There is strong demand for tech innovations in Niger, especially in the ‘green’ energy sector, but the innovation ecosystem needs to be built up. At the moment there is just one incubator in the country helping startups and universities to create innovative services.
Interview, during a L'Atelier numérique (L’Atelier Digital) broadcast on the BFM Business channel, with Almoktar Allahoury, Executive Director of the Centre Incubateur des Petites et Moyennes Entreprises du Niger (Incubator Centre for Small and Medium-sized businesses in Niger), aka Cipmen.
L’Atelier: A year ago, having worked at various consulting companies in France and Senegal, you went back to your country of birth, Niger, to head up Cipmen, which is currently the only incubator in the country. Could you tell us more about it?
Almoktar ALLAHOURY: Right. Cipmen is an incubator born of a public-private partnership driven by [French multinational telecoms corporation] Orange. Other firms such as Total and [French transnational utility company] Veolia Environnement also contribute financial and technical expertise. At the moment we’re providing support to six startup companies, two in the renewable energy sector and four in Information and Communication Technologies.
Are the four startups working on ICT technologies focusing on local or international needs?
Those startups are bringing innovation in usage to meet local needs. One of them is working on money transfer, another on organising the [Hajj] Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj app which the startup has developed helps people to manage the whole pilgrimage process – i.e. reservations, preparations, the journey, information, medical support, hotel bookings. It covers the whole value chain. As far as the money transfer app is concerned, we’re talking about transferring funds pretty much everywhere throughout Africa.
The existence of the incubator you head up demonstrates that Niger is taking an interest in innovation. Is there a deeply-rooted innovation culture in the country?
Well, the innovation culture is not particularly strong in Niger but it does exist. It reached its peak in the decade from 1960 to 1970 in renewable energy supplies, especially solar power. I often point out that as a small boy I used to wash in water that had been heated by a solar panel. And the same was true for my parents’ generation. So we do have an innovation culture in very specific sectors such as solar power. Much of this is down to researchers at our universities and the initiatives we’re helping to launch these days through the incubator help to support our universities and enable them to carry out further research. However we do try to direct their research projects towards business goals and markets.
What obstacles do you currently face in pursuing your initiatives?
One of the problems is the institutional obstacles. The institutional framework is not very propitious for innovation. However, a legal charter for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) has been tabled and we’re expecting it to pass in to law, which will make it much easier for innovative startups to get up and running. Very little is missing. The market’s ready and there’s strong demand for innovation. All we really need to do now is structure supply to match the demand.
Where do start-ups find support and financing for their projects?
Well, banks are very cautious when it comes to African countries in general. The state hardly gets involved at all when it comes to innovation, tech startups, or even more generally SMEs. The SMEs that make it today are all run by entrepreneurs who are truly passionate and persevering. But when the situation improves, these people will be in a position to emerge and grow their businesses much faster. At the moment, there’s a growing awareness in both the private and public sectors of the need for sustainable development and the advent of ‘green jobs’. In fact the government is currently running a forum on this subject.
The existence of your incubator is already sending a strong signal to project owners and innovative startups. But what’s the next step for you?
In the first place we still need to prove ourselves and consolidate our ecosystem. We need this kind of support mechanism in all the areas of our country so as to develop innovations locally and start to make day-to-day life easier for local people.