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Building bridges of innovation between Europe and Africa

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Engineers might disagree. However, not all bridges are built with steel, concrete and asphalt. Some are made entirely of cooperation and coordination. This is the type of bridge connecting Europe’s closest neighbour, the African continent.

Covering everything from smart health and fintech services to food tech, ed tech and sustainable energy, EU and African companies are bringing their smart solutions to be incubated, accelerated and scaled up via partnerships across the Mediterranean Sea. Together, they are tackling global health emergencies – such as the Covid-19 pandemic – and climate change, issues that hit Africa hardest, but transcend borders and countries.

Meet Hadiyyah Eleojoh Lawal. She is a disrupter dedicated to unlocking digital healthcare in Nigeria, now scaling up in Europe. Appreciating the tremendous potential of digital technologies, she is helping African hospitals throw their paper files into the dustbins of history, and through smart solutions, linking hospitals and patient data across the two continents.

Making the dream come true

‘It was always a dream to make key information available to patients in my home country,’ said Lawal, who studied information management systems at university.

As chief operations officer of Primed E-health, a leading African digital healthcare company in Nigeria’s capital city Abuja, Lawal has realised her dream. Together with co-founder and company CEO Dr Are Abdulhafiz, they developed a game-changing electronic management system to unify records and databases across hospitals, which now counts 44 hospitals in West Africa, handling data of 1.5 million patients. With Primed E-health’s award-winning SmartClinic app, patients can use their smartphones to access their doctors for consultations, download their health records, get prescriptions, book medical appointments and pay fees through the SmartWallet.

As one of the first companies in Africa to digitise hospitals, Primed E-health’s mobile and web medical app gained incredible traction in the response to Covid-19. Its mobile-web solution was recognised by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) as one of the country’s top digital solutions developed by startups.

Along with the NCC award came funding to digitise many more hospitals in Nigeria and roll out the pilot SmartClinic product. The company is now expanding to 200 hospitals in Ghana, Uganda, Côte d’Ivoire, and Kenya. ‘And the next step will be to link them with Europe,’ said Lawal.

A chance to bridge the business in Europe

‘We have vast knowledge of the startup space, allowing us to develop a model that we think can be scaled across Europe,’ said Lawal. ‘We can now achieve this with the large network of startups – especially in other African countries like Uganda and Kenya, expanding our reach as we develop programmes around healthcare and technology. We are now able to hire local experts due to the collaborations we already established while in Europe.’

Plans to connect with Europe are in motion. The company is one of 10 African innovators to incubate in the “BEES” soft-landing programme launched in Paris by the French incubator Bond’innov – a key industry player in the innovation network ENRICH in Africa (EiA) mentoring startups and SMEs in the cross-continental innovation system.

Lawal highlights her experience as proof that such EU-Africa initiatives are key to attracting investors and future stakeholders when launching in Europe. ‘We have been able to establish partnerships around online transactional services that we can integrate with our healthcare solutions, and other mobile healthcare providers, like H24. These are allowing us to [even] integrate with other markets that are linked to Europe, such as Tunisia, Algeria and others,’ she added.

Powered by the EiA programme, Bond’innov’s bootcamp has helped Lawal and her company ‘navigate the complex and important path of internationalisation to Europe.’

Such European and African innovation linkups to tackle global challenges are expected to get a boost as EU and AU leaders acknowledged their joint Innovation Agenda for jobs and growth with a focus on youth during the AU-EU Summit this week.

European companies scale up in Africa

EiA programmes do not just help African startups and SMEs scale up in Europe. They also cater for European innovators interested in scaling up on the opposite side of the Mediterranean and right across Africa. These programmes offer access to local markets and knowhow, and aim at boosting innovation investments, jobs and growth. They also target global challenges, as pandemics and the climate emergency do not respect borders between countries or continents.

European startups are already experiencing acceleration in Africa. They can now join accelerators such as Chapter54, which – launched by global tech investment firm Partech – is the first accelerator dedicated to European scaleups. The decision to expand to Africa is inspired by the continent’s fast-growing tech ecosystem, the company says.

The timing is perfect. The African ‘tech hubs’ ecosystem is expanding to accommodate a next generation of innovators that range from business incubators – where early-stage companies have access to mentoring and support to help them get established – and accelerators, offering developing companies access to mentorship, investors and further support.

One platform for European companies seeking to invest in Africa is the African European Digital Innovation Bridge Network (AEDIB|NET). Aiming to create a common digital innovation ecosystem, this initiative is building bridges between EU and African ecosystems. By connecting startups, SMEs, the diaspora, and other African and European ecosystem players in trans-continental partnerships, it is facilitating intercontinental collaboration.

Its mission includes establishing digital innovation hubs (DIHs) along the EU DIH model, and adapting them to work on shared challenges, such as climate, smart agriculture, smart cities, and digital trade. The final goal is to provide SME and intermediary support as well as investor networks by tapping into expertise from Africa and Europe, altogether creating a powerful common innovation ecosystem.

Of the 13 key consortium partners in the project is Smart Africa, a pan-African institution. Its aim is ambitious: to transform Africa into a single digital market by 2030 (much like the EU) by building affordable digital infrastructure, promoting and facilitating investment in Africa, and accelerating the birth and development of a digital society. Backed by all heads of state and government of the African Union, the Smart Africa Alliance today includes 32 African countries, which represent close to a whopping 815 million people.

‘Smart Africa is ensuring that the continent develops in harmony with Europe and the rest of the world through cooperation initiatives such as the EU-Africa Digital Economy Taskforce, the AU-EU D4D Hub project, our partnership with European development partners such as Norway’s NORAD and Germany’s BMZ/GIZ,’ said Rym Jarou, project manager for ICT Start-ups and Innovation Ecosystems Development at the Smart Africa Secretariat.

According to Jarou, the project outcomes will be ‘very impactful’ for the development of African and European digital innovation hubs.

‘We need to ensure that the maximum number of possible hubs, startups and innovators benefit from this knowledge and these linkages and opportunities,’ she concluded.

If you liked this article, please consider sharing it on social media.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Africa

Russia Renews its Support to Mark Africa Day

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Russia has renewed its unique confidence that “it will be able to ensure the development and implementation of many useful and innovative projects and initiatives in various fields for the benefit of both countries and peoples, in the interests of strengthening security and stability in Africa and around the world.”

In a speech, on behalf of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, read by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, on May 25 when the continent marks Africa Day, further noted the change marked the emergence of a multilateral pan-African platform on a qualitatively higher level of interaction in the political, socioeconomic and other spheres.

Putin, in addition, acknowledged that “African states have achieved a great deal together over the past two decades. They have developed mechanisms for a collective response to local conflicts and crises, and are consistently promoting regional integration processes in various formats. Africa enjoys growing prestige on the global stage and plays an increasingly important role in resolving important issues on the international agenda.”

Later talking about Russia-Africa relations, Lavrvo told the gathering that Russia would continue to provide comprehensive support and to expand mutually beneficial cooperation. Russian-African relations are traditionally friendly and are making good progress.

Russia has always been and will remain a reliable partner and friend to the countries of Africa. Today, we are confronted with certain Western countries’ unscrupulous attempts to constrain our engagement with Africa. 

Russia has played a leading role in decolonisation and in consolidating decolonisation processes, as well as drafting UN resolutions. Unfortunately, some of them have been sabotaged by former metropolises to this day. We stand in solidarity with your demands for the complete liberation of Africa from the last vestiges of colonial legacy.

This year marks 20 years since the Organisation of African Unity was transformed into the African Union. That change marked the emergence of a multilateral pan-African platform on a qualitatively higher level of interaction in the political, socioeconomic and other spheres.

“Russia has always been and will remain a reliable partner and friend to the countries of Africa. Today, we are confronted with certain Western countries’ unscrupulous attempts to constrain our engagement with Africa. I’m referring to the all-out hybrid war against Russia declared by Washington and its European satellites in connection with the special military operation in Ukraine,” he added.

According to him, it is not so much about Ukraine, which is used as a bargaining chip in the global anti-Russian game. The main problem is that a small group of US-led Western countries keeps trying to impose the concept of a rules-based world order on the international community.

Lavrov suggested that Africa must not succumb to Washington’s discriminatory pressure. There are attempts to reverse history and subjugate the peoples of the continent again grossly violate the sovereignty and independence of the states of the region, and jeopardize the entire system of international relations, which is based on the principle of respect for the sovereign equality of states in the Unted Nations’ Charter.

He called on the African Union (AU) to persistently demand that the West lift illegal unilateral sanctions that undermine the transport and logistics infrastructure necessary for world trade, which creates risks for vulnerable segments of the population. 

Russia and Africa will work together to maintain and expand mutually beneficial bilateral ties in the new conditions without external interference. It is important to facilitate the mutual access of Russian and African economic operators to each other’s markets, to encourage their participation in large-scale infrastructure projects. All these tasks are at the center of attention in the preparations for the forthcoming second Russia-Africa summit. 

Reports show that the Russia-Ukraine crisis has twisted the global economy and many African countries are among the most vulnerable in terms of ensuring food security. Some states of the continent are critically dependent on the import of agricultural products from Russia, therefore will make some deliveries, including food, fertilizers, energy carriers and other goods, of great importance for maintaining social stability and achieving the milestones stipulated by the Sustainable Development Goals approved by the United Nations.

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South Africa on the right side of history or captured by Cold War allies?

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Authors: Professor Gerrit Olivier and Michèle Olivier* 

A seemingly non-negotiable principle of SA’s foreign policy, is to be on the side of autocrats and dictators and habitually anti-West, irrespective of the issues. Cosy relations with the likes of Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, Sudan‘s Omar al Bashir Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, characterised our foreign policy under all presidents since Nelson Mandela. With the present government being enamoured with a rabid war criminal like Vladimir Putin, we see a continuation of this policy.

Obsessed with a myopic partisan ideology and habitual hop-nobbing with dictators, of course, come at a high price, particularly degrading SA’S erstwhile high international prestige, role and status as well as stunting our all-important economic development. In short, this means that SA’s prevailing foreign policy is totally out of zinc with its intrinsic national interests. 

According to ANC declarations, SA would ’stick to its principles‘ and not take sides in this war in spite of blatantly illegal and murderous Russian war crimes. Hence, it abstained from voting against Russia together with a motley minority of 34 other UN members in the 2 March General Assembly resolution (only 5 states voted against whilst 141 voted in favour). 

The minister of the department of international relations and development (DIRCO), Naledi Pandor, issued a statement demanding Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. This clearly upset the Marxist, anti-West faction in the ANC policy establishment who subsequently prevailed upon president Ramaphosa, to denounce the statement, no doubt to assuage Russian and local communist’s displeasure. 

For many, both inside and outside the country, this was a controversial decision resulting in a rare local public debate about our wayward foreign policy. What emerged was a conflict of opinion between the ideologues and realists in the foreign policy establishment. A hopeful sign, but unfortunately of little consequence in our fossilised ANC foreign policy establishment. 

All along, the ideologues accepted that being in cahoots with war criminal Russia was in SA’s best interests notwithstanding the normative constitutional dictates and founding moral principles concerning respect for human rights, sovereignty, democracy, and territorial integrity. 

What followed was indeed a case study of expedient, if not downright ’Walter Mitty’ diplomacy.  First, president Ramaphosa rushed to telephone Putin, obviously to bask the reflected glory and honour of speaking to the ‘great man’. Afterwards, he subserviently thanked ‘’his excellency president Vladimir Putin‘’ for taking his call.  At the same time, our ’great negotiator’ refused official engagement with the local Ukrainian ambassador as well as with ambassadors of the European Union, our biggest trading partners.

In the latest General Assembly meeting on Ukraine, SA persisted with its pro-Russian pseudo-neutrality but got a humiliating bloody nose after presenting a draft resolution, excluding the country of all blame. No wonder as this resolution was strictly in line with Kremlin propaganda lies casting doubt as to where exactly SA’s UN diplomats got their instructions from. 

Ramaphosa’s aim, it seems, is to push himself forward as facilitator in the conflict, recalling at length in parliament his past experiences a negotiator.

‘Illusions of grandeur’, it may be called, as SA ’s international status and role during about 3 decades of uninterrupted misrule has declined close to being almost insignificant. While most of the world reached out to end the horrible and unthinkable human and material misery inflicted upon Ukrainian people, he offered them naught for their comfort, except portending to be a great negotiator reporting for service.  

Belatedly, after strong criticism he rejected war as an instrument of policy, and signalled his wish to also speak to Ukrainian pres Volodimyr Zelinskiy, impressed perhaps by the latter‘s sterling performances addressing the American senate and the British, Canadian, Israeli, Italian and Japanese parliaments and the  German Bundestag. The pièce de résistance of his kindergarten diplomacy, was to blame NATO for being deaf to earlier warnings against eastward expansion, ignoring the Russian brutal invasions, of inter alia, Finland, Latvia, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in the previous century not realising that NATO membership was their safeguard against future Ukrainian-type of invasions. Theirs was a wise decision.  Indeed, Mr President, ignorance is bliss….!    

Of course, good relations with countries like Russia are important provided they are based on pragmatism and national interest rather than sentimental ideological predilections. However, the ANC still acts as being a captive of the Cold War and, as if it still owes permanent a feudal fealty to Russia at a time when Soviet Union is passe and with communism on the ash heap of history. 

While the world must perforce deal with a totally different and dangerous Putinist Russia, the ANC obstinately refuse to accept that its subservient posture vis-a- vis that country is not in SA’s best interest. Lamentably, the global moral imperatives that saw them to power no longer guide its foreign policy. Like the apartheid regime, Putinist Russia today commits a crime against humanity in Ukraine with the support of the ANC government. 

The war in Ukraine may yet lead to unthinkable consequences for the world at large. What happens there is really a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. Putin does not want a democratic Ukraine at his doorstep exposing his bland authoritarianism and precipitating a ’colour revolution’.  Given the solidarity in the democratic West and the sluggish performance of the Russian forces in Ukraine, he will probably end up losing. SA policy makers are demonstrably  myopic not realising the consequences for being on the side of a war autocratic war criminal war criminal. Like apartheid SA it would probably end up as an isolated global pariah.

An independent SA foreign policy is called for rather than one subservient to the preferences and dictates of Moscow and Beijing. This is the best way in which SA can regain international respect. The way in which it has handled the Ukraine crisis once again laid bare its diplomatic deficiencies, particularly lack of clear headed leadership. This will not change unless foreign policy making is democratised and professionalised rather than being monopolised by a small clique of badly trained  and inexperienced ideologues with the help of a few advocating stand-patters. 

* Michèle Olivier is a consultant of international law

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Reviewing Russia-Mali Strategic Partnership

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After withdrawing from the Joint Military Force of the G5-Sahel group which the United Nations described as “unfortunate” and “regrettable” middle of May, Malian Foreign Minister, Abdoulaye Diop, made a snapshot visit, for the second time under the new military administration to Moscow, intended to review various aspects of strategic partnership deals with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

“We paid special attention to the practical aspects of organizing deliveries from Russia of wheat, mineral fertilizers and petroleum products that are so much needed by the people of Mali today in conditions of illegitimate Western sanctions,” Lavrov said at a press conference after talks with Diop in Moscow.

The sound pace of military and military-technical contacts between the two countries was noted during the talks, according to Lavrov, and thanked his Malian counterpart for support for Russia’s resolutions at the latest session of the UN General Assembly. Lavrov made to explicit reference to the meeting of the UN Security Council the Western countries that consistently tried to “put their blame at Russia’s door” and to shirk responsibility for the food crisis. 

“It goes without saying that we discussed the situation in Ukraine and around it, including the meeting of the UN Security Council devoted to world food security issues, where the Western countries tried to put their own blame at somebody else’s door. They argued that the crisis, which by and large is a result of their own efforts, allegedly stems from the crisis in Ukraine. Of course, they blamed it entirely on Russia,” Lavrov said.

Russia reaffirms its readiness to render Mali support in raising the fighting efficiency of its armed forces. “We reaffirmed Russia’s readiness as a permanent member of the UN Security Council to further contribute to normalizing the situation in Mali, render Bamako comprehensive support on a bilateral basis, in particular, in the sphere of raising the combat efficiency of the Malian armed forces, training troops and law-enforcement personnel,” Russia’s top diplomat said.

France’s decision together with Western allies to end the anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane and the European special forces mission Takuba does not contribute to restoring security in Mali and the entire Sahel region. Reports say France has approximately 5,100 troops in the region under Operation Barkhane, which spans five countries in the Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

With the final exit and the vacuum created by France, Russia now sees Mali as an excellent conduit to penetrate into the Sahel by pushing the much-criticized Wagner Group that organizes private military for countries in conflict. It is aggressively targeting the Sahel region, an elongated landlocked territory located between north Africa (Maghreb) and West Africa region, and also stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.

“There is an obvious danger of the emergence of enclaves of power vacuum where militants of various outlawed armed gangs will feel free at hand and they have already prepared for such acts. This threatens the country’s territorial integrity and we repeatedly told our French counterparts about that,” Russia’s top diplomat said.

On March 2 at the United Nations General Assembly, African representatives and their votes were considered very interesting, and have geopolitical implications for study and analysis. Some 17 African countries abstained from the vote at the UN General Assembly to deplore the Russian invasion of Ukraine while some other 28 countries in the continent voted in favour. Mali was among those that abstained from vote. Eritrea was the only African country that voted against the resolution. It opposes all forms of unilateral sanction as illegal and counterproductive.

“All our initiatives were supported by Mali. We agreed to enhance coordination on the UN platform and in other international organizations. We are determined to work for this in earnest, including in the recently created Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations,” Lavrov assured.

During his first official visit in November 2021 to Moscow, Abdoulaye Diop and Sergei Lavrov, in fact, focused on increasing bilateral cooperation in economic sectors. But particularly significant was Russia’s military assistance to strengthen the position of the new military government and to fight rising terrorism in the Sahel region.

As developments explicitly show, Mali already stands in isolation there as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union, the United Nations, and the bilateral and multilateral partners endorse and support the implementation of sanctions and other strict measures to ensure a peaceful return to constitutional and democratic government in Mali.

Mali, a landlocked West African state with an impoverished population, faces increasing isolation from the international community over the political power grab. Even as the African Union (AU), the continental organization, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the regional bloc, both suspended the membership of Mali following military coups in August 2020 and May 2021, the ruling military officials are still holding onto political power by delaying the proposed elections in February 2022.

The African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and foreign organizations such as the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN) have requested a quick transition to a civilian government. They further urged that efforts are taken to resolve outstanding issues relating to sustainable development and observing strictly principles of democracy in the Republic of Mali in West Africa.

Moscow is still planning to hold the second Russia-African summit. The “special military operation” approved by both the Federation Council and the State Duma (legislative chambers) to “demilitarize and denazify” the former Soviet republic of Ukraine has pushed the United States and Canada, European Union members and many other external countries to impose sanctions against Russia.

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