Building an ecosystem for Innovation in Uganda


By Paul Ndiho

The East African nation Uganda is brimming with a rising new generation of bold, creative thinking innovators and entrepreneurs, who are inventing and developing new technologies that are simplifying their lifestyles and transforming their communities.


According to Uganda’s population and census bureau, youth unemployment in the country is at all-time high. More than 40,000 young people graduate from Ugandan Universities each year, but the market can provide only 8,000 jobs annually.  But initiatives like Innovation Village — a top innovative space gives smart young developers a platform to work, incubate new ideas and learn how to make startups work with investment. Japheth Kawanguzi, founded the startup nearly four years ago.

“What I do with the Innovation Village is to put in place a framework that can leverage the dividend out of this young population and bring out that creativity to commercialize it.”

It’s early afternoon at innovation village, and techies are tapping away on laptops, and smartphones — creating new technologies and applications that are driving the country’s economic growth and turning Uganda into a tech hub.

“People come up with great ideas and they die off because the support framework is not existing of how we can take this excellent idea and bring it to fruition. So it’s amazing how many young people are out there doing great stuff with ideas they are coming up with.”

“Probably you realize that after school, you don’t have a job, and I have to start living life, and the question is what options do you have, the difficult circumstances, put you in a situation where it is survival of the fittest. And since you can’t find a job you must come up with an alternative of how you survive. So direct option, in this case, has been entrepreneurship, has been innovation and seeing many of them who have been rewarded I think also motivates others to come up with their ideas.”

Innovation centers in Uganda like innovation village are helping to nurture technopreneurs to launch their startups and access markets. Japheth Kawanguzi says helping emerging entrepreneurs is something he does because he believes it will spur development.

“Innovation Village is a destination of ideas our vision is to bring ideas to life, and we do this by investing skill and attracting capital for viable ventures. We are setting out on an extended mission to build 100 youth enterprises in the next decade.”

Tech analysts say some possible IPO-startups are growing in Africa.  They’re hoping you will see African-based tech companies with revenues large enough to support a public launch on a local exchange or even trade on NASDAQ.  Meanwhile, the IT industry has been on a significant upswing in the past few years, driven primarily by advances in mobile phone technology. And Ugandan officials are keen to capitalize on that technology too.




By: Paul Ndiho

Phiona Mutesi is a Ugandan girl, who until recently was relatively unknown at home, and is now making international headlines. Her story is the subject of a new Disney movie dubbed ‘Queen of Katwe,’ a biopic chronicling her rise to Chess Master despite a lack of formal education.

The new uplifting drama “Queen of Katwe” starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo had its world premiere last weekend at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film follows Phiona Mutesi who is living in poverty with her siblings and mother – played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o) in the Katwe slum until she stumbles across a chess class run by charity worker, Robert Katende, played by David Oyelowo.

“It’s a life-affirming African story and as someone of African descent, we don’t see enough of that I believe in cinema, in the press as well, so I’m very proud to see a story like this made by Disney as well.”

Despite hardships, Phiona Mutesi’s ability to play chess is amazing– and her journey to international stardom is incredible. Her big break came when Sports Illustrated writer Tim Crothers wrote a book titled “The Queen of Katwe” describing Phiona’s life. Lupita Nyong’o shared the unique experience of playing the chess champion’s mother.

“I learned a lot about motherhood. I’m not a mother, and yet I had to play a mother, and I learned what it takes…. a bit about what it takes to provide for your family and to be concerned about so many people’s wellbeing. It’s almost like your heart is dislocated and running around and just feeling the fear, inhabiting the fear of a mother letting her chicks out every day to survive.”

Award-winning director Mira Nair explains her decision to take the project on:

“When I heard the story of Phiona and met her, it’s pretty inspiring. I thought of used it to use the locations I loved, the music, and seeing the country from within, feeling the dignity and the complete joy even during the best of struggles and it was to make a story without sentiment but with truth and truth is very funny and stylish and sassy in Katwe,”

In addition to all the accolades, Phiona has traveled the world and met her hero; chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov. Inspired by her example, Ugandan children are taking up chess like never before.

Paul Ndiho was one of the first international journalists to bring Phiona Mutesi’s story to light nearly four years ago.



By: Paul Ndiho

Kenyan farmers are embracing friendly irrigation systems that keep their plants watered at all times throughout the year.

Irrigation can be a problem for small-scale farmers in Africa. In Kenya many are harnessing that power to help them irrigate their fields – drip irrigation can mean the difference between living on the breadline and being able to grow an agricultural business.

Peter Mathenge has installed solar panels in his field to power a drip feed irrigation system on the outskirts of Nairobi.

“For me, solar irrigation kit is critical. Without it we spend 300 dollars every month, actually more than 300 dollars every month, to buy diesel and with AgroSolar Irrigation Kit we use the sun, for making good use of the sun.”

Samir Ibrahim and his business partner developed the system to address Kenya’s irrigation inadequacy. Their company SunCulture created the “AgroSolar Irrigation Kit” – a solar powered drip irrigation system.

“We were the first company in Africa to commercialize solar powered irrigation. We have just released Africa’s most affordable irrigation kit, and we’re the only estimate in the world providing a turnkey solar power irrigation equipment for farmers.”

Samir Ibrahim was one of the African innovators competing at the recently concluded AG Innovation Investment Summit organized by USAID. The event brought together more than 50 agricultural technology innovators, investors to present, and invest in game-changing technologies that will help small farmers improve their productivity and competitiveness.

“It pumps water to an elevated tank using the power of the sun and then uses gravity to release water through irrigation, delivering water efficiently to crops and we sell directly to farmers in Kenya and East Africa.”

Ibrahim wants more farmers to have access to this technology and says it will change the future of farming.

“If a farmer in Kenya wants one of our products, the producer calls us, we send a technician to our farm, the technician does a survey on our farm, we give her a quote, and as soon as she pays, we deliver the product directly to our farm the next  day.”

Many farmers in Kenya irrigate their farms by flooding the land from nearby rivers, dams, wells or boreholes which can erode and deplete the soil of its much-needed nutrients. Mathenge is quick to note the benefits of embracing new technology.

“With Agro Solar Irrigation Kit we use the sun, for making good use of the sun. Besides we no longer need to employ three staff to do the watering all the time; you reduce that to one, which brings to about 30 percent reduction in the cost of labor.”

Analysts say African farmland produces up to 50 percent less than the world average for agriculture. But Ibrahim says the AgroSolar Irrigation Kit allows farmers to power an efficient irrigation system that can increase their yields three-fold, while also cutting back water use by up to 80 percent.

The SunCulture kits range from 400 USD to 2,500 USD, although Ibrahim claims the farmer will recoup those costs over several harvests by making savings on labor, maintenance, and fuel costs.



By: Paul Ndiho

Sudan’s Darfur region continues to be an extremely dangerous place. Amnesty International says it has “credible evidence” that the Sudanese government used chemical weapons against civilians there as recent as September.  The escalation of violence by the Sudanese government threatens to deepen an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Sudan’s Darfur region is again in the international headlines because the regime in Khartoum is desperate to end one of three active rebellions in the country.  Conflicts that have caused a major humanitarian crisis, and according to United Nations estimates, caused more than 300,000 deaths.  The UN also says that 2.7 million people are displaced as a result of the conflict.

The Washington DC-based NGO, Darfur Women Action Group, founded in 2009, by a Darfuri genocide survivor, is trying to make a difference by amplifying the voices and empowering the affected communities.

In September, Amnesty International, accused the Sudanese government of carrying out at least 30 chemical weapons attacks in Darfur since the beginning of this year.

Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s director of crisis research, estimated that up to 250 people might have died as a result of exposure to the chemical weapons agents.

“During these attacks, hundreds of civilians have been shot at, tens of thousands have been displaced, and in one of the most sickening twists in the conflict in Darfur is we have discovered credible evidence that the Sudanese government has been using chemical weapons on the civilian population.”

Hassan says her team used satellite imagery, conducted more than 200 interviews and obtained expert analysis of images showing injuries.

“We gave all of the evidence that Amnesty International collected to two independent experts,” Hassan explained, “who viewed the evidence, and said that there is credible evidence that there has been the use of some chemical agent and in particular, there is a high possibility of the use of a vesicant, or a blistering agent such as lewisite, or sulfur mustard gas.”

The Sudanese government has refuted these claims made by displaced persons in the Jebel Marra area of Darfur, that they suffered chemical exposure at the hands of the government.  A joint African Union-United Nations force, known as UNAMID, has been stationed in Darfur since 2007.  Security remains fragile in Darfur, where mainly non-Arab tribes have been fighting the Arab-led government in Khartoum, and the government is struggling to control rural areas.

Meanwhile, Sudan’s national dialogue conference, held last week, approved a final document that will act as the base for the country’s permanent constitution aimed at ending the conflicts. Representatives of the political parties, armed groups, and civil society organizations signed the document before it was handed to the Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir.

“I declare here that we will strictly follow this document and exert zero tolerance over the acts that damage our political development.”

However, the main political parties and Darfur armed groups, including SPLM/Northern refused to participate in the conference.  The International Criminal Court issued two arrest warrants against President Al-Bashir in 2009 and 2010 for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Darfur.  However, he continues to travel freely in Africa, across Arab countries, and Asia, defying the ICC arrest warrants.



By Paul Ndiho

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, dozens of people have died in clashes between government security forces and protesters angered by what opposition groups say is President Joseph Kabila’s plan to postpone the presidential election in an attempt to retain power beyond the constitutional two-term limit.

The streets of Kinshasa are calm following anti-government protests last month that killed nearly 50 people. For months the country has suffered simmering anger over what opponents of President Joseph Kabila believe are his efforts to hold on to power beyond his constitutional term limit, either by delaying elections or revising the constitution. As other African leaders in neighboring countries including Uganda, Rwanda, Congo Brazzaville and Burundi have done.

The United Nations has voiced great concern and called on all sides to exercise restraint. The spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, says the international body is “deeply worried” by the violence.

“We call on all sides to show restraint and we urge the authorities to ensure that existing national and international standards on the appropriate use of force are fully respected by all security personnel. We call for a credible and impartial investigation to bring those responsible of human rights violations and criminal acts to justice.”

Since attaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the massive, resource rich nation has experienced dictatorship, poor governance, poverty, and insecurity. Congolese President Kabila has been in power since 2001.  He won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011.

Political observers say Kabila’s government has delayed elections scheduled for November, for logistical reasons. Opponents fear that Kabila intends to hold on to power beyond the constitutional mandate. Taking a cue from other African leaders neighboring countries.

In June, Moise Katumbi, a popular opposition candidate and former governor of the Katanga province was sentenced in absentia to 36 months in prison on what he says were trumped up charges (what were the charges?). Despite the charges, the opposition leader has vowed to return to Congo from Europe to run for the presidency with the backing of seven opposition parties.

“The population are ready already for election, which is important. Ninety-nine percent are ready for the election and they are waiting for the right time. You don’t want to make a putsch, you don’t want to make a coup-d’etat, you want to follow our constitution and if they don’t call for election, then the people of Congo are going to say ‘Mr. President, you didn’t respect what you are supposed to respect, it’s time to go. Bye-bye Mr. President, bye-bye the government of Congo’. Demonstration are going to be always peaceful demonstration, you don’t want any blood to flow.”

Katumbi and others want the international community to step in and pressure the Congolese government to allow a peaceful transition of power.

It remains unclear when elections in the DRC will be held, if not in November.  Kabila’s second term in office expires on December 19 and Congolese appear split on whether he should remain in office until elections are organized. A recent “national dialogue” was boycotted by many opposition parties and failed to resolve the issue.

The electoral commission says that it needs until December 2018 to complete the work of registering all voters and readying the country for an election. The opposition rejects that timeline, and the international community – including Belgium and the United States – have called for an earlier election date, potentially in 2017.

President Kabila’s office has issued a statement calling for calm — and inviting “the entire population to go about their daily activities, now that security is again fully ensured”.

The international community, especially the United States, are pressuring Kabila to respect the constitution and hold elections on time. They are also growing increasingly concerned over what they say are efforts to stifle peaceful protest.



By Paul Ndiho

The government of South Sudan has directed all of its institutions to comply with the resolution of the United Nations Security Council for the deployment of a regional Protection force in Juba. The announcement comes amid new calls for aggression against the government from former First Vice-President Riek Machar.

The security situation in Juba and other parts of South Sudan is tenuous after former First Vice President Riek Machar, and his allies ordered their forces to regroup for “armed resistance” in an apparent attempt to topple President Salva Kiir’s government. The announcement follows the collapse of the transition government of national unity, once headed by President Kiir and Machar.

Although the two men signed a shaky peace deal a year ago, fighting has continued since Machar fled the country in July. He is now living in Khartoum, in neighboring Sudan.

South Sudan is facing a mountain of challenges, including deepening humanitarian crisis that has claimed hundreds of civilian lives and forced 2.5 million citizens from their homes. Appearing VOA’s Africa 54 news program, Stephen Parkuol, Member of the Political Bureau, Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement – In Opposition said that declaring war was a sentiment shared by many people in South Sudan.

South Sudan’s government has asked Sudan and other nations in the region not to let Machar launch a new rebellion, after he threatened a return to the battlefield unless his demands to revive a peace deal were met. President Kiir fired Riek Machar in July from his First Vice-president post in violation of the peace agreement that gave both men equal powers.  He then named former opposition negotiator Taban Deng Gai as first vice president.

“It is unacceptable to the peoples of South Sudan to even contemplate, let alone be threatened with, a return to armed conflict. Threatening to return to war, my predecessor has made clear he places his own political ambitions above the government’s ambitions for peace and security.”

The United States is strongly condemning recent remarks by Machar for a return to conflict against the government of President Kiir.

“We find it inexcusable that he would continue to promote armed resistance,” Kirby told reporters. “It indicates a lack of concern for the well-being of the South Sudanese people, many of whom continue to struggle just to survive and just as much want to see peace.”

In September, “The Sentry” an initiative of the Enough Project, Not on Our Watch and other partners released a report accusing both Mr. Kiir and Riek Machar of benefiting financially from the continuing war and have effectively ensured that there is no accountability for their human rights violations and financial crimes.

The report says, that the pair unlawfully acquired wealth, as well as extensive commercial holdings in both public sector and oil services operating in South Sudan. Their immediate families lived luxuriously outside of South Sudan, and hold significant stakes in companies that operate in South Sudan’s most profitable commercial sectors.



By Paul Ndiho

Poultry farming is big business in Ethiopia and it is growing at a staggering pace. Ethiochicken is leading the way, creating opportunities in this vast and potentially lucrative market by increasing production more than thirty-fold among poultry farmers, who struggle to earn their living through subsistence farming.

Founded nearly six years ago, Ethiochicken has since expanded into four regions in Ethiopia, with production centers nationwide, reaching farmers in small communities. The company developed innovative, economically viable models to reach rural households. David Ellis, the CEO of Ethiochicken says his company will soon reach more than 700,000 smallholder farmers with improved poultry breeds.

“Our vision is to reach one per person per year in Ethiopia by 2020 and what we do is we sell better breeds of chicken to smallholders in Ethiopia, for them to achieve more food security, earn more money and also empower women.  Women are the ones typically keeping chickens at the rural level, and we do this through a network of agents where we hatch their chicks, produce feed, and then we sell a full package inputs to agents, who raise the chicken for 45 days, and sell them to smallholder farmers.”

Ellis says that Ethiopia was an attractive country for them, because the poultry market is experiencing a boom as a result of its rapid population, and economic growth.

Each of those farmers will benefit by at least $100 per year so that’d be an impact of about $100 million per year on smallholder farmers in Ethiopia.

Ethiochicken has partnered with Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation (Fintrac), a Washington DC – the USAID-funded program that helps the private sector to scale and market agricultural technologies for smallholder farmers through investing in technology commercialization and knowledge exchange. Robert Rabatsky is the director Fintrac.

“We partnered with Ethiochicken through a competitive process, and we’ve run to date six of these competitive processes where we’ve put out calls for proposal – David and his company submitted a proposal, we evaluated that along with probably 50 or 60 other projects. It became shortlisted; it was a high-quality proposal and so we determined that it was eligible for consideration for funding.”

Brenna Carmen McKay, Technology Commercialization lead at Fintrac says the program invests in public-private partnerships that make agricultural products commercially available to smallholder farmers.

Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation was designed to engage private sector companies that have game-changing technologies in agriculture. Our program incentivizes these companies, who may not already be in smallholder markets, by giving them a grant as the initial investment to prove the value proposition in a smallholder market.”

Despite the success of Ethiochicken, David Ellis says running a poultry technology company in Ethiopia has its challenges.

“There’s also a lack of a poultry industry where you know, and it’s not easy to get the talented workforce; people with 5, ten years of experience doing this, so a lot of training is required. We hire fresh graduates from school and train them internally to be poultry farm managers, hatchery managers, and sales people.”

Industry analysts say Ethiochicken has potential to be very successful and the profits farmers generate, will allow families to buy food, and pay for school and medical costs.