BIH’s headhoncho, Allen Boswaen unravels local innovation ecosystem

Ernest Moloi - BG reporter
Tuesday, 26 March 2019
Boswaen Boswaen

Botswana’s innovation ecosystem has gradually taken shape under the stewardship of Botswana Innovation Hub’s (BIH) chief executive, Allen Boswaen. Boswaen is the former chief executive of the defunct International Financial Services Centre (IFSC), which was merged with Botswana Enterprises Development Agency (BEDIA) to form today’s Botswana Investment and Trade Centre (BITC).

He recently sat down to an interview with Botswana Guardian at his offices at the Botswana Innovation Park in Block 8, Gaborone. Boswaen speaks passionately about the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how it has thrust concepts of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things into the fore of our everyday life. More importantly, the chief executive explains the central role played by his organisation in locating innovation within the country’s Excellence Strategy, which envisions Botswana as a knowledge economy.  The world is increasingly becoming automated with the onset of AI, which basicaly is about looking for various processes that can be automated to minimise human interventions, for example, driver-less vehicles. 

It is the algorithm designers who will benefit in this brave new world, hence the imperative to ensure that our school carricular does not remain behind in terms of where the world is going. The challenge for us in Botswana, says Boswaen, is “not to be left behind”. And this is where his organisation comes in to link the knowledge creation and the idea into product and services.  “We are trying to build the innovation system, which is a series of interventions that creates that system”. BIH was founded to help innovators to move from idea to product and services.  It starts with the innovator interacting with BIH staff members who will vet his or her idea in terms of their systems. The first thing is to convene a registration through which the innovator expresses what his or her end product/service will be; what it will serve or problem it will solve. Registraton also entitles the innovator to become a member of BIH.

The innovator is then taken through the technology enterpreneurship programmes and funding which helps the innovator through a series of specialised services such as registering with Companies and Intellectual Property Authority (CIPA) to protect the innovator’s intellectual property (IP) so that it is not stolen. Boswaen says this could be by way of simple product marking (trade mark) or in some instances, registering a patent. Secondly the innovator is taken through incubation during which the extent of his or her idea is gauged.

Once the idea has been formed into a prototype (tangible prodcut) BIH helps to get it into the market through scaling up or acceleration. Among the support programmes is funding.  Banks and financial instutions such as CEDA or NDB want to see a prototype, not an idea if they are to provide any financing, hence the primary objective of the Innovation Fund is to ensure that the IP is registered and the prototype developed at BIH and then handed over to the financier. Once this stage is reached the innovator can leave the Innovation Hub to commericalise his product or service.  Boswaen stresses that the journey of the knowledge economy is about outputs in terms of revenue and commercialisation. It’s a business, not an idea. “That is why we have to provide all the relevant services and interventions that will enable the innovator to plug the gap to ensure that in the end the innovator goes into the market – this is what creates the knowledge economy”.

University systems like BIUST and UB are critical role players in this eocsystem hence BIH has a system to refer claims to research institutions to be certified and scientifically tested. The sources of innovations that come to BIH are threefoold; either from an independent individual or an individual in a company; for example a mining process can be registered with BIH and taken through IP and certification. Innovations can also come from academic and research institutions like BIUST and BITRI. As they research these institutions must also come up with ideas that can benefit the economy, says Boswaen. “This is what BIH must do to ensure that we don’t end up with some products registered and patented outside the country such as happened with Hoodia Cactus and Sengaparile”.

Boswaen says the Innovation Fund is specific, to ensure that the innovation is not just protected domestically but also regionally (through ARIPO) and internationally (WTO) as well as to move innovations into prototype to make them fundable and investable.
“We would like to encourage those who have cash to inject capital into these types of ventures to build the 4th Industrial Revolutoon”.  The Innovaton Fund is funded entirely by Government through NDP 11 but Boswaen would like to tap into multiple funding channels such as Southern African Network on Biosciences and Southern African Innovation Support (SAIS) – the latter being an agreement with the Finnish Government. Five local companies are among consortia awarded Euro 1, 2 million in the second call of Southern African Innovation Support. BIH has also supported over 100 innovation start-ups.  “We funded young women that worked with Morula extracts and jam – with part of the money coming from SAIS; also financed a project to extract Morula kernels in Makaleng”.

Going forward and in line with President Dr. Mokgweetsi Masisi’s Roadmap, BIH is desirous of deploying the Fund to register more innovations. They had their first call last year in which seven innovators were funded at P5, 6 million and given a chance to develop prototypes. In January this year the calls were extended to non-members as well. Turning to the BIH property and the Park Boswaen explains that the BIH is a meeting point for netwroking of minds. “We are making the space available for three types of people - Start-Up ventures not charged rent- we just want them to be members and provide them with subsidised internet and office space; as well as training and mentoring – in time intend to add specialised design softwares; IT, 3D painting and partner these innovators with big companies like Microsoft.”

A good example of such partnerships is when BIH collaborated with Botswana Insurance to register Infiny Tech – a fintech (financial technology) company, which has developed many digital solutions for private and public sector, among these solutions, a game to teach financial literacy. “We are hoping government can adopt this model as well,” Boswaen says, lamenting the lack of market penetration by some of the innovators that have gone through their system simply because of the procurement system (tendering). Boswaen calls for an accomodative procurement framework system that is able to absorb innovators that have gone through BIH without necessarily compromising the core values of procurement such as competition and transparent pricing. There is also the Innovation Park: In addition to start-ups there are mature technological or innovative companies that are gathered at the Innovation Park to link and build the innovation system. Companies like Alpha Direct; Dimension Data; Orange and others are found here at the Park.

However, Boswaen insists this is “a work in progress” that needs awareness to continue the journey because when they started there was absolutely nothing. For example some people think BIH is exclusively for ICT, but it’s not so, he says they are also open for example to indigenous knowledge holders. Government has spent P5 million going around the country to find out what people have in terms of IKS, but the real issue is how to harness this information and turn into products and services. BIH has also assisted Mr. Fidzari who came up with a claim that his donkey milk soap is a herbal remedy. They have assisted Kalahari Donkey Milk with certification through joint collaboration with a local lab and a CapeTown –based lab.

“We have achieved more than 200 registered members; bringing innovation network events (once a week here) on different subjects to encourage netwroking and product development; we have secured additional funding through international partnerships. Over 3000 individuals have so far participated.”  BIH already has seven innovations funded at a total cost of P5, 6million from the first Botswana Innovation Fund call; of innovations, Boswaen says the Sytem is still maturing. However he highlights Classmate, an e-learning innovation that supports learners by connecting them to resources ranging from tutors to course materials. 

In a relatively short space of time Classmate has registered 5000 users and is now considering developing a single portal to be used by learners and teachers. Boswaen’s pick of celebrated companies that are growing and entering the regional market (scale up) includes Lucient Engineering, which has developed an innovative mining technology through BIH’s collaboration with De Beers and Stanford University.  BIH has also partnered with a company called Hydrocon Green to develop a new solar powered water treatment plant to extract nitrates from ground water. Nitrates cause teeth colouring in areas like Rakops and Sojwe. Hydrocon approached BIH and proposed their system. The project is financed 50/50 and therefore the IP is jointly – owned. This innovation will be launched soon. BIH also partnered with Dimension Data Botswana to develop a data centre. “This will provide us with ability to store our data in a secure environment so that we can manipulate it in a safe environemt not in the Cloud for digital transformation”.

The Data Centre is envisioned to ensure integrity of data and will be launched next month (April). “Despite challenges our innovation systems, taking shape we want help, especially uptake from government; testing so that our innovators can build a base, we are a small country”.

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