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Q&A: A novel way to boost innovation in southern Africa

 Image: University of Johannesburg

Rebecca Hanlin describes how brainstorming event charted path for new innovation fund

A ‘science policy hackathon’ took place in the run-up to last week’s Science Forum South Africa in Pretoria. The aim of the event was to brainstorm out-of-the-box ideas for boosting innovation in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

The best proposals from the hackathon were presented at the SFSA on 8 December, where one project was crowned the winner. Here, Rebecca Hanlin, innovation and sustainable development professor at the University of Johannesburg, explains what a hackathon is and why the winner was chosen.

What is a policy hackathon?

It is an event or competition that brings together individuals, often experts or stakeholders in a field, to address and propose innovative solutions to complex policy challenges. It can be a dynamic way to co-create policy solutions, since traditional policy development is often a lengthy and bureaucratic process. Hackathons are still a relatively new innovation on the African continent.

Who participated in this one?

Since the hackathon addressed issues of the SADC region, it was necessary to ensure there was a variety of representation. We also benefited from those who had experience of cross-border collaboration in other parts of the world. 

What was the winning idea?

It was a publicly funded investment fund for the SADC region focusing on funding and mentoring startups dubbed Strive, which stands for Science, Technology, Research, Innovation and Enterprise Fund. It would be open to any organisation or venture in the region and support anything from microventures to formal commercial ventures, although through different funding streams.

How would it be funded?

It would be funded through financial contributions from each SADC member state based on their GDP, and also additional funding from other sources, like private equity firms, corporate social responsibility donations, private investors or philanthropic organisations. Its long-term sustainability would be based on taking equity or shares in the companies funded through the fund. Over time, the fund should become self-financing.

How would innovators access the fund?

Funding would be allocated based on proposals, and a portion of the fund would be ringfenced for projects that demonstrate high levels of social return but are riskier investments and would therefore likely have longer time for payback. It would also allow beneficiaries to access technical assistance and capacity strengthening to build the STI ecosystem.

Why was Strive chosen?

It was innovative in that it blended public and private funding, and focused on inclusion through ringfencing funds for riskier ventures. Of all the proposals developed at the hackathon, it also had the strongest outline of the way in which the fund might work.

What is the next step for this proposal?

A report will be developed in early 2024 on the policy hackathon pilot and recommendations for the future. The recommendations will be taken forward by the Transformative Innovation Policy community of practice in South Africa.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.