“As young digital innovators in the EAC, it’s time we stop competing and start exploring the blue ocean of collaboration. We can build synergies amongst ourselves as startups and scale-up through the support of partners like IUCEA.” This statement by Brian Nyagol, Kenyan youth innovator and founder of Startup Suite, clearly depicts the need for collaboration of EAC youth to jointly work on innovations.

To kickstart this exchange, the East African Community (EAC) project “Digital Skills for an Innovative East African Industry” (dSkills@EA) started its new project phase with the regional online workshop “Innovation Stories of East Africa: A Journey Through the East African Community’s Digital Innovation Ecosystem”. This event launched the digital innovation dialogue between the EAC Partner States Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda to exchange on their respective innovation ecosystems based on the success stories of young innovators. It took place as part of the Tanzania Innovation Week with its theme “Innovation for a Resilient and Inclusive Digital Economy” on 18 May 2021.

The session successfully highlighted best practises and needs for support in strengthening digital innovations within the respective national innovation ecosystems and the EAC region as a whole – all with a focus on needed competencies and resources to nurture and promote young innovators and their ideas. dSkills@EA’s regional dialogue successfully connected policy makers, businesses, academia, innovation hubs and innovators across the EAC in an exchange on the gaps and opportunities that exist in building a sustainable ecosystem and regional dialogue.

“In today's evolving marketplace, many businesses recognise that they need to transform, innovate, and adopt new technology to stay competitive. It's all about technology, data, process, and organizational change and universities have a key role to play here”, highlighted Prof Gaspard Banyankimbona, Executive Secretary, Inter-University Council of East Africa (IUCEA), in his opening remarks.

The online event was also joined by the GIZ Tanzania and EAC Country Director, Mike Falke, the Commission of Science and Technology in Tanzania (COSTECH) and young digital innovators and innovation hub representatives from all six EAC Partner States such as the Westerwelle Startup Haus (Rwanda), Startup Uganda and Start Hub (Uganda), Koneta Hub (South Sudan), Lake Hub (Kenya), UNICEF Innovation Hub (Burundi), UDSM College of ICT Innovation Centres in Tanzania (Tanzania) and the regional Centre of Excellence for ICT in East Africa (CENIT@EA).

The panel discussion “Paving the way for a mutual win-win collaboration of digital innovation ecosystems in the EAC” gained insights from key speakers on issues such as the mechanisms needed by innovation hubs to build a thriving innovation ecosystem for the EAC and involvement of academia and industry in growing digital entrepreneurship in the region.

Khadija Mkocha, Lecturer at the College of ICT and Innovation Coordinator at UDSM, pointed out that there is a need to first recognise and appreciate what exists locally before collaboration across borders can be successful. “So far most of these initiatives have been sprouting in silos, in universities, in total ignorance of even the other players within the local ecosystems.”

“The regional innovation ecosystem is fragmented,” Richard Zulu, Chairperson of Startup Uganda noted. “The relevant stakeholders need to identify gaps in the system and bring in collective capacity to support build a thriving ecosystem.”

One thing became obvious during the discussions: Identifying young innovators at the universities and creating the space for ideation support through linking them with innovation ecosystem for business development support requires joint efforts of multi-stakeholders.

“Let us get away from the fear of collaboration, it is the only way to move forward towards success. We need to integrate support structures for incubation of innovative ideas for young innovators at university level that ultimately links with innovation hubs ecosystem” urged Hatungimana Dieudonne, Senior Planning and Resource Mobilisation Officer at IUCEA.

A crucial point noted in the stories of the young innovators is the fact that, entrepreneurship starts at universities. There is so much universities can do to support the grooming of young innovators by providing capacity building programmes and linkages to innovation ecosystem for the scaling of ideas. 

IUCEA’s commitment to support the initiatives was made to all partners. It called for the establishment of a regional collaboration platform that also spurs dialog with the industry for exchange of information and knowledge transfer needed to support innovation and entrepreneurship in East Africa.

Surely, the right course for regional collaboration on innovation development has been set!

dSkills@EA is implemented by GIZ as the second phase of its CENIT@EA programme.