Finnish Innovations for a Changing and Complicated World

November 9, 2016

The Finnish University Partnership for International Development (UniPID) hosted a session on “Innovations entering South Africa” during the “South Africa Innovation Summit” that took place at the Birchwood Hotel in Johannesburg on 21-24 September 2016.

All photos in article: UniPID 2016 All rights reserved.

The Finnish University Partnership for International Development (UniPID) hosted a session on "Innovations entering South Africa” during the "South Africa Innovation Summit” that took place at the Birchwood Hotel in Johannesburg on 21-24 September 2016. Under this year’s theme of "Accelerate, Innovate, Ignite”, seven entrepreneurs from Finland pitched to an audience of peers, investors and thought leaders, and answered questions in a panel that also highlighted the importance of the collaboration between Finland and Africa around emerging innovations from Finnish higher education institutes. 

The SA Summit welcomed around 400 delegates with thought-provoking presentations by world renowned speakers, workshops, plenary sessions, CEO panel debates and breakout sessions with specialist workshops and themed streams. A "Match & Invest Lounge” offered a physical space for entrepreneurs who had earlier been matched through a special platform online to meet and network one-on-one at the summit. A "Market on the Edge” exhibition allowed entrepreneurs to showcase their innovations to the delegates and the general public. The summit also hosted the "Ignite!” afternoon to celebrate the spirit of innovation in TED-style turbo-charged talks. 

The entrepreneurs from Finland were: Jan Erik Nåls of Arcada University of Applied Sciences; Kaisa Haukka of University of Helsinki; Michael Wilson of University of Turku, School of Economics; Pamela February of University of Jyväskylä / University of Namibia; Roseanna Avento of University of Eastern Finland; Solomon Oyelere of University of Eastern Finland; and Janne Karjalainen of Oulu University of Applied Sciences. They flew to the rainbow country with the wish to move their ideas and projects to the next level.

These enterprising leaders proposed new ways to look over the edge. From contextualizing learning opportunities on mobile, through building massive portable digital libraries, to upgrading microbiology labs in developing countries to fight antibiotic resistance known as ‘the silent tsunami’, this showcase was unique in that it came from the only country team at the SA Innovation Summit. 

Michael Wilson, one of the grantees, told an audience of peers how his portable, high density digital libraries aim to bridge gaps in literacy, education and access to learning materials. His project is in a scalable implementation phase in search of partnerships, given his three successful pilot projects in Tanzania and Kenya. 

Michael found the SA Summit highly educational and full of opportunities. "This conference,” he shared, "…represented a tremendous opportunity to learn more about the process of innovation and entrepreneurship, not only via my project but also from the interaction with others in various stages of the innovation process.”

"There were a number of venture capitalists present along with smaller investors as well. In fact, one member of our delegation was approached immediately concerning her innovative learning game that helps children to read. She was offered seed capital to take her innovation to the next stage.”

"Others were offered additional opportunities to meet with stakeholders higher up in various organizations. Meetings were arranged and everyone seemed to have gained a lot in this meeting. My experience was quite good overall, especially considering that it was my first time attending a summit focused on entrepreneurship as opposed to an academic conference.”

In the UniPID’s special summit track on "Finnish Innovations entering South Africa,” the panel of the entrepreneurs from Finland highlighted how Finland has managed to build an enabling ecosystem where multi-culturalism and multi-disciplinarity thrive alongside research and entrepreneurship, and where cooperation and teamwork are key rules of the competitive game.

One conversation thread resulting from the panel was around the process of commercializing technology, and the generic activities undertaken by innovative enterprises towards the successful commercialization of their products and services. With its strong design background, Finland has much to offer in the concept phase to South Africa, e.g. in the ways to conduct proof of concept, venture assessment and disclosure of invention thanks to its excellent talent pool, e.g. its well-known Professors of Practice. South Africa may in turn offer, at the development and pre-commercialization phase, its strong expertise in marketing plan and market validation with its young, tech-savvy talent and thriving markets. 

To stand strong in a fast-moving external world, another area of collaboration between Finland and Africa among the emerging innovations from Finnish higher education institutes is that of sustainable education design, given the constant need to re-tool and re-skill a dynamic workforce. The "Sustainable Education Design from Finland: Re-designing schools, workplaces and society” session by the Finnish Embassy in South Africa, in fact, presented ideas on how to blend education, ICT, architecture, energy and sustainability in order to keep creating the best schools. 

Education plays an ever increasing role in supporting the development of individuals and communities that focus on growth in all of its aspects. The Sustainable Education Design project from Finland aims at packaging the best pieces of education design together through interdisciplinary and thorough research, and at building a concept that can be localized in all countries, including South Africa. Ms. Kirsti Lonka, Professor of Educational Psychology, Principal Investigator of this project, shared her thoughts on creativity and innovation in education, and stressed, rightly so, how learning should be promoted for the new millennium. 

As such, the presence of the delegation led by UniPID and the Finnish Embassy in South Africa offered the innovators, at this premier event on the annual South African Innovation Calendar, a taste of the remarkable spirit of innovation nurtured by a whole system and team in Finland, from education to talent to innovation ecosystems. Sometimes one may not realize the value of these innovations though, unless one steps into another environment.

"We were actually planning on stopping our work on this for various reasons – nothing to do with the innovations themselves or the ideas – but now we’re looking very seriously at how to continue the work. The opportunity given to us by UniPID and FinCEAL Plus in a sense gave a new boost and new directions that we are now seriously looking at. I seriously did not expect much interest in our work, so I was duly very surprised by the amount and level of interest,” remarked Roseanna Avento, one of the grantees from the University of Eastern Finland, who talked about quinoa and amaranth-based food innovations. Her multi-regional product development of food innovations makes use of indigenous, under-utilized crops to promote healthy food choices and develop agro-biodiversity.

Just like Michael, Roseanna also found the networking enticing. "The summit was an excellent forum for networking and for putting our ideas for the utilization of indigenous crops in food product development. I have had a lot of contacts from the summit and I’m following up on them.”

Finland has had a long-standing commitment to Africa. It has over fifty years built solid partnerships with several African countries and organizations, and has contributed to Africa’s development financially and otherwise.  It is hoped that this will only strengthen, now with an expanding array of disciplines with innovations from Finnish higher education institutes, networks built and conversations continuing on how to work together for educational and business goals.

In questions related to the event or other Africa STI-events, please contact Eva Kagiri.