SAIS makes its mark on the South African start-up landscape

Hub Managers Copy

Although it ends next month after five years of operation, the Southern African Innovation Support (SAIS) programme leaves a legacy of good practice and strengthened innovation networks in its trail.

February 28, 2022

In Finland, we see innovation as a core component of achieving our economic goals. We’ve been partnering with Southern Africa for more than 20 years in the area of innovation and enjoyed great collaboration. It has been a privilege to be in partnership with SAIS, which developed something valuable and new for the region … Digitalisation for development is prioritised for the future but cannot be seen in isolation so the groundwork that SAIS has been doing is decisive … SAIS has a value in the future cooperation between Europe and Africa.

Dr. Jyrki Pulkkinen, Ambassador for Innovation at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland at the 7th annual EU-Africa Business Forum

Speaking recently at the 7th annual EU-Africa Business Forum, Lead Expert Ilari Lindy gave the audience a snapshot of the key achievements delivered in a Finnish-funded effort to enhance innovation ecosystems and facilitate cross-border collaboration to support early-stage entrepreneurs in Southern Africa. The list of outputs were impressive, but probably the most important takeaway – and critical success factor of the project – was SAIS’s approach.

“Our focus was on innovation support organisations such as tech hubs, incubators, accelerators and innovation labs. These organisations play an important role in supporting entrepreneurship by helping aspiring start-ups acquire the knowledge, skills, and resources needed to thrive, while also building entrepreneurial communities including role-players from Private sector, academia, civil society  and government. Working with these groups boosted the programme’s credibility and significantly impacted our reach because they are natural connectors, with insights into the market and trusted by the start-up community. They have more pulling power than government or academia, although these players are also important for the development of strong innovation systems servicing entrepreneurs.”

Sais News Image

A unique value proposition

SAIS is a two-phase programme, running since 2011 with a break in between phases in 2016. Funded by the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs together with support from the governments of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and the secretariat of SADC, SAIS 1 supported policy-makers with innovation policy development and crafting instruments on the national level. SAIS 2 built on successes and moved more toward supporting early-stage tech entrepreneurship and related innovation systems through its own fund, adding the element of inclusivity both in its reach and the type of projects it funded.

“Entrepreneurs need to be supported also beyond the capital cities. Those in secondary cities and beyond need access to resources and markets. That’s why the eco-system approach is so important. It brings different role players who normally work in isolation together to collaborate and share learnings for the benefit of inclusive business products and services,” Ilari explained.

More than 2000

African startups and entrepreneurs supported


transnational projects funded


innovation-support organisations from 12 countries engaged

SAIS 2 partnered with focal points from the Ministries responsible for Science, Education,Technology and Innovation in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia, as well as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Secretariat. But its geographical reach went far beyond the five countries and even 16 SADC member states due to the nature of the three main instruments it applied: an Innovation Fund, capacity-building and networking.

For Anneline Morgan, Senior Programme Officer at the SADC Secretariat, SAIS’s value lies in its ability to be replicated in other regions of Africa. “We in Southern Africa have been quite fortunate to have had this cooperation with Finland over the past decade. Through this programme, we have seen governments increasingly investing in entrepreneurship, innovations and technology. More needs to be done for young entrepreneurs. More structured instruments like those applied in SAIS need to be put in place so entrepreneurs can be supported in the mainstream economy, which at the end of the day facilitates industrial development.”

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The secret sauce? Three key instruments

SAIS’ Innovation Fund supported 26 projects through three calls. Applicants had to bring matching resources in cash or kind for grants of between €50 000‒280 000. All projects were transnational in nature meaning they had to be implemented by consortiums coming from at least two different countries to ensure implementation and lessons learned were not restricted to one country. 

“These projects engaged more than 80 innovation support organisations from 12 countries in the validation of new instruments such as accelerators or incubators that in turn have assisted more than 2000 African start-ups and entrepreneurs to gain new skills, access to finance or a foothold in new markets,” Ilari explains. “Projects had to be practical and were piloted and validated in the real world with real clients, looping feedback in to improve the product or service.”

The other two instruments ‒ capacity building and networking ‒ were aligned to support delivery of the Innovation Fund. For example, the team conducted training on data collection and analytics as this is a task that each SAIS-funded project had to do as part of their deliverable. “This was so they could tell afterwards the story of their innovation’s impact on the ecosystem, and how the SAIS funding supported this,” Ilari says. 

Probably SAIS’ most visible legacy is a networking tool called Connected Hubs. An independent network of tech hubs and parastatal innovation support agencies, Connected Hubs was officially newly launched as the Southern Africa Innovation Collective and is supported today by the five national partner countries and Finland. The network continues to organise the annual pitching competition BOOST UP, which trains start-ups in each country in pitching and investment readiness and showcases the best in regional finale. 

“BOOST UP excites the ecosystem by bringing together the best people and projects,” Ilari explains. “Everyone is working toward a common goal which culminates in the winners of the national competition attending the BoostUp finale organised under the umbrella of Europe’s premier start-up festival, SLUSH. There is a lot of clout and goodwill in these type of events as they involve players from big industry and established angels who mentor, sponsor and occasionally also invest in the start-ups.”

SAIS’ Value Proposition

  • Strengthen innovation support organisations’ capability to support entrepreneurship through practical projects
  • Develop a testing ground for validating service/product prototypes before investing in them
  • Promote approaches yielding better results through peer-learning
  • Instil expert and peer advice to strengthen evidence-based knowledge generation on entrepreneurship ecosystems
  • Capture lessons learned to support start-ups and entrepreneurs scaling-up in similar circumstances elsewhere in SADC region
BOOST UP 2021 Delegation

The legacy of SAIS

Apart from rolling out approaches that will continue beyond the programme, SAIS funding and capacity building supported pilot projects that have become self-standing services or businesses. To receive a grant, projects had to fall under one of SAIS’ three themes: building institutional capacity, scaling enterprises, and inclusive innovations, with the last aimed at serving socially or economically disadvantaged populations. Some examples include Injini's EdTech Accelerator, the first pan-African education technology startup network that is still running thanks to SAIS support, bringing together over 1000 entrepreneurs and EdTech investors, government officials and educators to exchange knowledge on support mechanisms, training and funding across SADC and even beyond. The African Angel Academy trains and supports African professionals and experienced entrepreneurs with an online course on how to become an angel investor and support the next generation of start-ups. SAIS funding piloted the training first in the four Southern African countries. Today it has been taken up by other donors, and covers 26 countries including the UK. SAIS funding was also used to validate the development of additive manufacturing – 3D printing – ecosystems to improve the quality of life of amputees. Existing medical 3D applications in South Africa were duplicated in Botswana where the grant was used to build a foundation for commercialisation, train local clinicians and engineers, and create a pathway for future specialists. Additive manufacturing knowledge was leveraged during COVID-19 to produce PPEs and ventilators in both markets. 

“The programme has proven the importance of investing in longevity,” Ilari concludes. “The approaches adopted and initiatives launched need to last beyond each government and not to stop when the regime changes. As such, we can be confident that during its lifetime 2011-2022 SAIS has left its market on the African start-up landscape by strengthening the innovation ecosystem and networks needed to take African entrepreneurs to the next level.”

Anthony Way

Anthony Way

Sector Lead, Private Sector Development & Trade

Edinburgh, United Kingdom