Promoting Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Africa

By Thomas Debass, Director for Global Partnerships, US Department of State

Promoting Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Africa

On Tuesday, I arrived in Nairobi, Kenya to attend and participate in the first-ever DEMO Africa event. As the plane was landing, I was struck by how history has a way of turning one on his head. While I was a graduate student in the late 1990s at Virginia Tech, I launched an African-focused web portal start-up with a friends. We had a good business plan, solid team, and the hunger to succeed, but we struggled to gain traction and credibility in an ecosystem that viewed innovation and Africa as an oxymoron. Ultimately, the venture failed but the experience of trying to set up an African technology firm has stayed with me all these years and has helped shape my work in unexpected ways.

Today, I am the Director of Global Partnerships in the Secretary’s Global Partnership Initiative working to promote public-private partnership that strengthen diplomacy and support more effective, sustainable development. One of our initiatives– theLiberalizing Innovation Opportunity Nations (LIONS@FRICA) partnership is a new public-private partnerships platform aimed at enhancing and deepening startup and innovation ecosystems of fast-growing African economies. It’s a partnership of which I am especially proud.

Launched at the World Economic Forum on Africa this past May, LIONS@FRICA brings together the U.S. State Department, Microsoft, Nokia, InfoDEV, the African Development Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, DEMO, Startup Weekend, Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST), Venture Capital for Africa, Appfrica, Business Action for Africa, Business Fights Poverty, and the Global Entrepreneurship Week to support and amplify Africa’s budding start-up and innovation ecosystem.

This week’s inaugural DEMO Africa event in Nairobi is the result of this collaboration. DEMO was made famous for launching some of the most innovative technology products such as Skype, TiVo and by bringing together top entrepreneurs from around the globe together with world-class investors, private sector companies, and media. These events, which started off in Silicon Valley, now take place in every region of the world. Widely regarded as the premier technology and innovation launching pad, bringing DEMO to Africa is a strong signal to Africa and the world that it has arrived and is ready to be considered as the next technology launching ground.

It’s an event whose time has come. Africa is a place of opportunity and growth: Six of the 10 fastest-growing economies over the last decade can be found on the continent and 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have maintained growth rates between 5 and 7 percent annually. These numbers belie a new sense of optimism that is exploding across the continent and leading to new opportunities that could never before have been imagined, especially in innovation-driven sectors. Today, Internet usage in Africa has grown faster than any other continent over the past decade and mobile subscriptions now number over 700 million. At the U.S. State Department, we seek to support this growth.

It is my great honor to work on partnerships such as LIONS@FRICA and help promote opportunities for the next generation of entrepreneurs. I am excited to be part of this event and look forward to connecting with some of Africa’s best and brightest entrepreneurs over the next few days. We don’t call them lions for nothing. I invite you to learn more about DEMO Africa and the watch the live stream as 40 African entrepreneurs unleash their innovations on the world. Follow @lionsafrica, #LIONSAfrica, and #meetthelions on Twitter.

Editor’s Note:

This blog was first published on the US State Department’s Blog, DipNote, and is reproduced with permission.

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