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Europe and Africa need an open dialogue and exchange of ideas to tackle global issues together 

Published 13 March 2024 in Strategy • 9 min read

Africa’s entrepreneurial attitude towards innovation and citizen-centric solutions could help provide new answers to global issues that Europe also faces. What needs to happen is a meaningful eye-to-eye dialogue between the two continents.

Think about the first time you used your mobile phone to make a payment. Chances are that might have been eight years ago when ApplePay launched in Europe. Now consider that one of the first mobile payment services in Africa, M-Pesa, was first launched in 2007, eight years earlier than that. By 2010, M-Pesa had become the most successful mobile phone-based financial service in the developing world. Now, it has over 57 million monthly active customers and operates in seven countries.

M-Pesa remains one of the best examples of how a customer-centric solution can help reshape an entire industry, helping to lift 2% of households out of poverty by making it easier for Kenyans to use their mobile phones to reliably and quickly pay each other.

This is why, when it comes to digital and entrepreneurial innovation, Europe would do well to cast its sights on the exciting landscape of opportunities that Africa offers and work towards collaborating on solutions that could help tackle some of its own pressing issues.

“Entrepreneurs are filling the void of what governments cannot provide for the citizens. So, they develop citizen-centric solutions.”
- Antonella Mei-Pochtler

At the forefront of the digital economy

By 2035, Africa is predicted to have the world’s largest labor force. By 2050, more than half the world’s population growth will happen on the continent. According to the Kofi Annan Award for Innovation in Africa (KAAIA), these two factors combined, plus a fast-growing and young population, mean that Africa will be at the forefront of the digital economy. KAAIA focuses on technology-powered solutions to end hunger in Africa. This year’s award will go to an enterprise addressing the inclusion of marginalized groups in food security, enhanced nutrition for women, or circular solutions and the reduction of post-harvest losses.

“As Europeans, we have an enormous opportunity but also a duty to have a different type of cooperation and conversation with Africa on the same level, and that is most easily feasible in an area where Africans are super-performing, which is entrepreneurial innovation and digital innovation,” said KAAIA Co-chair Antonella Mei-Pochtler at the Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna.

“Entrepreneurs are filling the void of what governments cannot provide for the citizens. So, they develop citizen-centric solutions,” she added.

“Africa is a super-complex continent and poses many challenges; it is very often viewed as a problem rather than a solution,” she said. “But if we help to get the right transfer of knowledge from Europe to Africa, and we learn back from Africa to Europe, we can have a much better development of our relationships and find better global solutions.”

What remains a big issue for entrepreneurs in Africa is how to scale up their businesses, particularly in countries or markets where there are more layers of complexity to navigate – unlike in the European Union, for example, where goods and services operate under one set of rules.

“If you have very good solutions, it is super difficult to scale them up,” said Mei-Pochtler, who has extensive board experience in both the profit and non-profit sectors and is a board member of Publicis and Generali. “This is one of the things we’re trying to support: identifying what works and connecting them with the best investors who can help them to scale up.”

EU Summit
At the last EU Summit in February 2022, member states agreed on a 150 billion EUR Global Gateway Africa-Europe Investment Package


To facilitate collaboration between Europe and Africa in the digital age, she adds, one thing remains true. “The first thing for any cooperation between any institution is respect for each other and appreciation for each other. That is the foundation.

“One needs to have an appreciation and respect for what the other stands for and what the other party brings into the cooperation. I think that that’s particularly true for the eco-political type of corporations, which you need in Africa to solve societal problems.

“You need to find in these corporations the right level of identifying solutions that work at the maturity level of the company and the country. I think this is an essential approach to make sure you have an impact.”

So far, since its inception, KAAIA has awarded €250,000 in grant funding and long-term mentoring to each of these three startups: Flare, a digital platform that coordinates emergency response services within minutes, myPaddi, a sexual health app providing a safe online space for young people, and Vaxiglobal, which aims to make vaccination campaigns more effective.

“We identify companies that are already concretely solving problems. We look at the quality of the team and how mixed it is. Are all the skills there? Is it balanced? Is there a good dynamic between the team members?” said Mei-Pochtler. “We then look at the solution and how many people it is already impacting. This is one of the key KPIs that we’re looking at to establish whether it should already be having a broader impact.”

The first three awardees of the Kofi Annan Award for Innovation in Africa focused on businesses that helped contribute to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Good Health and Wellbeing goal.

“Working with others is, in my mind, the future of business. You have a larger audience, more ideas, shared risk, shared workload and you will be getting a portion of something greater than had you done it alone.”
- Seth Nichol, VP at Dealer Surge

Take MyPaddi by MOBicure, an app that provides sexual and reproductive health information and services for young women in Africa. “It was easily accessible for girls who come from countries where sexual education is not so sophisticated and are confronted with these problems who need counseling and access to medical solutions,” said Mei-Pochtler.

So far, MyPaddi has helped 130,000 girls across 16 African countries cope with sexual abuse, preventions of teenage pregnancies, or HIV infections. Likewise, Flare, which launched in 2016, has saved over 10,000 acute patients and helped enable the safe delivery of 4,000 babies with its network of ambulances, hospital providers, and national emergency services. More than a million people use the platform in Kenya.

The third awardee, VaxiGlobal, uses contactless biometrics to help provide access to vaccines by scanning individual faces on mobile phones and creating digital certificates in a secure cloud. It has built relationships with the Ministries of Health in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Nigeria, as well as WHO Africa, to help millions of Africans who are not vaccinated or who have either misplaced or lost their vaccination card, or do not have an ID card.

Ahead of its final calls for applications for this year’s award, there are three main areas that KAAIA is particularly interested in, each focusing on how digital solutions can solve issues around sustainable development goals, such as achieving food security and improving food systems, nutrition, and sustainable energy security.

“Take energy security, for example,” said Mei-Pochtler. “If you want to solve the energy problem that we have in Europe, which is about cost and sustainability, and you want to solve Africa’s energy problems, which are due to inaccessibility, then we in Europe need to work with Africa because a lot of photovoltaic-based solutions are easier to implement there. The African continent has abundant and uniform solar resources, low grid infrastructure, and high demand for clean and accessible energy.”

“Africa is not a single country but a continent, one that is a place of real business opportunity that the world should be alive to.”
- Tony Elumelu, Chairperson of the United Bank for Africa

One challenge that KAAIA faces is trying to encourage big businesses to become more active in Africa. “We tried to activate a lot of large companies, but I would say the success was limited. Why? Because if you look at the risk-return profile, it’s more difficult to predict compared to engagement in other areas. That’s one of the limiting factors.

That’s why I think that one needs to bridge the financing gap and the involvement gap by large companies,” she reflected.

“What I see as a way out is that you have some entrepreneurial companies that are driven by entrepreneurs who are mission-based and purpose-driven. They are more accessible. They are willing to engage more in areas with a sub-optimal risk-return profile. One needs to be realistic about that and to do whatever it takes.”

Looking forward, what that means for KAAIA is to make sure its role as a partner in conversation and cooperation with innovative companies in Africa does not inadvertently foster dependency.

“Our role as partners is to make sure that Africans really identify what is best for them, what the development trajectory is that they want to take, and that they develop agency,” said Mei-Pochtler. “I am convinced that developing agency in people is essential, and that has a lot to do with education. That is why my main involvement in the not-for-profit area and the social impact area is in education. Because that’s where we have the biggest lever.”

“You need both if you want to solve the big societal problems,” added Mei-Pochtler, who previously founded a network of bilingual schools in Germany called Phorms, as well as serving on the boards of educational projects and organizations like Teach For All and Business@School.

“You can only solve the problems if you have an entrepreneurial solution and a business case,” she said. “On the way, you need to fill the investment gap and the business case gap. That’s why a not-for-profit engagement is effective. It’s always a combination of public/private partnership and the public/role definition over time, particularly to get things started.”

This article was developed in collaboration with the Global Peter Drucker Forum. This year’s Forum will be held on 14-15 November in Vienna.


Antonella Mei-Pochtler

Antonella Mei-Pochtler Board member, Publicis and Generali; Co-chair of the Kofi Annan Award for Innovation in Africa

Antonella Mei-Pochtler is an Italian businesswoman and strategy leader with deep experience in the global consumer, media, and technology sectors, both as advisor and executive. She was a member of BCG’s global executive committee, its top leadership team, and held a number of key European and global management positions in the business with a focus on digital transformation, strategy, and organizational development. She was named amongst the top 25 consultants worldwide by Consulting magazine and was honored with its Women Leaders in Consulting Lifetime Achievement award in 2013. Mei-Pochtler is currently co-chair of the High-Level Board of Advisors and Jury of the Kofi Annan Award for Innovation in Africa. 


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