Jessica Berlin is a security and foreign policy expert turned sustainable business and development innovator. As founder and Managing Director of CoStruct, she advises governments, companies, multilaterals, and nonprofit organizations on strategy, program design, and partnership development to tackle global challenges with sustainable, ‘scaleable’ business and technology solutions.
Her work is grounded in 12+ years of cross-cutting experience in foreign policy, security, economic development, entrepreneurship, and tech innovation in Africa, Asia, Europe, MENA, and the US. She is a frequent panelist and keynote speaker on innovation in economic development and security. Her TEDx talk on civic and policy innovation has been described as “brilliant”, “moving”, and “one of the most powerful and inspiring TED talks”. Jessica holds an M.Sc. in Political Economy of Emerging Markets from King’s College London, a B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University, and speaks five languages.
Jessica is a frequent speaker at business, policy, and sustainability events around the world in innovation. This week, she spoke to over 150 young innovators at during African Innovation week. Capital met her at the AU to learn her perspective on innovation in Africa.
Capital: Tell us about African Innovation Week.
Jessica Berlin: African Innovation week is convening technology entrepreneurs from across the content as well as the interactive global entrepreneur community to exchange ideas, network and partnerships.
Capital: What prospects exist for African Innovators?
Jessica Berlin: African innovators have the drive to solve serious problems, in the Western world a lot of resources go to funding talents and projects, companies and products that are improving convenience for customers, they are not solving problems in the community and when we talk about technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, and what it means in the 21st century, It is great that somebody innovates some way that I can play a game online sitting in the bus and somebody finds a way to deliver food in that market but let’s be honest, those companies are not solving the real problems and challenges of our time. The many African entrepreneurs that I meet across the continent, they are and determined and talented and they are solving real problems. I see in the 21st century the potential for African innovators to play a new global leadership role. In my work, as an international and national policy expert the best thing I can do is use my global knowledge, network and experience to help empower, and enable problem solvers and business and technology innovators to grow and expand their subjects profitably. The global economy is about connection and collaboration. I work to enable that and to leverage public sector resources and to de-risk private sector resources to the space.
Capital: Is Africa doing all it can to encourage innovators?
Jessica Berlin: There are a lot of missing links or perhaps missed opportunities right now, that may be bad news but the good news is people are aware and working on it. This is true especially in the public sector, there is increasing awareness that the sector needs to step up and support entrepreneurs. In countries like Ghana and Rwanda, innovators have transformed to impact pro-active public sector engagement creating an innovation friendly entrepreneurial environment. We need country governance across the continent to follow their lead. We need to give a voice to entrepreneurs to help inform policy makers and regulators on ways they can help. There are initiatives that perform outstanding work in the space and we need to amplify those voices and to turn this into relationships and results.
Capital: Do you have any current projects in Ethiopia?
Jessica Berlin: We are launching a new initiative called African futures which is a platform to enable technology and resource transfer and collaboration across the African entrepreneurship eco system. The platform is designed to be locally led by partners in each country. There already are organizations leading technology, innovation and entrepreneurship spaces and local partners in collaboration with them will be a connection point that helps entrepreneurs to obtain funding, to access the best practices, content, training programs and business management systems that can help entrepreneurs because right now a lot of companies and innovators face similar challenges.
African futures will share common knowledge learning, and resources within Africa, and create mechanisms and frameworks to share it across eco system across the continents and also critical points to serve as a connection point between those grass root innovators and innovation spaces and the international donor community that has transferred resources on hand. Much money is being invested in the space and much of them are lost on overheads in duplication of efforts in programs that are not designed for the long term, So creating African futures and leveraging a platform to reach out to entrepreneurs across the continent and then support donors really supports tech-innovation and entrepreneurs in Africa in more efficient, demand driven, locally led and for the long term without accidentally undermining the efforts of local innovators or duplicating their efforts.
Capital: What can we expect from the Africa Future program?
Jessica Berlin: A long term training, locally led implementation, demand driven approach and building bridges both between innovators across the content and between Africa and Europe.
Capital: What are the requirements for supporting projects?
Jessica Berlin: So now, we are looking at partner organizations in each country who can be an implementing partner and we are looking to build partnerships with the government of each country so that they can help us to improve the regulatory environment and to help them create an inclusive and agile eco system. We are looking to start “African Future” firstly in three of four countries and Ethiopia is high on the list as a potential country and the pilot phase runs for two years and within ten years to be in 20 countries across the continent.
Capital: How can we build PPP programs in order to support startups and entrepreneurs?
Jessica Berlin: First, we understand the mentality and speak the languages of the grass roots ground innovators as well as macro level bureaucratic donor and the government side. This is the step to a productive collaboration. You need to understand both sides. It is a matter of connecting the micro and macro actors in the space.
There is often disconnection and we try to work to connect the micro and macro actors in the space, small, agile, innovative, young start up and innovative organizations that have flat hierarchies and leadership structures struggle to be cumulative. So, we help by recognizing the tangible opportunities for collaboration to have a win -win situation with the public sector and donor agencies as well as the start-ups and entrepreneurs. This is the basis of any successful project. Think big but start small, start with a tangible pilot that you can test, be somehow manageable and learn from it, improve and scale accordingly. This is also in our approach. This is the mentality that we need to implement PPP that can build a stronger innovation eco system.
Capital: How can your project, Africa Future support African Union’s Agenda 2063?
Jessica Berlin: The Africa Future platform is completely aligned with the AU agenda 2063,
Though it seems a far in the future, the first round is envisioned for 10 years, we will start primarily in cities, then after the eco system is strong and well equipped in the urban centers we will expand it to rural areas. The challenges we face are not urban challenges. We talk about climate change, urbanization and over population, so one of our agendas, or key priorities are creating mechanisms enable innovation, job creation and digital services in problem solving and to reach rural communities and knowledge, wisdom and connect them to the rural communities to solve their challenges.
Capital: You said that Africa will help Europe more than Europe can help Africa in the 21st century? What do you mean by that?
Jessica Berlin: A strong Africa will create a strong world, this is a very simple but fundamental recognition that the international communities need to internalize. When African consumers have more spending power, this will be good for global business. When African nations form their own development challenges and protect resources, they help fight the climate crisis. We need to work together and learn from each other. The 21st century Africa can help Europe more than Europe can help Africa because African innovators are solving real problems and they are motivated, they are hungry, they exceed European innovation and also are transformative reaching the potential in a way only the Africa innovator can and this can also help Europe as well.
Capital: Is there anything you would like to leave us with?
Jessica Berlin: African countries as well as companies need to step away from competition and move towards collaboration. CFTA is a great step toward collaboration.