TAK­ING BOTSWANA TO THE WORLD

Qatar Today - - COVER STORY -

Though it might not seem ob­vi­ous at first glance, Botswana and Qatar have much in common. Their wealth is pri­mar­ily buried un­der­ground – LNG here and coal and di­a­monds over there. And in both the coun­tries, the gov­ern­ments are keen on chan­nel­ing in­come from th­ese non-re­new­able re­sources into di­ver­si­fy­ing their economies and find­ing lo­cal so­lu­tions to ad­dress their na­tional chal­lenges. Speak­ing with Tshepo Tsheko, Pro­gram Man­ager at the Botswana In­no­va­tion Hub (BIH), it is crys­tal clear that their push is in find­ing a last­ing place for Botswana's com­pa­nies and peo­ple in the global value chain. BIH is new to the scene too; they are in their sec­ond year of op­er­a­tions and are the new­est mem­ber of IASP. The flag­ship tech­nol­ogy en­trepreneur­ship de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme that Tsheko heads, which is es­sen­tially an in­cu­ba­tor/ac­cel­er­a­tor, is the big­gest one yet for BIH. “In com­mer­cial­is­ing in­no­va­tion, one of the strong­est com­po­nents is en­trepreneur­ship and at BIH we bring ma­ture com­pa­nies and startups to­gether to col­lab­o­rate,” he says. The gov­ern­ment-funded STP ac­tively seeks play­ers in four crit­i­cal sec­tors – ICT, biotech (fo­cus­ing on med­i­cal re­search and food se­cu­rity), clean tech and min­ing. “Con­sid­er­ing the rel­e­vance of th­ese four sec­tors to the African agenda, our vi­sion is to ap­ply and lever­age what's al­ready there and lo­calise it to solve African chal­lenges,” he says, sup­port­ing it with an ex­am­ple. “One of our startups is a company that had de­signed the world's first so­lar-pow­ered hear­ing aid. Over 200 mil­lion Africans suf­fer from hear­ing im­pair­ment. Peo­ple were donat­ing hear­ing aids but the bat­ter­ies were ex­pen­sive or dif­fi­cult to charge be­cause elec­tric­ity was of­ten un­re­li­able. They took an African prob­lem and solved it and now those hear­ing aids are be­ing used in places as far flung as China and Brazil,” he says. So their chal­lenges, though lo­cal, have the po­ten­tial to be scaled up and ap­plied to other mid­dle- and low-in­come economies in the world.

That is why although Tsheko con­sid­ers Botswana, with its ex­ten­sive in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture and one of the most sta­ble po­lit­i­cal cli­mates in the con­ti­nent, as a “no-brainer” when it comes to at­tract­ing MNCs look­ing for a foothold in Africa, it doesn't end there. “So if an

“DID YOU KNOW THAT TECH STARTUPS AROUND THE WORLD USE AFRICAN PROB­LEMS TO IN­NO­VATE? AND OUR MOST POW­ER­FUL VALUE PROPO­SI­TION IS A DEEP UN­DER­STAND­ING OF THE AFRICAN CHAL­LENGES AND AC­CESS TO THE BEST TOOLS TO SOLVE THEM.”

TSHEPO TSHEKO Pro­gram Man­ager Botswana In­no­va­tion Hub

MNC is only look­ing at Botswana as a po­ten­tial mar­ket, that's not what we are do­ing any­more. We are chal­leng­ing over­selves to look at the rest of the world and our goals at the STP re­flect that.”

Their fo­cus on lo­cal com­pa­nies is un­der­stand­able. “SMEs run economies be­cause they can take the risks where the big play­ers are stag­nant,” Tsheko says. “His­tor­i­cally we have had the lim­i­ta­tion of be­ing a small coun­try and that has left a lot of com­pa­nies that could have got­ten big at the SME stage. At the hub we are say­ing, there is no ceil­ing. We want to take th­ese SMEs and make them big­ger.” And th­ese are knowl­edge-in­ten­sive busi­nesses that can be valu­able play­ers in the global value chain. “But we do need big guys; we look at what they are do­ing that the smaller com­pa­nies can off­load and de­velop. By be­gin­ning to de­liver fin­ish­ing touches or an­cil­lary prod­ucts and ser­vices, lo­cal com­pa­nies will start to cut deeper and deeper into the value chain. It not only builds trust and cred­i­bil­ity but also al­lows us to showcase African in­no­va­tion and knowl­edge sys­tems. It's not about bring­ing the world into Botswana but own­ing our suc­cess and tak­ing Botswana to the world,” he de­clares. Cur­rently, out of the 50 mem­bers in the hub and, around 20 are born-in-Botswana com­pa­nies.

Also at BIH are fa­cil­i­ties like a so­lar test­ing lab be­ing set up in as­so­ci­a­tion with Lund Univer­sity in Swe­den for the ben­e­fit of com­pa­nies in­volved in clean tech in­no­va­tion. Be it post-min­ing di­a­mond op­er­a­tions, or HIV re­search, the vi­sion is to have more and more of the knowl­edge- in­ten­sive and value-added work done in Botswana. “We have doc­toral can­di­dates in univer­si­ties work­ing on AIDS re­search but be­cause their fund­ing comes from out­side, they don't have a free hand and are of­ten re­duced to just col­lect­ing and send­ing the data. This has to stop,” he says. BIH now has a state-of-the-art wet lab for biotech re­search.

To be rel­e­vant as an STP, Tsheko says they have to ad­dress gaps in the skills of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. “In Bost­wana, there is a lot of work but not many jobs,” he says wryly. “Right now we grad­u­ate thou­sands of ICT stu­dents ev­ery year but I'd be the first to ad­mit that many of them are not em­ploy­able,” he says. But they are start­ing to en­gage the univer­si­ties in how things are get­ting done. “We are chal­leng­ing train­ing peo­ple on skills and ca­reer paths that are dead ends given the lo­cal cli­mate and guid­ing them to man­age out­put by de­vel­op­ing rel­e­vant skills. Be­cause at the end of the day, the real di­a­monds are our peo­ple,” he says.

Tsheko is em­phatic about one thing: “As much as the rest of the world can solve our prob­lems for us, we need to be a part of that. We need to invest in peo­ple and they need to be part of the vi­sion. We can't move for­ward and leave them be­hind. And we know it takes time and, un­for­tu­nately, no mat­ter how much money you throw into th­ese projects, you need to go through de­vel­op­ment stages. That's what we have learnt from peo­ple who have done it be­fore. It could take ten years or more for any­thing sig­nif­i­cant to come out of an STP. We are pre­pared for that.”

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