Up&Ap: John Glassey on why Innovation Africa conferences are unique

Nairobi’s Safari Park Hotel will from September 20 to 22 this year host the 2016 edition of the Innovation Africa Summit, a forum which brings together leaders from both public and private sectors to discuss, network and ultimately partner to address the various issues in the education sector through the use of technology. The forum, organized by AfricaBrains under the patronage of Kenya’s Ministry of Education, Science & Technology, has already received confirmations from over 19 ministers of education from the continent. As we draw closer towards the event date, we recently engaged John Glassey, MD, AfricanBrains, to shed more light on the sixth edition of the Summit and the unique features of the conferences. Here are excerpts:

Q: Give us a background about the event, Innovation Africa Summit 2016  

JG: This year’s event will be held under the patronage of the Dr Fred Matiang’i, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Education, Science and Technology. Last year was Uganda while in the previous years, the conference has been held in Rwanda (in 2014), Botswana (in 2013), South Africa (in 2012) while the inaugural edition was hosted by Zimbabwe in 2011.

This year, the government of Kenya and my organization, AfricaBrains, has invited all counterparts – including higher education stakeholders, ministers of education and ICT to participate. Most African countries – between 35 to 40 countries – will be represented by delegations led by either Ministers, Deputy Ministers or Permanent Secretaries or Director Generals. Already, I can confirm that 19 ministers have said they’ll attend. Between now and September 20 – 22, I can confirm that we’ll have more ministers coming on-board. This may be upwards of 200 to 250 ministers and senior government officials being hosted at the Safari Park Hotel as well as upwards of 300 to 350 industry captains, corporate leaders keen to partner with governments and also higher education sector and local and regional universities. The higher education sector is very important for the development of skills, promotion of entrepreneurship ready for work with industry.

Q: What are the main objectives and expectations from the event?

JG: The founding principle of the Summit is partnership between the public sector, civil society and industry. It is based on the principle that demand for education and development for ICTs and innovation is at an all-time high, African countries have a very young population and to fulfill that demand, one of the successful, avenues is through public private partnerships. That’s why we organize the event is a format that’s very different from any other event you’ve ever seen or attended: it’s predominantly a meetings-based forum. For instance, in the case of Uganda last year, over 800 pre-scheduled meetings took place between the public and private sector delegates. The various groups – corporates, public sector, ICT ministers, investors etc – host roundtables after going through the confirmed delegates list on our portal. Over 50 roundtables will be hosted by universities and industry partners who would want to engage with them, and in these meetings lead to bilateral discussions which can later develop into potential partnerships or investments.

Q: Over the last six years, what can you highlight as some of the key achievements or partnerships developed from the Summit?

JG: I can highlight numerous achievements. One is that over US $270 million worth of investment has taken place as a direct result of these meetings between industry and governments. I can also highlight specific programmes where relationships have been built between major corporates like Microsoft, and Intel. Out of those 830 meetings that took place in Uganda, not all will result in deals but important relationships and partnerships will b developed. The main job of Kenya as a host for this year’s meeting is to ensure that industry leaders we bring here see the country as a leading light in ICT and innovation and it’s the education system that feeds into the innovation ecosystem, by feeding young people with skills, talent and technical knowledge that can lead investors to have confidence in the country due to the presence of the right skills and even set their hubs in Kenya from where they later reach the rest of the continent.

Over US $270 million worth of investment has taken place as a direct result of these meetings between industry and governments.

Q: In terms of feedback, what kind of messages are you getting from previous partners and delegates?

JG: The first thing I can say about feedback is that I’d mentioned that global corporate like Microsoft, Intel, Dell and IBM are have come to the event every year, and come with lead delegations. For example, Microsoft’s Head of Global Education and Intel’s Head of Worldwide Education have attended the event every year, and brought other top executives with them, mainly because of the results they get. And the feedback from them is for us to make sure that we get as much commitment from participating governments to be there, to take part, attend meetings and likewise, in the case of Kenya, that we get commitments from those in charge of the country’s education sector and infrastructure including universities, key government agencies – like KICD and TSC – being there as potential partners for industry to engage with.

Q: There are several other conferences held with a similar focus like Innovation Africa Summit. What makes your conference unique or differ from the rest?

JG: In terms of other events, we live in perfectly competitive marketplace and everybody is free to do their thing. And I appreciate that as someone who’s worked in UN conferences in Geneva, there comes a point where there’s ‘conference fatigue’ and to avoid this, you’ve to do something different and have a unique position that nobody else does. What is unique about Innovation Africa, which the other events don’t have, are the pre-scheduled meetings.

What we commonly see with conferences is the word ‘networking’ – networking lunch, or networking dinner, but what does ‘networking’ really mean? Is it lots of people standing in room trying to talk to someone they don’t know, and not getting the meeting they want? I often speak to government officials and senior executives who go to conferences and maybe there’s a really important speaker on the stage, and about 50 people in the audience want to meet that speaker, and s/he finishes and there’s a big queue at the stage and they don’t get a chance to talk and engage properly as the speaker has to go to another meeting or session. That’s why we developed a pre-planned schedule for speakers and various members of the audience. We make sure that the morning sessions are Q&A sessions while the face-to-face meetings – which had been pre-scheduled earlier before – are held in the afternoon.

I can also say that, in comparison to other similar events, what has made Innovation Africa stand out is that it has the highest level of ministerial participation of any education and ICT forum and is held under the patronage of the host country, and with that patronage, the host country ministry – in the case of Kenya the Ministry of Education, science and Technology – sends formal invites to ministers from other countries leading to higher commitment and high-level participation. Another feature is that we don’t have formal speeches – apart from the keynote speech from the host minister – but have a Q&A format where there’s a panel responding to issues and questions raised by the audience.