity to the entrepreneurs.
This shows the gap in startups support for them to access more capital, as well as what will be facilitating their policy journey in terms of business registration, taxation payment, HR and legal assistance.
There was really this momentum with different stakeholders from the Francophone region to deep dive into the policymaking opportunities for the innovation ecosystem.
At that point, I was seeing three main challenges to contribute impactfully and meaningfully to the ecosystem.
The first one was the capacity building program. And that’s why I was really grateful to work with Facebook and to deliver the Boost With Facebook Program that has supported 24,000+ entrepreneurs to really define online presence and be able to grow their businesses using social media platforms.
The second one was support to financing mechanisms, and the startup-Act processes have really been a way to deep dive into financing mechanisms such as guarantee funds, pre-seed financing and bank support.
The third one was the regulatory framework and how to bring the entrepreneurs themselves at the center of policy-making frameworks for them to share their challenges as well as share recommendations of policies they would like to see in place.
In comparison to Anglophone Africa, would you say what you’ve been able to achieve in Francophone Africa is on par?
Looking at our work at #i4policy, I see few points.
At the continental level because one of the most beautiful part of our work has been to bring together, ecosystem leaders and innovators from the Francophone region and Anglophone region, and all together define a common ground in understanding how we want digital innovation to contribute to social development and economic change in the continent through the Africa Innovation Policy Manifesto. And it has been such a powerful co-creation process.
Some work that has been done at a regional level – when I look at the Francophone region, there are a couple of countries, eight at the moment, that have undertaken this Startup Act process and this has created a bridge between involved communities, together with the West African Economic and Monetary Union.
And there is this third level – at the national level.
Of course, being English-speaking offers access to more capacity-building programs, knowledge platforms and to more networking and partnerships opportunities. There is a great model of Anglophone and Francophone partnerships that have emerged in the years.
I also think that one of the strengths of Anglophone countries compared to francophone ecosystems is storytelling.
So, having higher visibility for beautiful solutions that the entrepreneurs are creating and providing in Francophone Africa, and how the media can be involved in supporting those entrepreneurs by telling their story and offering visibility to their solutions would inspire youths and support role models.
What advice do you have for women who look up to you and what you do?
I’m so grateful to be among women who believe in sorority and I have the chance to be part of a couple of amazing women entrepreneurs network, and they inspire me so much every day.
So, I am taking the opportunity to celebrate all of these amazing women in the continent. I hope I will help and inspire others.
Firstly, know your values and put your values at the center of everything that you do.
Values are, for me, everything! They are really the reason for people to co-create with you, to work with you and to be able to find these common beliefs and grounds that define common interests.
Secondly, be authentic. Things are hard. We live in a world that is changing a lot, very fast, with political, social and environmental challenges. Being authentic is recognizing those doubts, accepting challenges and failures, and learning from them.
And lastly being mission-driven. it’s all about the mission and how this mission can drive the different action that you’re undertaking, that you engage, and that you’re committed to.
Never forget to have fun, share love and enjoy yourself!
Featured Image: Eva Sow Ebion
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