As a scientist Flora applies critical thinking to entrepreneurial ecosystems to assess how and where to provide support.

Dr Flora Ismail Tibazarwa: Strengthening innovation systems and cross-border collaboration as a means to boost entrepreneurship

The Programme Director for the Southern African Innovation Support Programme outlines the importance of early stage start-ups in job growth and value creation.

It may seem strange to find an experimental biologist heading up one of Southern Africa’s flagship innovation and entrepreneurship support programmes, but Dr Flora Tibazarwa’s path to ‘Champion of African Start-ups’ is actually quite straightforward. In her previous life as Director for Life Sciences at Tanzania’s National Commission for Research Science and Technology (COSTECH), where she was responsible for research management and national strategy, Flora crossed paths with NIRAS in one of the several bilateral programmes she oversaw.

“TANZICT – the Tanzania Information Communication Technology project – was an innovation fund supporting emerging entrepreneurs and stimulating the development of tech products and services in Tanzania. Over a five-year period, together with the NIRAS team, we grew the innovation ecosystem from the grassroots through six competitive funding rounds. In the end, 45 start-ups successfully received support. That national experience of matching start-ups with mentors, such as business incubators or tech hubs who provide guidance on delivering the grant-funded deliverables, has been carried over to SAIS 2 where the regional landscape enables scaling of the TANZICT experience in innovation management,” she explains.

Enhancing innovation through collaboration and capacity building

Funded by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA) of Finland, the second phase of the Southern Africa Innovation Support Programme (SAIS 2) was launched in 2017 and has been implemented to strengthen regional and national innovation ecosystems through mechanisms of matching innovation grants, capacity building and developing ‘communities of practice’. In so doing, SAIS 2 has increased access to knowledge and technology in the different geographies of SADC and harnessed resources to scale enterprises, all the while ensuring this is done in an inclusive, environmentally appropriate and human-rights considerate manner.

“Knowledge-based SMEs and start-ups play a growing role in employment and value creation. About 15% of SMEs in Africa are high-growth firms, and Sub-Saharan African entrepreneurs are the second most confident group of businesses when it comes to potential for job growth. By strengthening innovation ecosystems and promoting cross-border collaboration between innovation role-players in Southern Africa, SAIS 2 contributes to the development of early-stage enterprises and young entrepreneurs as well as the emergence of homegrown innovative products, services and processes that serve socially or economically disadvantaged populations,” Flora says.

Based in Windhoek, Namibia, SAIS 2 is implemented by a six-person core team with the support of so-called ‘Focal Points’ in the five implementing countries of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia. With this lean structure, the programme has been able to reach over 100 innovation support organisations who are its main beneficiaries and - by extension - more than 1000 entrepreneurs and start-ups in the region have received capacity-building support through a variety of training offerings and knowledge products.

“And the circle reaches farther still as, through consortia of innovation support organisations, more SADC countries - such as Malawi, Mauritius, Zimbabwe - and partners beyond the region (Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Finland, UK, France, The Netherlands) have benefitted and contributed to the growth and strengthening of the regional ecosystem.”

In the challenging Southern African startup environment, a new startup is often made or broken based on the strength of its networks. Events like the Southern Africa Startup Awards that bring startup founders and innovation ecosystem actors together play a crucial role in the evolution of Southern Africa’s business landscape.

Casting a scientist’s eye over the innovation landscape

Although Flora has spent that last eight years focussed on fostering entrepreneurship in her home country of Tanzania and the continent at large, her background is firmly rooted in science. She has a Bachelor’s in Science Education in biology and chemistry, a Masters in Forest Ecology, and PhD in Experimental Biology and was a lecturer in the Botany Department at the University of Dar es Salaam for more than ten years. She has extended her professional skillset with courses on innovation for development, foresight, environmental impact assessment and ecological risk assessment.

“As a scientist, I use critical thinking when working with biological systems or ecosystems to understand functionality further and develop sustainable solutions where needed. I apply the same critical thinking to entrepreneurial ecosystems to assess how and where to provide support,” she explains.

Flora views SAIS 2 as an important contribution to the strong reputation NIRAS is building in private sector development on the continent through MFA-funded bilateral and regional programmes like TANZICT, the STIFIMO programme of cooperation in science, technology and innovation between Finland and Mozambique and more recently BioFisa, and the Accelerated Growth for SMEs (AGS) project in Zambia. But more importantly is the role the programme is playing in driving innovation and supporting aspiring entrepreneurs, especially women and young people.

“SAIS 2 is particularly supportive of deliberate initiatives to foster female participation. In providing a platform for startups, we can expect decent work and economic growth to come from those who scale up. Because our work is ‘sector-agnostic’, it allows us to experience the opportunities and challenges that entrepreneurs face and thus better understand what is needed to facilitate the growth of the innovation pipeline while also influencing entrepreneurship development policy."

To learn more about SAIS, visit the project page.